Category Archives: San Francisco

Mayor of All the People: James Rolph, Jr.

James Rolph, Jr., or “Sunny Jim,” as he was known, served more mayoral terms in San Francisco than anyone else.  He was elected four times to office.  These elections were not close, instead they were landslides in Rolph’s favor.

Young Rolph had many jobs growing up including newsboy, clerk, and messenger.  Eventually, he started a shipping company with friends that allowed him to open his own bank.  In addition to his career, his public persona was also greatly enhanced by all the work he did leading a 1906 Earthquake Relief Committee.  All of this was just the foundation that eventually led him to run for public office and serve as mayor of San Francisco from 1912 – 1934 when he resigned the position to run and be elected as governor of San Francisco.

During his reign as mayor, he helped this great phoenix of a city rise from the ashes of the earthquake and grow strong.  The civic center area was rebuilt, the International Exposition was held, and several infrastructure projects were accomplished.

His nickname, “Sunny Jim,” comes from that fat that he was a very jovial and personable character.  He was known all over San Francisco as being generous and of good humor.  He was a man who could talk to anyone about anything and make them feel comfortable and at ease.  He was truly the “Mayor of All the People.”  There is even a story of him inviting Communist demonstrators into his office in city hall for a visit, instead of ordering violence to be carried out against them like what was happening in other cities throughout the nation.  You can’t get anymore San Francisco than that.

Never underestimate a person who is described as having “a great personality.”



Source:  Historic San Francisco:  A Concise History Guide, by Rand Richards.  (I can’t recommend this book enough.  It is awesome.)

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Native Americans in San Francisco

Raymond Dabb Yelland, Lands End, San Francisco, CA

As with the rest of the United States, we are not the first to inhabit this peninsula.  The first  people to call this home, at least the first as far as we can tell, were the Native Americans.  Imagine if you will a San Francisco composed of sand dunes, marshes, and wetlands.  A place of relative peace and calm which migrating birds often called home during at least some part of the year.  The swamps were rich with life and clean, truly clean, water was abundant.  This of course was before the gold miners of 1849 dumped large quantities of mercury into the streams and rivers.

This virtual paradise was inhabited by many, many tribes which appear to have gotten along in relative peace.  Each tribe, numbering from 40 – 400 had a territory where they hunted, fished, and collected all that they needed.  The area was so rich in resources that the tribe’s needs were easily satisfied.

It is estimated that around 17,000 Native Americans called the bay area home for many centuries, possibly even dating back to a time long ago when the shores of San Francisco started at the Faralon Islands and the bay was a beautiful meadow.  Some of the tribe names are listed below:

Yelamu Tribe – San Francisco area

Humen Tribe – Marin area

Huchium Tribe – Oakland area

Aramai Tribe – Daly City area

Urebure Tribe – San Bruno area

What will the bay area look like in 1,000 or 2,000 or even 3,000 years?  Will the future inhabitants remember us?  What will they think our name was and how will these future historians think that we lived?  Let your imagination go for just a moment, and imagine that they are actually alien archeologists studying the earth and trying to figure out its past and how people lived and survived in San Francisco during the early 21st Century.



Source:  Infinite City:  A San Francisco Atlas, by Rebecca Solnit (If you are into San Francisco history, you need to buy this book.)

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The Tenderloin

Nestled between the Civic Center to the south, the prestigious Nob Hill to the north, and sitting west of Market Street, you will find the very well-located and derelict community called the Tenderloin.  After the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, this area was rebuilt with tourist hotels, theaters, churches, and apartments.  Since World War II, the area has declined and is now notorious for drug deals, crime, and prostitution.  In recent years, it has begun the “gentrification” process and slowly the neighborhood is being rehabilitated.  The area called the Tender Nob is a perfect example of this.  As the buildings get redone and more and more respectable businesses begin to populate the area, the city loses one of its very few areas where someone of moderate to low-income can find affordable rent.

There are two reasons why it is called the Tenderloin.  First, it is referred to as the underbelly of the city.  Second, in previous times cops were paid quite a bit more money to walk the streets of this area, and they were then able to buy the best cuts, or most tender cuts, of meat.  Some say that the cops were also given deals on these cuts of meat by the merchants in the area because they wanted police protection.

According to Wikipedia, the Tenderloin is also famous for the following:

*  Rae Bourbon,  female impersonator, was arrested in 1933.  At the time, he was broadcasting live from Tait’s Cafe at 44 Ellis Street his show entitled, “Boys will be Girls.”

