In the Beginning -- Born as an out-of-the-way backwater of colonial Spain and blessed with a harbor that would have been the envy of any of the great cities of Europe, San Francisco boasts a story that is as varied as the millions of people who have passed through its Golden Gate.
The Age of Discovery -- After the “discovery” of the New World by Columbus in 1492, legends of the fertile land of California were discussed in the universities and taverns of Europe, even though no one really understood where the mythical land was. (Some evidence has been unearthed of arrivals in California by Chinese merchants hundreds of years before Columbus’s landing, although few scholars are willing to draw definite conclusions.) The first documented visit by a European to northern California, however, was by the Portuguese explorer João Cabrilho, who circumnavigated the southern tip of South America and traveled as far north as the Russian River in 1542. Nearly 40 years later, in 1579, Sir Francis Drake landed on the northern California coast, stopping for a time to repair his ships and to claim the territory for Queen Elizabeth I of England. He was followed several years later by another Portuguese explorer, Sebastian Cermeño, “discoverer” of Punta de los Reyes (King’s Point) in the mid-1590s. Ironically, all three adventurers completely missed the narrow entrance to San Francisco Bay—maybe because it was enshrouded in fog, or, more likely, because they simply had no idea there was anything to look for there. (Believe it or not, the bay’s entrance is nearly impossible to see from the open ocean.)
It would be another two centuries before a European actually saw the bay that would eventually extend Spain’s influence over much of the American West. Gaspar de Portolá, a soldier sent from Spain to meddle in a rather ugly conflict between the Jesuits and the Franciscans, accidentally stumbled upon the bay in 1769, en route to somewhere else. Even so, he did not realize the importance of his discovery, but stoically plodded on to his original destination, Monterey Bay, more than 100 miles to the south. Six years later, Juan Ayala, while on a mapping expedition for the Spanish, actually sailed into San Francisco Bay and immediately realized the enormous strategic importance of his find.
Colonization quickly followed. Juan Bautista de Anza and around 30 Spanish-speaking families marched through the deserts from Sonora, Mexico, arriving after many hardships at the northern tip of modern-day San Francisco in June 1776. They immediately claimed the peninsula for Spain. (Coincidentally, their claim of allegiance to Spain occurred only about a week before the 13 English-speaking colonies of North America’s eastern seaboard, a continent away, declared their independence from Britain.) The settlers’ headquarters was an adobe fortress, the Presidio, which they built on the site of today’s park with the same name. Their church, built a mile to the south, was the first of five Spanish missions later developed by Franciscan priests around the edges of San Francisco Bay. The name of the church was officially Nuestra Señora de Dolores, but the Franciscans dedicated it to their patron, St. Francis of Assisi, and the mission became known as San Francisco. Eventually, the name began to be applied to the entire bay.
In 1821, Mexico broke away from Spain, secularized the Spanish missions, and abandoned all interest in converting the Indian natives to Catholicism. Freed of Spanish restrictions, California’s ports were suddenly opened to trade. The region around San Francisco Bay supplied large numbers of hides and tallow, which ships could then transport around Cape Horn to the tanneries and factories of New England and New York. Such prospects for prosperity persuaded an English-born sailor, William Richardson, to jump ship in 1822 and settle on the site of what is now San Francisco. To impress the commandant of the Presidio, whose daughter he loved, Richardson converted to Catholicism and established the beginnings of what would soon became a thriving trading post and colony.
Richardson named his trading post Yerba Buena (or “good herb”), because of a species of wild mint that grew there, near the site of today’s Montgomery Street. (The city’s original name was recalled with endless mirth 120 years later during San Francisco’s hippie era.) Richardson conducted a profitable hide-trading business, and eventually he became harbormaster and the city’s first merchant prince. By 1839, the place was a veritable town, with a mostly English-speaking populace and a saloon of dubious virtue.
