Where to Find the Real Debauchery of the Barbary Coast in San Francisco

I once interviewed writer David Sedaris for a San Francisco weekly newspaper. My boss had one request: you have to ask him one or two San Francisco-related questions. So when I asked his thoughts on the City by the Bay, he said: “It’s one of the most volatile, tense cities I’ve ever been in.” This was a lot coming from someone who’s on a constant book tour and has probably visited every city in America dozens of times. “The last time I was in town,” Sedaris added, feeling compelled to give me an example, “my friend and I had just come out of movie and suddenly a guy was running at us swinging a chain over his head.”

It’s uncertain whether this chain-twirling lunatic was indirectly inspired by the legend of the Barbary Coast, but, as Daniel Bacon said in a previous post, the legendary neighborhood has imprinted its DNA onto the city. From the current strip clubs and peeps shows that line Broadway (which were once part of the Barbary Coast drag, Pacific St.) to the openness with which the city welcomes people of every stripe. But besides the obvious – like those strip clubs – where else, I wondered, could I find spiritual remnants of the old neighborhood. Specifically, where to find the real debauchery of the Barbary Coast in San Francisco?

There’s the Tenderloin. Specifically one block on Turk Street, which the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported was the most dangerous block in the city. Violent crime is 35 times higher on this block. Just 438 people live on the city block, yet in a six-month period there were 248 crimes reported. I wanted to go see it for myself, but I like my health and my wallet.

So instead I went to the Saloon, the oldest bar in San Francisco, and right on the medallion-guided Barbary Coast Trail. I started to think I was on to something when 28-year-old Sophie, sitting next to me at the bar, announced she was a heroin addict. “Oh look,” she said, studying a pea-sized black dot on her thumb, “how did some junk end up on my finger?” She picked off the tar-like substance and deposited the remnant into her pocket. Soon enough her dealer showed up and he whipped out a bag of heroin, stuck it in her face to smell and said, “This is for later.” But before that, a procession of characters were dispatched into the place that felt like central casting was having a busy day. There were trannies. There were guys with headbands and leather jackets playing Bob Dylan songs on a harmonica. There was Tommy, a flamboyant homeless guy who would blurt out random statements like “Let’s all wait until daddy’s butt gets flat” and “I’m not a hanging uterus.”

As I sat there taking it all in, sipping a vodka and tonic (and at $3, a bargain), I realized that this kind of debauchery has been going on in this space for the last 160 years. The real remnants of the Barbary Coast are not necessarily the physical remnants of the neighborhood, but instead living in certain people. It’s in Jonny Raglin at the Comstock Saloon and Daniel Bacon who started the Barbary Coast Trail. It’s in all these people in the Saloon who are screaming and laughing and slamming their empty drinks down while demanding another.

I emptied my glass, said farewell to Sophie and the rest of the Saloon regulars, and walked out into the fading San Francisco day, the weak sun splashing me in the face as I walked away from the Barbary Coast for the last time.

Random Acts of Debauchery on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast

In the 1850s, the San Francisco Herald published a story that began like this:

“There are certain spots in our city, infested by the most abandoned men and women, that have acquired a reputation little better than the Five Points of New York or St. Giles of London. [It] is crowded by thieves, gamblers, low women, drunken sailors, and similar characters, who resort to the groggeries that line the street, and there spend the night in the most hideous orgies.”

In Herbert Asbury’s “The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld,” he writes about random acts of debauchery on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast. Some favorites include a saloon called the the Fierce Grizzly, literally named because there was a live bear chained by the door. The bar served a milk cocktail, usually mixed with gin or whisky. When a preacher showed up one day at the Fierce Grizzly hoping to get some material for a future sermon on the den of iniquity that was the Barbary Coast, he was offered a glass of such “milk.”
“What do you call that?” he asked after taking a sip and then a larger sip.

“Just milk,” said the bartender.

“Ah!” the preacher exclaimed. “What a glorious cow.”