* In August 1966 at Compton’s Cafeteria (Turk & Taylor Streets), one of the first gay riots occurred.  Police were in the process of arresting a drag queen, and it erupted into civil disobedience.  This riot pre-dated the famous Stonewall Riot in New York City.

*  The movie and book, The Maltese Falcon, are based on San Francisco’s Tenderloin.

Most guide books will not tell you about this area of the city, even though it is almost a stones throw from so many tourist places in the city.  They do this area an injustice.  Some of the safer areas of this region have fantastic restaurants, coffee shops, and theaters.  Cafe Royale, Brenda’s French & Soul Food,
Exit Theatre, Golden Gate Theatre, Dottie’s Cafe, and Hooker’s Sweet Treats are just a few of the locally owned, successful businesses that make the trek into this area well worth it.

For more information on the Tenderloin, check out the blog called “The Tender,” at



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“Cupid’s Span”

"Cupid's Span"

You are walking along the Embarcadero enjoying the views which include the Bay Bridge, Yerba Buena Island, Treasure Island, and far off Oakland; ships are docked in the bay, and a multitude of sail boats are racing all around.  Everything seems nice, laid back, and predictable until…you look up ahead and you see a giant, yes giant, bow and arrow sticking half way up out of the ground.  Surprise!  You have just found Cupid’s Arrow.  (You can check that off the scavenger hunt list.

Designed by the international artists Claus Oldenberg and Coosje Van Brugen’s, “Cupid’s Span” was erected in 2003  in the new Rincon Park on the corner of the Embarcadero & Folsom Street.  These same artists created “Spoonbridge and Cherry” in Minneapolis, and “Saw Sawing” in Japan.  They are worth a “google” to check out the images.

This sculpture consists of fiberglass and steel, and it rises 60 feet out of the ground and covers 140 feet of the 1,000 square foot park.

“These urban pieces are treated like something that’s hit the city,” Oldenburg told The S.F. Chronicle (12/23/2002).  “At first there’s the man-in-the-street opinion, but then there’s the more nuanced response. We don’t copy the objects we use, we try to transform them and we hope they go on transforming as you look at them. The idea of endless public dialogue — visual dialogue — is very important to us.”

Needless to say, their bow and arrow hit the mark as far as public dialogue.  As you walk by this brilliant piece of art, you will often hear tourists and residents talk about it and what it might mean.

As more and more people fall in love with this magical city, this modern-day Atlantis, it should come as no surprise that this is the place that Cupid chooses to keep his bow and arrow.



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Global Warming Threat

The reclaimed lands are marked in pink.

Everyone who lives in or near San Francisco is very aware of the threat of global warming.  For example, if you talk to someone from Alameda, you realize that they definitely take the prospect of global warming and the rise of the sea seriously.  Alameda, on average, sits only 4 feet above sea level, and any rise of the bay/sea is going to be catastrophic for this historic village positioned on two islands in the bay.

The City of San Francisco also has reason to be alarmed about the sea level.  There are large portions of this city that were reclaimed from the bay.  The founding fathers often used parts of abandoned ships, sand from the tops of hills, and whatever they had in order to fill in the marshes, the inlets, and small creaks near the bay to make more usable land.  In the past, entrepeneurs paid very high prices for land that was actually covered by the bay.  They then would cheaply fill it in and make large profits selling off prime bay front property.  It’s amazing to look at the old maps and realize how much land was actually reclaimed and in use today.  For example, Mission Bay used to be a rather large bay, but now it is just the size of a small creek surrounded by mid-rise apartments/condos, AT&T Park, and the newly developed campus of UCSF.  As the sea level, and bay level, rise, these parts will once again be underwater unless something is done in the next 100 years.

At some point we have to take the blinders off our eyes and admit that global warming is real.  Imagine, there are still people, often brainwashed by their preachers or politicians, who say they don’t believe in global warming.  Is it really that hard to believe when we already see proof around the world of the effect of the polar ice caps melting?  Only when we are able to face this problem head on will we be able to formulate long-term solutions and save the land through the use of levees and dykes.  If they could do it in new Orleans they can do it in San Francisco, but now is the time for action.  Ignorance at times may be bliss, but in this instance it is short-sighted, ludicrous, and dangerous.


