John Martini is an eminent local historian. He can see the past with a professional eye.
He writes about swimming at Sutro Baths, a Sunday outing in the park in Victorian times, how the Golden Gate looked before the bridge, the life of the soldiers at the Presidio long ago.
So, I asked him once, “Would you like to live in the past?”
“No,” he said. “No. But I would like to take a vacation there.”
He said he’d like to perhaps spend two weeks in San Francisco at the turn of the last century. “I’d head for my great-grandfather’s bar in North Beach,” Martini said. “He was a partner in a grocery store with a bar in the back on Broadway. His name was Giuseppe Martini, and he was born in Lucca, Italy.
“I’d sit back and watch the scene, be a fly on the wall. I don’t know what I would say to him, though. You can’t affect the future by going into the past.”
Martini smiled at the thought of seeing his own ancestor as a young man. Time travel is always intriguing.
One of the problems, though, is that a trip back in time might be a shock. The Good Old Days weren’t so good. “Living in the past in San Francisco would be great if you were white and male,” Martini said. “It would be a lot different if you were Chinese, or Mexican, or one of the tiny number of black people who lived here.”
Women couldn’t vote, much less become U.S. senators or corporate executives. Their lives were constricted in a hundred ways. Prostitution was open in San Francisco, and tolerated. It was one of the rackets operated under a corrupt city government.
The smartest man in the city was political boss Abe Ruef, a native San Franciscan who was one of the most promising young men ever to graduate from UC Berkeley. The big corporations bribed him, and he paid off the mayor and the supervisors.
If you think the streets are dirty now, think about old San Francisco, say just before the 1906 earthquake, when the streets were littered with the droppings of thousands of horses that pulled the freight wagons and delivery trucks.
Garbage was routinely dumped in the bay, and so was sewage. McCovey Cove at the site of the present ballpark was an open sewer. Despite its healthful climate, San Francisco was famously unhealthy. In 1900, there was even an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city, but the news was suppressed. It was bad for business.
Health insurance? Unemployment insurance? There wasn’t any.
People worked harder and were paid less than they are now. There was a huge income disparity between the rich and poor – and serious trouble was always on the horizon.
There were violent strikes and riots: Five people were killed in a 1901 teamsters strike; 31 were killed and over 1,100 injured during a streetcar strike in 1907; and in 1916, a terrorist bomb set off during the city’s largest parade left 10 dead and 40 injured. The district attorney framed two labor leaders for the bombing and they served time in San Quentin.
San Francisco was not the tolerant place it became later. It had an ugly edge.
You can still find people of a certain age in Chinatown who will tell you about being beaten up for crossing Broadway into North Beach. It took riots and sit-ins to get the city’s large hotels and auto dealers to share good jobs with minority workers – and that was in the ’60s, not long before the Summer of Love.
The city’s gay community operated in the shadows; police raids on gay bars were common. There was a certain agreed-upon standard in San Francisco, and the cops enforced it.
And yet San Francisco was always The City, even in its ugly moods. It always had something special. It attracted people like Mark Twain and George Sterling, the poet who saw stars at the end of the streets, and William Saroyan, who thought every block had a story. It has changed beyond belief and sometimes for the better.
The old San Francisco would be a great place to visit, but I don’t think most of us would want to live there. For people of this generation, these are the good old days.