Throughout the 19th century, armed hostilities had continued to erupt from time to time between English-speaking settlers from the eastern seaboard and the Spanish-speaking colonies of Spain and Mexico, in various places as widely scattered as Texas, Puerto Rico, and along the frequently shifting United States–Mexico border. In 1846, a group of U.S. Marines from the warship Portsmouth boldly seized the sleepy main plaza of Yerba Buena, ran the U.S. flag up a pole, and declared California an American territory. The Presidio (occupied by about a dozen unmotivated Mexican soldiers) surrendered without a fuss. The first move made by the citizenry of the new territory—most of whom were Yankees anyway—was to officially adopt the name of the bay as the name of their town.
The Gold Rush -- The year 1848 was one of the most pivotal years in European history, with unrest sweeping through Europe and widespread economic disillusionment troubling the east coast of the United States. Stories about the golden port of San Francisco and the agrarian wealth of the American West filtered slowly east, attracting potential settlers. Ex-sailor Richard Henry Dana extolled the virtues of California in his best-selling novel Two Years Before the Mast and helped fire the public’s imagination about the territory’s bounty, particularly that of the Bay Area.
The first overland party had already crossed the Sierra and arrived in California in 1841. After that, San Francisco grew steadily, reaching a population of approximately 900 by April 1848, two years after the “conquest” of Yerba Buena. Still, nothing hinted at the population explosion that was to follow.
Historian Barry Parr has referred to the California Gold Rush as the most extraordinary event to ever befall an American city in peacetime. In time, San Francisco’s winning combination of raw materials, healthful climate, and freedom would have attracted thousands of settlers even without the lure of gold. But the gleam of the soft metal is said to have compressed 50 years of normal growth into less than 6 months. In 1848, the year gold was first discovered, the population of San Francisco jumped from under 1,000 to 26,000 in less than 6 months. As many as 100,000 more passed through San Francisco in the space of less than a year on their way to the rocky hinterlands where the gold was rumored to be.
When small particles of gold were first discovered in January 1848—at a sawmill that he owned on the bank of the American River near Coloma, California—Swiss-born John Augustus Sutter intended to keep the discovery quiet. It was his employee, John Marshall, who leaked word of the discovery to friends. It eventually appeared in local papers, and smart investors on the East Coast took immediate heed. The rush did not really start, however, until Sam Brannan—a Mormon preacher and famous charlatan—ran through the streets of San Francisco shouting, “Gold! Gold in the American River!” Just before making the announcement heard around the world, however, the crafty Brannan had already bought up all the harborfront real estate he could get and cornered the market on shovels, pickaxes, and canned food.
A world on the brink of change responded almost frantically: The Gold Rush was on. News of the gold strike spread like a plague through every discontented hamlet in the known world. Shop owners hung "gone to the diggings" signs in their windows. Flotillas of ships set sail from ports throughout Europe, South America, Australia, and the East Coast, sometimes nearly sinking with the weight of mining equipment. Townspeople from the Midwest headed overland, and the social fabric of a nation was transformed almost overnight. Not since the Crusades of the Middle Ages had so many people been mobilized in so short a period of time.
Although other settlements were closer to the gold strike, San Francisco was the famous name, and therefore, where the gold-diggers disembarked. Daily business stopped; ships arrived in San Francisco and were almost immediately deserted by their crews. Tent cities sprang up, and demand for virtually everything skyrocketed. Although some miners actually found gold, the people who really got rich quick were enterprising merchants, who profited hugely by servicing the thousands of miners who arrived ill-equipped and ignorant of the lay of the land. Prices soared. Miners, faced with staggeringly inflated prices for goods and services, barely scraped a profit after expenses.
Most prospectors failed, many died of hardship, others committed suicide at the alarming rate of 1,000 a year. Yet despite the tragedies, graft, and vice associated with the Gold Rush, within mere months San Francisco was forever transformed from a tranquil Spanish settlement into a roaring, boisterous boomtown.
Boomtown Fever -- By 1855, most of California’s surface gold had already been panned out, leaving only the richer but deeper veins of ore, which individual miners couldn’t retrieve without massive capital investments. By that time, San Francisco had already evolved into a vast commercial magnet, sucking into its warehouses and banks whatever riches the overworked newcomers had dragged, ripped, and distilled from the rocks, fields, and forests of western North America.