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The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

The Bay Bridge is the one you see snaking across the bay from San Francisco, to Yerba Buena Island, and then on to Oakland.  It is an icon of San Francisco, and present in most views of the bay.  After three and a half years of construction, the 8 1/2 mile long bridge was opened on November 12, 1935.  It cost the lives of 27 construction workers during it’s depression era creation. 

The exact location of the bridge was dictated by a bedrock ridge that lies 200 feet below the surface of the bay on the line where the Bay Bridge currently sets.  On either side of this ridge, the water is quite a bit deeper. 

The Bay Bridge noteworthy facts include the following?

1.   The lower deck was originally built for electric train traffic only.  The upper deck was used for two-way vehicle traffic.  This changed in 1958 when the lower deck became refitted for eastbound traffic, and the upper deck was reserved for westbound traffic.

2.  The total coast was $77 million dollars.

3.  President Hoover, a graduate of the Stanford School of Engineering, took a personal interest in this project.  That’s right, President Hoover was an engineer. 

4.  Halfway between San Francisco and Yerba Buena Island, it became necessary to build another island for support.  The depth was to great for divers to work from the bottom up, so they tried something different and built this cement tower from the top down, eventually securing it with large steel pipes once it reached the bottom of the bay.  The tower is the height of a 48 story building.

Residents of San Francisco are well aware of the troubles the bridge between Yerba Buena Island and San Francisco has had in the past 25 years.  During the Loma Prieta Earthquake, part of the upper deck crashed on to the lower deck during rush hour, and more recently the bridge was closed to repair a fissure that was discovered as they began construction on a new bridge that will span the length of Yerba Buena Island to Oakland.  They tried to repair the fissure in a brief amount of time, but when the bridge was reopened, the repair came crashing down on a vehicle during rush hour and caused the closer of the bridge for a week.  As you work your way across this old span of bridge, you can view the new bridge beside it which will replace this ailing section around 2013. 

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Socialism in the City

When you visit Coit Tower, spend some time looking at the murals surrounding the hallway inside the structure.  At first glance, you may just bypass them and concentrate on the views and getting into the elevator, but the murals themselves are an amazing attraction.  Created in 1933 as one of the first public works projects, the California School of Fine Arts faculty and staff worked hard to create paintings that would reflect life in California.  There are cowboys, 49ers, fruit pickers, industrial workers, etc.

During this time, Rockefeller Center removed Diego Rivera’s artwork because he had painted in an image of Lenin.  The artists who were working on Coit Tower protested and painted in several leftist images to show solidarity with Rivera.  These paintings created quite a stir, and one of the pictures entitled “Workers of the World Unite” was removed before the opening.

Today, you can still see the socialist influence in the murals that line the hallways of Coit Tower.  You can see it in the man who is pulling Karl Marx’s Das Kapital off a bookshelf, or the man who is portrayed reading a newspaper with the headline talking about Rivera’s artwork being removed from Rockefeller Center.  It is also in the painting of a man who is reaching for the Daily Worker from a newsstand, and in the scene of a poor family panning for gold as a rich family looks on.  In addition, closely check out the industrial paintings, especially the one showing a sea of diverse workmen joining together.

It is definitely worth going to Coit Tower for the phenomenal views, but also take some time to really study the murals.  You won’t be disappointed.



Coit Tower Murals, May, 2011 5

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Mary Ellen Pleasant: The Mother of Civil Rights in California

Mary Ellen Pleasant

Before coming to San Francisco, Mary Ellen had a very eventful life. This African-American activist was a financial backer of the Abolitionist movement and played an active role in the Underground Railroad. 

Her second husband, James Smith, was an African American man who was passing as white. He had already freed his slaves, and the two of them worked hard in the abolitionist movement. After his death, she began a marriage/partnership with John James Pleasant which eventually led them to New Orleans where she became fast friends with Marie Laveau’s husband and often took advice from the great voodoo priestess herself.

The California Gold Rush is what eventually brought James and Mary Ellen to San Francisco. The possibilities for wealth were limitless.  When she stepped off the boat at Yerba Buena Island, she registered herself as white, and as such landed jobs managing some of the more exclusive eateries in the city.  While performing her duties, she often overheard tidbits of financial gossip and used them to invest wisely and grow her personal wealth. By 1885, Thomas, who found success in quicksilver, and Mary Ellen had created a 30 million dollar fortune. Unfortunately, Thomas did not live long after this, passing away in 1887 of diabetes. Instead of staying at home and mourning the death of her husband, Mary Ellen hit the trail with John Brown and for the next two years worked tirelessly to attain civil rights for African Americans.