Not to be outdone, the Boar’s Head also offered entertainment involving the animal kingdom. Asbury writes, “The principal attraction was a sexual exhibition in which a woman and a boar participated.” He didn’t go into detail, leaving it to our wildest imaginations.

In the next few days, I’ll go searching for the debaucherous spirit of the Barbary Coast in San Francisco today. Let us hope there are no pigs or bears–at least not of the animal variety–in my future.

The Creation of the Barbary Coast Trail in San Francisco

Ask anyone with a budding interest in the Barbary Coast why there’s suddenly more attention being paid to the legendary neighborhood in recent years and they’ll point to one person. Meet Daniel Bacon. He’s a writer and historian who’s responsible for the creation of the Barbary Coast Trail San Francisco, a 3.8-mile zigzagging trail that takes trekkers through the heart and the periphery of the Barbary Coast. He also wrote the informative and entertaining “Walking San Francisco and the Barbary Coast Trail” as well as a pocket map and guide to the trail. I chatted with him recently about the neighborhood and the trail he created.

David Farley: How did you get interested in the Barbary Coast?
Daniel Bacon: I had an interest in San Francisco history in general. Especially from the Gold Rush to the 1906 earthquake and fire, and you can’t study that period and avoid the Barbary Coast waterfront. I found it all very intriguing. The reason I named the walking route the Barbary Coast Trail is that most of the trail relates to that period-a time when the heart of San Francisco’s port was referred to the Barbary Coast. It got that name because the original Barbary Coast was the coast of North Africa where there was an ethnic tribe called the Berbers. Like Somalia today, some of them were pirates and they would kidnap people and hold them for ransom. So during and after the Gold Rush sailors would abandon their ships in San Francisco to go searching for gold in the hills. Which meant ships needed crews badly. So captains would go to bordering houses to recruit. And the bordering houses boss, who would get a stake in recruiting crews, would often do it against people’s wills by knocking them out and giving them to the captain. By the time this unsuspecting person would come to, he’d find himself on a boat out in the sea and was shanghaied. So that’s why it became known as the Barbary Coast.
DF: It seems there’s been a resurgence in interest in the Barbary Coast over the last few years, right?

DB: There has been. And much of it has to do with the creation of the Barbary Coast Trail. The creation was sponsored by the San Francisco Historical Society. Then I ended up publishing the first guidebook to the Barbary Coast Trail. A number of years later, I created the audio guide. It has period music and sound effects and historical reenactments. It’s been a fun project. I continue working on it. We’re placing more medallions in the ground along the trail. There are 180 in the ground but we want to have 300 eventually.

DF: Each Barbary Coast Trail medallion is sponsored by someone. I recognized some names on a few of the medallions.

There family of Cliff Burton, the deceased Metallica bassist, sponsored one. So did Carlos Santana and his wife–for her father, an old musician. The San Francisco Giants have one and so does Senator Diane Fienstein.

DF: Where can one find the spirit of the Barbary Coast in San Francisco today?

DB: The spirit of the Barbary Coast has embedded itself into the DNA of the city. That’s why it attracted the beets in the ’50s and gays of ’60s and ’70s and so on. In the 19th century you could come here and be yourself and be who you want to be. And that still continues. Back in the day, the Barbary Coast was filled with brothels and there was a lot of sex and debauchery. But even up until World War II, Pacific Street, one of the main streets of the Barbary Coast, was so crazy that the military made it off limits. It was too wild. But what happened is that a lot of the businesses moved up to Broadway. Which is why today Broadway has a bunch of strip clubs. So that’s a remnant, for sure. And just the fact that San Francisco has attracted all these different groups who were outsiders in other parts of the country but here they found a home.

The Official Re-Birth of the Barbary Coast. Sort of.

Certain travel magazines and newspaper travel sections like to proclaim that cities and neighborhood’s have been re-born. I remember seeing an article in a travel magazine several years ago that claimed Stockholm had achieved this seemingly other-worldly status. Oh really? I thought. It seems such an enlightened incarnation of an entire city would have been more newsworthy.

