Historical Sunday: The Barbary Coast

Every once in a while you may hear the expression Barbary Coast.  The perception is that the Barbary Coast applies to all of San Francisco, but in fact, it is a very small nine block area that received this title back in the 1850’s.  It’s boundaries are between Montgomery Street, Washington, Stockton, and Broadway.   The best way to describe the character of this area in the history of San Francisco is with the quote below by Benjamin Lowe in 1876.  The passage is a bit judgmental and rooted in Christian belief, but it does get across a certain picture of what the area was like during this time period.  This particular quote also hints at the anti-Chinese movement,  inflamed by the Christian churches, which was widely spread across the cities of the West Coast.

“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.”  – Lights and Shades of San Francisco, by Benjamin Lowe
Sailors who were attracted to the area because of it’s saloons, loose women, drug dens, etc., often woke up the next morning to realize that they had been Shanghaied and on their way to the Orient.  If a ship was scheduled to set sail and there were not enough men to keep it going, it was a common practice to for the captains to stroll through the Barbary Coast area and kidnap some unsuspecting sailor after they had too much to drink or their fill of opium.  
The following timeline supplied by Wikipedia will clarify the rest of the history of this historically red light district:  
  • 1913 – The San Francisco Examiner led the charge against the area with its “anti-vice” campaign. 
  • 1914 – Red Light Abatement Act – Under this legislation, building owners were fined if they had  prostitution occurring in their facility.  This effectively moved prostitution out into the streets. 
  • 1917 – The San Francisco police placed a blockade around the entire area and systematically evicted all of the prostitutes.
  • 2009 – Thanks to the efforts of the San Francisco Association of Realtor’s, the financial district of San Francisco was renamed the Barbary Coast.  In reality, the name “financial district” is still widely used to describe this area of town.

It does make one wonder if in 100 years the current red light districts and crime ridden areas of the Tenderloin and Hunter’s Point won’t be regarded as upscale areas with a notorious past.  Can the city accomplish this task with respect and dignity and without taking away the resident’s Civil Rights?  Time will tell.  


Cheers!


– Mike

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