Investment funds were being lavished on more than mining. Speculation on the newly established San Francisco stock exchange could make or destroy an investor in a single day, and several noteworthy writers (including Mark Twain) were among the young men forever influenced by the boomtown spirit. In 1861, the American Civil War found California firmly in the Union camp, and after the war San Francisco was ready, willing, and able to receive hordes of disillusioned soldiers fed up with the war-mongering eastern seaboard.
In 1869, the boom got a huge boost when the transcontinental railway linked the eastern and western seaboards of the United States. The railways shifted economic power bases, however. Now cheap manufactured goods from the east were readily available, undercutting the high prices that merchants had been able to charge for goods shipped around the tip of South America. Ownership of the newly formed Central Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads was almost completely controlled by the “Big Four”—Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Charles Crocker—all iron-willed capitalists whose ruthlessness was legendary. Their fortunes were rivalled only by the so-called Bonanza Kings, who’d made a killing in the mining industry. Meanwhile, thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived in overcrowded ships at San Francisco ports, fleeing starvation and unrest in Asia to provide bone-crushing labor for the railway, at wages so low that few Americans would have accepted the work.
During the 1870s, just as the flood of profits from the Comstock Lode in western Nevada diminished to a trickle, a cycle of droughts wiped out part of California’s agricultural bounty. Discontented workers blamed their woes on the now-unwanted hordes of Chinese workers, who by preference and for mutual protection had congregated into teeming all-Asian communities. As the 19th century came to a close, the monopolistic grip of the railways and robber barons became more obvious, and civil unrest became more frequent.
Despite these downward cycles, the city enjoyed other bouts of prosperity around the turn of the 20th century. First came the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska, starting in 1896. Long accustomed to making a buck off gold fever, San Francisco managed to position itself as a point of embarkation for supplies bound for Alaska. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, San Francisco was a major port serving warships bound for the Philippine Islands. Also during this time emerged the Bank of America, which eventually evolved into the largest bank in the world. Founded in North Beach in 1904, Bank of America was the brainchild of Italian-born A. P. Giannini, who later funded part of the construction for a bridge that many critics said was preposterous: the Golden Gate.
The Great Fire -- On the morning of April 18, 1906, San Francisco changed for all time. The city has never experienced an earthquake as destructive as the one that hit at 5:13am. (Scientists estimate its strength at 8.1 on the Richter scale.) All but a handful of the city’s 400,000 inhabitants lay fast asleep when the ground beneath the city went into a series of convulsions. As one eyewitness put it, “The earth was shaking . . . it was undulating, rolling like an ocean breaker.” The quake ruptured every water main in the city, and simultaneously started a chain of fires that rapidly fused into one gigantic conflagration. The fire brigades were helpless, and for 3 days, San Francisco burned.
Militia troops finally stopped the flames from advancing by dynamiting entire city blocks, but not before more than 28,000 buildings lay in ruins. Minor tremors lasted another 3 days. The final damage stretched across a path of destruction 450 miles long and 50 miles wide. In all, 497 city blocks were razed, or about one-third of the city. As Jack London wrote in a heart-rending newspaper dispatch, “The city of San Francisco is no more.”
The earthquake and subsequent fire so decisively changed the city that post-1906 San Francisco bears little resemblance to the town before the quake. Out of the ashes rose a bigger, healthier, and more beautiful town, though latter-day urbanologists regret that the rebuilding that followed the San Francisco earthquake did not follow a more enlightened plan. So eager was the city to rebuild that the old, somewhat unimaginative gridiron plan was reinstated, despite the opportunities for more daring visions that the aftermath of the quake afforded.
In 1915, in celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal and to prove to the world that San Francisco was restored to its full glory, the city hosted the Panama Pacific International Exhibition, a world’s fair that exposed hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city’s unique charms. The fair was even built on landfall created by post-earthquake rubble—a beautiful bayfront area between the Presidio and Fort Mason, today known as the Marina District. The sole surviving building of that fair, the Palace of Fine Arts, gives you an idea of the exposition’s elegant ambitions.
In the years following World War I, there was a frenzy of civic boosterism in San Francisco, and investments reached an all-time high. Despite Prohibition, speakeasies did a thriving business in and around the city. Building sprees were as high-blown and lavish as the profits on the San Francisco stock exchange, which survived the stock-market crash of 1929 with surprising strength.