Aside from travel writing’s sometimes proclivity for exaggeration, the once legendary and long disappeared Barbary Coast neighborhood has been re-born. Well, sort of. I’ve spent the month of August looking for remnants of it and until I met a man named William Sauro I had no idea that the neighborhood is officially back.

But, you’re probably thinking right now, I thought the Barbary Coast was long gone since 1917?

I met Mr. Sauro at the Old Ship Saloon, fittingly enough, since the bar – on Pacific and Battery Streets, right in the heart of the Barbary Coast – is constructed from an old ship that had brought miners from New York to get in on the potential riches of the Gold Rush. I wanted to ask him the same question about this supposed resurrection of the Barbary Coast.
Mr. Sauro, who is retired, told me he’s the president of the Barbary Coast Neighborhood Association. Such associations, he said, have a lot of power in San Francisco. The infamous and longtime Telegraph Hill Dwellers are the most powerful neighborhood association in the city. And so, in 2005, some of the denizens of the area formerly known as the Barbary Coast decided to create their own association. “It’s mostly so we can have a say in land development and quality of life issues,” he told me as I sipped a glass of pisco punch. “Someone needs to represent the residents here and that’s what the neighborhood association does.”

But why, I asked, did they choose the name Barbary Coast? After all, it’s a bit ironic that a bunch of well-off city dwellers would take a name known for crime and poverty (adding an extra dose of the irony is that the San Francisco Board of Realtors endorsed the name change).

“The Financial District Neighborhood Association just doesn’t sound very cool,” Sauro said. I agreed.

Sauro did make an interesting connection between the current neighborhood and the legendary one, noting the expensive restaurants that have popped up along the nearby Embarcadero. “They’re great restaurants,” Sauro said. “But so expensive that people in the neighborhood are still being shanghaied–just in a totally different way.”

And so, as such, the Barbary Coast is re-born. That sounds newsworthy to me.

How the Barbary Coast and the Gold Rush Changed Fashion

About a month ago, a building in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood was torn down, revealing on an adjacent structure an advertisement painted on the wall. The ad, from 1921, was for Boss of the Road overalls and work shirts. Boss of the Road, which went out of business around World War II, was a main competitor of Levi Strauss & Co.

Long before the world obsession with blue jeans (and before people were paying hundreds–or, in some cases, thousands) of dollars for a pair of denim, Levi Strauss was the outfitter of Gold Rush minors. And in (accidentally) doing so, he changed fashion forever.

And it happened more or less by accident. Levi Strauss had come to San Francisco with rolls of canvas and bolts he hoped to sell on the Barbary Coast to miners to cover their wagons as they headed out to gold country. But, as Daniel Bacon writes in his book “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail,” “[w]hen he found sturdy trousers in demand, Strauss cut a few bolts into pants and sold them to miners.”

When Strauss ran out of tan canvas, he began using a blue cloth imported from France called “serge de Nimes,” later called “denim.” Once fashioned into pants, the denim looked a lot the trousers worn by sailors from Genoa, which the French called “genes.” You can see where this is going.
And with that, a new fashion was born. Interestingly, as C.W. Nevius wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle recently, it was the Japanese that made these jeans into the uber-popular fashion we know and love today.

Quoting Levi’s historian Lynn Downey, he writes:

“‘Young Japanese men with lots of discretionary income went through World War II seeing American servicemen with jeans, bomber jackets and Zippo lighters,’ she said. ‘They wanted those for themselves.’ Speculators from Japan came to the United States and bought up jeans in bulk, driving up demand. That coincided with a youth boom in jeans, which eventually made them so mainstream that versions now sell for hundreds of dollars.”

To see the most expensive pair of jeans in the world, stop by the Levi Strauss & Co. museum. The jeans date from 1873-1890 and are valued at $150,000.