San Francisco called her back in 1879, and this time she came out as a black woman. The African-Americans in San Francisco knew of Mary Ellen’s true race all along, but very few white people knew this secret. When she came back and declared herself black, there were some who were very shocked.  After her return to the city, She fought a series of court cases around civil rights for African Americans and often won.

Mary Ellen worked hard all her life for human rights and a better life for everyone, but she did not have a spotless reputation. There were always rumors surrounding her, including that she was the daughter of a voodoo priestess and a Virginia governor. Her relationship with Thomas and Teresa Bell did not help. Teresa was Mary Ellen’s friend and business associate. When Teresa got married, Mary Ellen built her a huge $100,000 mansion as a wedding present and then lived in it with the wedded couple. The ornate residence and formal gardens occupied a large space at 1661 Octavia Street between Bush and Sutter. The exact arrangement of their living conditions was not openly discussed, but it appears that Mary Ellen ran the household, including all of the financial obligations. Soon, Thomas and Teresa had a falling out, and on October 15th, 1892 while Thomas was suffering from an illness, it is reported that in the middle of the night he called out “Where am I?” and crashed to the basement floor from a second story landing, dying soon after. At the time, it was believed to be an accident.

Shortly after the death of Thomas, Mary Ellen and Teresa found themselves in court fighting over his estate. The peculiar circumstances of the marriage and relationship were alluded to in court, and the rumors started to fly in the newspapers. Teresa set out on a campaign to destroy Mary Ellen’s name by calling her a voodoo priestess, a baby stealer, a baby eater, and a multiple murderess. Teresa was successful in her smear campaign and eventually won the house and evicted Mary Ellen.

Probably most disturbing to Mary Ellen about the whole ordeal is that Teresa was able to tag her publicly with the title of “Mammy.”  For the rest of her life she was often referred to, especially in the press, as “Mammy” Pleasant, a title which she abhorred.

She passed away on January 4th, 1904.  She was a great woman of action who used her success to help many people.  RIP Mary Ellen Pleasant, 1817 – 1904.  

Source: Wikipedia & Historic Walks in San Francisco, by Rand Richards

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Spanish Footprint in San Francisco

Gaspar de Portola

San Francisco, and California, used to be under Spain’s rule.  During this time, several well known explorers were sent up the coast from San Diego in order to explore this area and chart any features that would make it conducive to settlement and commerce.  Several of these founders are honored in San Francisco in the following ways:

  • Portola Drive and the Portola District:  This section of town is named after the never married Gaspar de Portola, the Spanish Explorer that discovered the San Francisco Bay Area.  Because of the fog and the small opening into the bay, sea captains had passed by for many years without ever knowing of the great possibilities that existed in this area.
  • Angel Island Cove:  Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala was the first European to actually sail through the Golden Gate, and he set about naming several of the places around the bay. Ayala Cove on Angel Island is named after him.
  • Alcatraz (Isla de Alcatraces): This now famous island was named by Ayala, and it means the “island of pelicans.”
  • Sausalito (Saucelito): This trendy area of the bay was also named by Ayala, and it means “little thicket of willows.” 

Spain had control of this new land for many years, but lost the West Coast when Mexico became independent in 1821.  It was at this point that Mexican rule came to this part of the country, and a time of relative prosperity began as this area saw more and more settlers.  The then named village of Yerba Buena became part of the United States in the 1840’s as a result of the Mexican/American War.  Shortly after that, the area was renamed San Francisco.



Source:  Historic San Francisco:  A Concise History and Guide.  by Rand Richards

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Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

If you find yourself around city hall with some free time on your hands, consider stopping in at the Asian Art Museum and be transported to other regions and time periods.  This museum has one of the largest collections of Asian art in the Western world, and it spans a period of 6,000 years.  As you journey through the museum, you will find yourself surrounded by magnificent sculpture, delicate pottery, and vivid screens.  When you leave, it may take you a few moments to acclimate back to the United States.  Below you will find just a few of the pictures I took when I visited this great treasure of a museum.

Asian Art Museum, S.F., February 2011 2

Asian Art Museum, S.F., February 2011 12

Asian Art Museum, S.F., February 2011 24

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