World War II: The Big One, Part One -- The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 mobilized the United States into a massive war machine. Many shipyards were strategically positioned along the Pacific Coast, including in San Francisco. Within less than a year, several shipyards were producing up to one new warship per day, employing hundreds of thousands of people working in 24-hour shifts. (The largest, Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, employed more than 100,000 workers alone.) In search of work and the excitement of life away from villages and cornfields, workers flooded into the city from virtually everywhere, forcing an enormous boom in housing. Hundreds found themselves separated from their small towns for the first time in their lives and reveled in their newfound freedom.
After the hostilities ended, many soldiers remembered San Francisco as the site of their finest hours and returned to live there permanently. The economic prosperity of the postwar years enabled massive enlargements of the city, including freeways, housing developments, a booming financial district—and pockets of counterculture enthusiasts.
The 1950s: The Beats -- an Francisco’s reputation as a rollicking place where anything goes dates from the Barbary Coast days. Its more modern role as a haven for the avant-garde began in the 1950s, with a group of young writers, philosophers, and poets who challenged the materialism and conformity of American society. Embracing anarchy and Eastern philosophy, they expressed their notions in poetry and jazz music. They adopted a uniform of jeans, sweaters, sandals, and berets, called themselves Beats, and hung out in North Beach where rents were low and cheap wine was plentiful. The famous San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen—to whom their philosophy was totally alien—dubbed them beatniks, and the name stuck.
Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac had begun writing at Columbia University in New York, but it wasn’t until they came west and hooked up with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and others that the movement gained national attention. The bible of the Beats was Ginsberg’s long poem “Howl,” which he first read at the Six Gallery on October 13, 1955. By the time he finished reading, Ginsberg was crying, the audience was chanting, and his fellow poets were announcing the arrival of an epic bard. In 1956 Ferlinghetti published “Howl,” and an obscenity trial soon followed; when the court ruled that the book had redeeming social value, it was hailed as a landmark victory for the right of free expression. The group’s other major work, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, was published in 1957 and instantly became a bestseller. (He had written it as one long paragraph in 20 days in 1951.) The freedom and sense of possibility that this book conveyed became the bellwether for a generation.
While the Beats gave poetry readings and generated controversy, two clubs in North Beach were making waves, notably the hungry i and the Purple Onion, where everyone who was anyone (or became anyone) on the entertainment scene appeared—Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Barbra Streisand, and Woody Allen all worked here. Maya Angelou appeared as a singer and dancer at the Purple Onion. The cafes of North Beach were the center of bohemian life in the ‘50s: the Black Cat, Vesuvio, Caffe Trieste, Tosca Cafe, and Enrico’s Sidewalk Café. When the tour buses started rolling in, however, rents went up, and Broadway turned into strip-club row in the early 1960s. Thus ended an era, and the Beats moved on. The alternative scene shifted to Berkeley and the Haight.
The 1960s: The Haight -- The torch of freedom had been passed from the Beats and North Beach to Haight-Ashbury and the hippies, but it was a radically different torch. The hippies replaced the Beats’ angst, anarchy, negativism, nihilism, alcohol, and poetry with love, communalism, openness, drugs, rock music, and a back-to-nature philosophy.
Although the scent of marijuana wafted everywhere—on the streets, in the cafes, in Golden Gate Park—the real drugs of choice were LSD (a tab of good acid cost $5) and other hallucinogens. Timothy Leary experimented with its effects and exhorted youth to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Instead of hanging out in coffeehouses, the hippies went to concerts at the Fillmore or the Avalon Ballroom to dance.
The first Family Dog Rock ‘n’ Roll Dance and Concert, “A Tribute to Dr. Strange,” was given at the Longshoreman’s Hall in fall 1965, featuring Jefferson Airplane, the Marbles, the Great Society, and the Charlatans. At this event, the first major happening of the 1960s, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg led a snake dance through the crowd. In January 1966, the 3-day Trips Festival, organized by rock promoter Bill Graham, was also held at the Longshoreman’s Hall. The climax came with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters Acid Test show, which used five movie screens, psychedelic visions, and the sounds of the Grateful Dead and Big Brother & the Holding Company.
