San Francisco in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay

Mostly useful for the amusing perspective the various writers had in 1940 when this was compiled, such as their attitude about the Western Addition:

“Like the backyard of some imposing but superannuated mansion, the Western Addition is cluttered with the discarded furniture of the city’s Gilded Age. It is a curious district whose claim to distinction is its disdain of all pretense. It is not beautiful, and yet San Franciscans refer to it almost affectionately as ‘The Fillmore,’ the name of its busiest thoroughfare, and love it, as Charles Caldwell Dobie says, ‘for its supreme grotesqueness.’ ” Ah yes, those grotesque Victorian houses that dared to be protected from the 1906 fire and straggle into the 20th century. The book calls them “the preposterous old houses built here in the 1870s and 1880s.” Truly hilarious, as these gems are what make the neighborhood so unique in this age of excessive blue glass buildings.

This is a quaint look at SF from the ancient viewpoint of nearly 80 years ago, littered with ignorant statements about the natives and non-white immigrants. They make it seem like the land was just sitting here empty, waiting to be civilized by white man, whereas reading Tending The Wild leads to a more evolved view that the natives created the abundant garden that whites found.

There are a few things that haven’t changed much from 1940, such as the crowd that hangs out by the Main Library: “A ragged senate of unemployed philosophers gathers daily along the ‘wailing wall’ by the south entrance of the San Francisco Public Library…” This of course was the Carnegie library that now houses the Asian Art musuem. The present day site of the main branch was an open park, Marshall Square, where “women air their babies and exercise their dogs, schoolboys play football, and down-and-outers snatch a bit of sun and sleep.” There used to be a cemetary on the spot until 1870.

Interesting to read their list of restaurants where special care is taken to note whether the place has a bar or not. The dreary pre-war days seem to have lulled the writers into a dull sense of boredom, and they bemoan the lost yesteryear of SF: “While the graft investigation scandals of 1906 had forced the toning down of the city’s night life, it was not until the war years [WWI] and the advent of Prohibition that the death knell of San Francisco’s gaiety was sounded… Over old San Francisco, twilight had fallen, from which it never would emerge. San Francisco would be the same city when the era of sobriety came at last to its end, but, like wine in a bottle once opened, then corked and laid away, its flavor would be gone.” Yikes, WPA writers! So maudlin!

It was fun to mark certain landmarks that were mentioned to go back and see what’s there now on the 2017 map, like the Hotel Empire at the corner of Leavenworth and McAllister, now a part of Hastings.

Some things learned:

  • In 1853, a newspaper surveyed the town and found 537 places where liquor was sold. Of those, 125 did not even “keep an onion to modify the traffic.” What a great phrase!
  • Buena Vista “with its deeply shaded nooks smelling always of dampness” was set aside in 1868 as the first plot of the city’s park system.
  • I’ve never heard of this park! Mount Olympus near 17th and Clayton.
  • Alta Plaza was turned into a park by McLaren when he filled a deserted rock quarry with trash, topped it with soil, planted lawns and laid out walks. South side stairway is a reproduction of the grand stairway up to the casino in Monte Carlo.
  • Baker Beach (property of the War Department when this was written) named for the same guy that Baker St, Fort Baker, and the town in Oregon are named after – Edward Dickinson Baker.
  • The authors make a distinction between motion picture houses and “legitimate theaters.”
  • Tule fog is a winter phenomenon, different from the more prevalent white fog.
  • The most important industry in 1937 was printing & publishing, output valued at $40M.
  • How times have changed. In 1940, “employers estimate that half the population of San Francisco consists of union members and their families.”
  • Pedestrians and cyclists used to pay $0.10 toll for the Golden Gate bridge. Also, the authors struggle with the fact that “San Francisco has no single spectacular landmark by which the world may identify it,” not realizing that the GG Bridge was destined to become that landmark.