San Francisco, California in 1916

Market Street in 1899, photo by B.L. Singley.

Market Street in 1899, photo by B.L. Singley.

Within walking distance of the ferry is the heart of the city. Here are the newspaper buildings, many big and little hotels, numberless restaurants, the theatres and the shopping district. The region about Union Square, Geary street, Grant Avenue, Post and Sutter streets, is a busy and attractive area. You could live in San Francisco for a month and ask no greater entertainment than walking through it. Beyond are various foreign quarters and districts inevitably growing colder and more residential in aspect as they get farther away from the city heart. Beyond the heights where one catches glimpses of the ocean, the city slopes to abrupt cliffs along the outer harbor, and here are mansions whose windy gardens overhang the surf. Beyond Market street is the area described in the phrase, “south of the slot”. Superficially drab and gray in aspect, it has been celebrated again and again in song and story. From this region have come the majority of San Francisco’s champion athletes. Near here beats the red heart of the labor world. And not far off still stands that exquisite gem of Spanish Catholicism – Mission Dolores.

Here and there – and it is a little like meeting a ghost in a crowded street – through all the beauty and freshness of the new city project the bones of the old: the lofty ruins, ivy-hung, of a huge Nob Hill Palace here; the mere foundation, bush-encircled, of a big old family mansion there; elaborate rusty fences of Mid-Victorian iron which enclose nothing; wide low steps of Mid-Victorian marble which lead nowhere. The San Franciscan speaks always with a tender, regretful affection of that dead city, but, as is natural, he speaks of it less and less. For myself, I am glad now that I never saw the city that was; for I can love the city that is with no arriere pensee.

They serve, however – those bones of a dead past – to remind the stranger of a marvelous rebuilding feat, to accent the virility and vitality, the courage and enterprise of a people who, before a half decade had passed, had eliminated almost every trace of the greatest disaster of modern time.

Perhaps, after the beauty of its situation, the stranger is most struck with the picturesqueness given to the city by its cosmopolitan atmosphere. For San Francisco, serving as one of the two main great gateways to an enormous country, a front entrance to America from the Orient, a back entrance from Europe and a side entrance from South America, standing halfway between tropics and polar regions, a great port of the greatest ocean in the world, becomes naturally one of the world’s main caravanseries, a meeting place of nations.

China Town, San Francisco, California

China Town, San Francisco, California

Chinatown is not far off from the heart of the city. And Chinatown pervades San Francisco. It is as though it distilled some faint oriental perfume with which constantly it suffuses the air. You meet the Chinese everywhere. The men differ in no wise from the men with whom the smaller Chinatowns of the East have acquainted us. The women make the streets exotic. Little, slim-limbed creatures, amber-skinned, jewel-eyed, dressed in silk of black or pastel colors, loosely coated and comfortably trousered, their jet-black shining hair filled with ornaments, they go about in groups which include old women and young matrons, half-grown girls slender as forsythia branches, babies arrayed like princes. You are likely to meet groups of Hindus, picturesquely turbaned, coffee-brown in color, slight-figured, straight-featured, black-bearded. You see Japanese and Filipinos.

And as for Latins — French, Italians and Spanish flood the city. There are eight thousand Montenegrins alone in California. I never suspected there were eight thousand in Montenegro. And our own continent contributes Canadians, Mexicans, citizens from every State in the Union. In addition, you run everywhere into soldiers and sailors.

The bits of talk you overhear in the street are so exciting that you become a professional eavesdropper, strong-languaged, picturesquely slangy, pungent narrative. Sometimes the speaker has come up from Arizona, or New Mexico or Texas, sometimes down from Alaska, Washington or Oregon, sometimes across from Nevada or Montana or Wyoming. And with many of them – at least with those that live west of the rocky mountains – San Francisco is always (and I never failed to respond to the thrill of it) “the city.” Not a city or any city, but the city – as though there were no other city on the face of the earth.

All this alien picturesqueness adds enormously of course to the San Franciscan’s native picturesqueness. Not that the Californian needs adventitious aid in this matter. Indeed this cosmopolitanism of atmosphere serves best as a background, these alien types as a foil, for the native-born. For the Californians are a comely people. No traveler has failed – at least no man has failed – to pay tribute in passing to the Californian women. And they are beautiful.

In that climate which produces bigness in everything, they grow to heroic size. And as a result of a life, inevitably open-air in an atmosphere always fog-touched, they have eyes of a notable limpidity and complexions of a striking vividness. To walk through that limited area which is the city’s heart – especially when the theatres are letting out – is to come on beauty not in one pretty girl at a time, nor in pairs and trios, nor by scores and dozens; it is to see it in battalias and acres, and all of them meeting your eyes with the frank open gaze of the West.

San Francisco is, I fancy, the only city on the globe where any musical comedy audience is always more beautiful than any musical comedy chorus. They are not only beautiful – they are magnificent.

Watch in the Admission Day parade for the Native Daughters of the Golden West – stalwart, stunning young giantesses marching with a splendid carriage and a superb poise – they seem like a new race of women.

And the climate being of such kind that, for three-quarters of the year you can count on unvarying sunny weather, the women dress on the streets with nothing short of gorgeousness. All the colors that the rainbow knows and a few that it has never seen, appear here. And worn with such chic, such verve! Not even in Paris, where may appear a more conventional smartness, is sartorial picturesqueness carried off with such an air of authority. Polaire, who was advertised as the ugliest woman in the world, should have made a fortune in California. For the Californian does not really know what female ugliness is. I have a theory that the California men cannot quite appreciate the beauty of their women. They take beauty for granted; they have never seen anything else. Nevertheless, that beauty and that dash constitute a menace. A city ordinance compels traffic policemen to wear smoked glasses, and car conductors and chauffeurs, blinders. Go West, young man!

But everybody celebrates the beauty of the Californian woman. Probably that is because heretofore “everybody” has been masculine. He has been so busy looking at the California woman that he hasn’t realized yet that there’s a male of the species. The California man, I sing.

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