The “be-in” followed in the summer of 1966 at the polo grounds in Golden Gate Park, when an estimated 20,000 heard Jefferson Airplane perform and Ginsberg chant, while the Hell’s Angels acted as unofficial police. It was followed by the Summer of Love in 1967 as thousands of young people streamed into the city in search of drugs and free love.
The ‘60s Haight scene was very different from the ‘50s Beat scene. The hippies were much younger than the Beats had been, constituting the first youth movement to take over the nation. (Ironically, they also became the first generation of young, independent, and moneyed consumers to be courted by corporations.) Ultimately, the Haight and the hippie movement deteriorated from love and flowers into drugs and crime, drawing a fringe of crazies like Charles Manson and leaving only a legacy of sex, drugs, violence, and consumerism. As early as October 1967, the Diggers, who had opened a free shop and soup kitchen in the Haight, symbolically buried the dream in a clay casket in Buena Vista Park.
The end of the Vietnam War and the resignation of President Nixon took the edge off politics. The last fling of the mentality that had driven the 1960s occurred in 1974, when heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment by the Symbionese Liberation Army, participating in their bank-robbing spree before surrendering in San Francisco in 1975.
The 1970s: Gay Rights -- The homosexual community in San Francisco was essentially founded at the end of World War II, when thousands of military personnel were discharged back to the United States via San Francisco. A substantial number of those men were homosexual, and they decided to stay on in tolerant, open-minded San Francisco. A gay community began to coalesce along Polk Street between Sutter and California streets. Later, the larger community moved into the Castro, where it remains today.
The modern-day gay political movement is usually traced to the 1969 Stonewall raid and riots in Greenwich Village. But although the political movement started in New York, California had already given birth to two major organizations for gay rights: the Mattachine Society, founded in 1951 by Henry Hay in Los Angeles, and the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian organization founded in 1955 in San Francisco. After Stonewall, the Committee for Homosexual Freedom was created in spring 1969 in San Francisco; a Gay Liberation Front chapter was organized at Berkeley.
In the dawn of the gay rights movement, gay rights activists in San Francisco fed a groundswell of seminal protests.
In fall 1969, San Francisco Examiner columnist Robert Patterson referred to homosexuals as “semi males, drag darlings,” and “women who aren’t exactly women.” On October 31 at noon, a group began a peaceful picket of the Examiner’s offices. Peace reigned—until someone threw a bag of printer’s ink from an Examiner window. Someone else wrote “F--- the Examiner” on the wall, and the police moved in to clear the crowd, clubbing them as they went. The remaining pickets retreated to Glide Methodist Church and then marched on City Hall. Unfortunately, the mayor was away. Unable to air their grievances, the protesters started a sit-in that lasted until 5pm, when they were ordered to leave. Most did, but three remained and were arrested.
Later that year, an anti-Thanksgiving rally was staged, at which gays protested against several national and local businesses: Western and Delta airlines, the former for firing lesbian flight attendants, the latter for refusing to sell a ticket to a young man wearing a Gay Power button; KFOG, for its anti-homosexual broadcasting; and also some local gay bars for exploitation.
The following spring, on May 14, 1970, a group of gay rights activists joined women’s liberationists in invading the convention of the American Psychiatric Association in San Francisco to protest the reading of a paper on aversion therapy for homosexuals, forcing the meeting to adjourn.
Later that summer, at the National Gay Liberation conference held in August 1970 in the city, Charles Thorp, chairman of the San Francisco State Liberation Front, called for militancy and issued a challenge to come out with a rallying cry of “Blatant is beautiful.” Decrying the fact that homosexuals were kept in their place at the three B’s—the bars, the beaches, and the baths—Thorp also argued for the use of what he felt was the more positive, celebratory term gay instead of homosexual.
