Last night I snuggled up on the sofa with myself and watched the 1935 film Barbary Coast, starring Edward G. Robinson, Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea. Whenever I see a classic movie with some snappy dialogue, I'm never surprised to see that Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay, since he's written so many other of my favorite films. This movie isn't the best showcase of the talents of these three actors* but it's a fun Hollywood romp throught the lawlessness of San Francisco during the Gold Rush.
I've been reading Herbert Asbury's account of the same subject (and you can click here for an online version). To me, San Francisco is a place where you can feel its history, even if you don't really know exactly what that history is. I am compelled to learn about the story of this city whenever I can. It makes me appreciate literally the sidewalk on which I stand, and by association, I become more a part of this place I now call home.
The Barbary Coast is one of those epithets, common enough in our vernacular, but still a phrase that I did not really understand until I did a little homework (from Asbury's book):
"The Barbary Coast is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whoremonger, lewd women, cutthroats, murderers, all are found here. Dance-halls and concert-saloons, where blear-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous. Low gambling houses, thronged with riot-loving rowdies, in all stages of intoxication, are there. Opium dens, where heathen Chinese and God-forsaken men and women are sprawled in miscellaneous confusion, disgustingly drowsy or completely overcome, are there. Licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, loathsome disease, insanity from dissipation, misery, poverty, wealth, profanity, blasphemy, and death, are there. And Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass, is there also."
The Barbary Coast was a San Francisco neighborhood that began as a popular hangout for the rich during the California Gold Rush (1848 - 1858). It was known for gambling, prostitution and crime, and this area is now overlapped by Chinatown, North Beach, and the Financial District.
According to wikipedia: The Barbary Coast rose from the massive infusion of treasure seeking argonauts during the Gold Rush. Men from Europe, Asia, South America, and the eastern United States sailed into San Francisco Bay bound for the Mother Lode, many only staying in the gold fields briefly before returning to San Francisco broke or with tiny leather sacks of nuggets and gold dust. At the end of 1849, out of a population of between 20,000 and 25,000, only about 300 were women and an estimated almost two-thirds of those were prostitutes.
Miners, sailors, and sojourners hungry for female companionship and bawdy entertainment continued to stream into San Francisco in the 1850s and 60s becoming the Barbary Coast's primary clientele. As The City exploded with the new arrivals, some with shady pasts, soon a wide variety of land sharks, con artists, pimps, and prostitutes staked out an area designed to pluck the gold and silver from the pockets of men through liquor, lust, laudanum-laced libations, or just a hard knock on the head.
Sailors in particular had cause to dread the area because the art of shanghaiing was perfected. Many a sailor woke up after a night's leave to find himself unexpectedly on another ship bound for some faraway port. When there was a shortage of sailors for departing ships any able-bodied man who wandered into the wrong saloon, or drank with the wrong companion, could wake up with a mysterious hangover onboard a ship. Crime in the streets and corruption in the government offices plagued San Francisco in the 1850s.
Nearly all drinking and dancing establishments in the area were destroyed in the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake, but within months a dozen or so were rebuilt and back in business. Between the 1913 anti-vice campaigns led by the San Francisco Examiner and the passage of the 1917 Red-light abatement act, the Barbary Coast was effectively diminished and vice activities hidden from view. In 1917 the San Francisco Police blockaded the neighborhood and evicted the prostitutes.
Can you imagine living in a place where the population exploded: from 1,000 inhabitants to over 25 times that amount in the space of a single year? When the sight of a woman would draw crowds of men because they were so rare? And it's been less than 100 years that this neighborhood was finally cleared of its visible vices.
Right now I'm imagining the opium dens that were tucked away a mere two or three blocks from our office. And walking up Montgomery Street, on my way to and from the train, where so much of this lurid history took place, now home to the staid investment houses, banks and crowds of businessmen waiting in line at Starbucks.
There is a large tango community in San Francisco. It makes me wonder if the history of this city, like Buenos Aires, like Paris, with its illicit and lust-filled past, adds an invisible essence to this place that makes tango and its dancers want to collect themselves here. I think it might.
*Favorite movies starring the aforementioned actors:
Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity (1944)
Miriam Hopkins, Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Joel McCrea, The Palm Beach Story (1942)