As the movement grew in size and power, debates on strategy and tactics occurred, most dramatically between those who wanted to withdraw into separate ghettos and those who wanted to enter mainstream society. The most extreme proposal was made in California by Don Jackson, who proposed establishing a gay territory in California’s Alpine County, just south of Lake Tahoe, with a totally gay administration, civil service, university, museum—everything. (The residents of Alpine County were not pleased with the proposal.) Before the situation turned ugly, Jackson’s idea was abandoned because of lack of support in the gay community. In the end, the movement would concentrate on integration and civil rights, not separatism. They would seek to elect politicians sympathetic to their cause, and celebrate their new identity by establishing National Gay Celebration Day and Gay Pride Week, first celebrated in June 1970 with 1,000 to 2,000 marchers in New York, 1,000 in Los Angeles, and a few hundred in San Francisco.
By the mid-1970s, the gay community craved a more central role in San Francisco politics. Harvey Milk, owner of a camera store in the Castro, decided to run as an openly gay man for the board of supervisors. He won, becoming the first openly gay person to hold a major public office. He and liberal mayor George Moscone developed a gay rights agenda, but in 1978 both were killed by former supervisor Dan White, who shot them after Moscone refused White’s request for reinstatement. (White, a Catholic and former police officer, had consistently opposed Milk’s and Moscone’s more liberal policies.) At his trial, White successfully pleaded temporary insanity caused by his fast-food diet—the “Twinkie defense,” as the media dubbed it. The charges against White were reduced to manslaughter. Angry and grieving, the gay community rioted, overturning and burning police cars in a night of rage. To this day, a candlelight memorial parade is held each year on the anniversary of Milk’s death; the intersection at the heart of the Castro is now officially Harvey Milk Plaza.
The emphasis in the gay movement shifted abruptly in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic struck the gay community. AIDS has had a dramatic impact on the Castro. While it’s still a thriving and lively community, it’s no longer the constant party that it once was. The hedonistic lifestyle that had played out in the discos, bars, baths, and streets changed as the seriousness of the epidemic sunk in and the number of deaths increased. Political efforts shifted away from enfranchisement and toward demanding money for social services. The gay community has developed its own organizations, such as Project Inform and Gay Men’s Health Crisis, to publicize information about AIDS, treatments available, and safe sex. Though new cases of AIDS within the gay community are on the decline in San Francisco, it still remains a serious problem.
The 1980s: The Big One, Part Two -- The ‘80s may have arrived in San Francisco with a whimper (compared to previous generations), but they went out with quite a bang. At 5:04pm on Tuesday, October 17, 1989, as more than 62,000 fans filled Candlestick Park for the third game of the World Series—and the San Francisco Bay Area commute moved into its heaviest flow—an earthquake of magnitude 7.1 struck. Within the next 20 seconds, 63 lives would be lost, $10 billion in damage would occur, and the entire Bay Area community would be reminded of its humble insignificance. Centered about 60 miles south of San Francisco within the Forest of Nisene Marks, the deadly temblor was felt as far away as San Diego and Nevada.
Scientists had predicted an earthquake would hit on this section of the San Andreas Fault, but that was little help, as even structures that had been built to withstand such an earthquake failed miserably. The most catastrophic event was the collapse of the elevated Cypress Street section of I-880 in Oakland, where the upper level of the freeway literally pancaked the lower level, crushing everything. Other structures heavily damaged included the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, which was shut down for months after a section of the roadbed collapsed; San Francisco’s Marina district, where several multimillion-dollar homes collapsed on their weak, shifting bases of landfill and sand; and the Pacific Garden Mall in Santa Cruz, which was completely devastated.
President George H. W. Bush declared a disaster area for the seven hardest-hit counties, where 63 people died, at least 3,700 people were reported injured, and more than 12,000 were displaced. More than 18,000 homes were damaged and 963 others destroyed. Although fire raged within the city and water supply systems were damaged, the major fires sparked within the Marina district were brought under control within 3 hours, due mostly to the heroic efforts of San Francisco’s firefighters.
After the rubble had finally settled, it was unanimously agreed that San Francisco and the Bay Area had pulled through miraculously well—particularly when compared to the more recent earthquake in northeast Japan, which killed thousands. After the San Francisco quake, a feeling of esprit de corps swept the city. Neighbors helped each other rebuild and donations poured in from all over the world. Though it’s been over 2 decades since, the city is still feeling the effects of the quake. That another “big one” will strike is inevitable: It’s the price you pay for living on a fault line. But if there is ever a city that is prepared for a major shakedown, it’s San Francisco.
The 1990s: The Dot.com Bubble -- In the early 1990s, the nationwide recession did not spare San Francisco. Yet even then, there were quiet rumblings of the new frontier in Silicon Valley, happening largely under the radar. By the middle of the decade, San Francisco and the surrounding areas were the site of a new kind of gold rush—the birth of the Internet industry.
Not unlike the gold fever of the 1850s, this era saw people flocking to the western shores to strike it rich—and they did. In 1999, the local media reported that each day 64 Bay Area residents were gaining millionaire status. Long before the last year of the millennium, real estate prices went into the stratosphere. The city’s gentrification financially squeezed out many of those residents who didn’t mean big business (read: alternative and artistic types, seniors, and minorities who made the city colorful). New businesses popped up everywhere—especially in SoMa, where start-up companies jammed warehouse spaces.
As the most popular post-education destination for MBAs and the leader in the media of the future, San Francisco was no longer a beacon to everyone looking for the legendary alternative lifestyle—unless he or she could afford a $1,000 studio apartment and $20-per-day fees to park the car.
Y2K jitters aside, San Francisco’s new elite looked forward to the new millennium with bubbly in hand, foie gras and caviar on the linen tablecloth, and seemingly everyone in the money. New restaurants charging $35 per entree were all the rage, hotels were renovated to luxury standards, the new bayfront ballpark was packed, and stock market tips were as plentiful as million-dollar SoMa condos and lofts. Though there were whispers of a stock market correction, and inklings that venture capital might dry up, San Franciscans were too busy raking in the dough to heed the writing on the wall.
The Millennium -- When the city woke up from the dot-com party, San Franciscans found themselves suffering from a millennium hangover. In the early 2000s, dot.coms became “dot.bombs” faster than you could say “worthless stock options,” with companies shuttering at a rate of several per day. The crash of the Internet economy brought with it a real estate exodus, and scads of empty live-work lofts opened up in SoMa.
But from the ashes of the collapse grew the seeds of innovation. By mid-decade, San Francisco was back on the cutting edge with a little search engine called Google, headquartered in nearby Mountain View, California. Wikipedia, YouTube, and new skyscrapers followed, holding steady even as Wall Street and big banks fell around their feet in 2008. It was an undeniable testament to the resilience and mettle of San Franciscans, who always seem to have an ace in the hole, even when things seem at their worst.
The 2010s: Bubble 2.0 -- Over the past seven years, San Francisco has seen more dramatic change, as the Internet and tech industries yet again raise the prices of, well, everything. Only this time, rather than residents briefly achieving millionaire status based on their volatile (and short-lived) company stock valuations, San Franciscans are cash rich—and showing as much by snatching up multimillion-dollar homes in cash, and often paying hundreds of thousands of dollars over asking for the privilege. Teslas are the car du jour—even though most people Lyft or Uber everywhere anyway, and $750 VIP wristbands for massive weekend music concerts sell out faster than you can say, “I’m with the band.”
In stark contrast, tent cities have popped up under overpasses, acting as the only refuge for many of our less-fortunate citizens. In the Tenderloin, Mission, and SoMa, it’s not uncommon to see a homeless, drugged-out, or just plain crazy person defecating or urinating in the middle of the sidewalk in broad daylight, completely oblivious to passersby. I’d like to think these are growing pains—we have gained around 70,000 residents in the past 7 years, which is a dramatic uplift from the prior 800,000 residents. But honestly, in the 50 years I’ve lived in or around the city, I’ve never seen transformation as great as this. The City truly is undergoing yet another Gold Rush–style evolution, and it’s changing the face of the city forever (just look up at SoMa’s mammoth new skyscraper—Salesforce Tower—to see what I mean). But real estate brokers are bracing for the inevitable softening of the market and the economy in general, and we all know it will come. What it will leave in its wake is anyone’s guess, but history has proven that if any city can ride out the changing of tides and still come out on top, it’s San Francisco.
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