This photograph near 823 Grant Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown looks like a mistake, an accident, a very bad photograph, but I knew what I was doing. I wanted to take a very bad photograph.
This historical plaque, marking the “Birthplace of a Great City,” has not felt the love in a long, long, long, long time. How can San Franciscans feel nostalgic toward a city when they keep changing it all the time? The plaque honors 823 Grant as the location of the first “habitation” by European settlers in the history of “Yerba Buena” back in 1835 (either that or 827 Grant; we’re not too sure). The native Americans pretty much ignored what we call San Francisco in those days: the soil was very poor; not much fresh water; harsh winter rains; too windy. Why live in such inhospitable conditions when the eastern side of the bay enjoyed warm weather, excellent soil and plenty of fresh water, and leave the barren little lump to the wolves, coyotes and bears??
The Europeans had a different view of course. Own Yerba Buena and you can keep out competing nations, thereby keeping one of the world’s finest natural harbors to yourself. Assuming, of course, that you wanted to keep the harbor to yourself. The Spaniards founded a small fortification in what is now the Presidio during the 1820s, but didn’t mind visitors–anything to break up the boredom of defending against nothing–and in 1822 a British whaler called the Orion paid a call. One of the crew, William Richardson, went to a soiree at the fort, drank a lot of alcohol, spent the entire night dancing with the commandant’s daughter (Maria Antonia Martinez, who would be a huge legend if anyone remembered her), fell madly in love with her, jumped ship, and stayed in town. In other words, a sailor spent a night partying with a multi-racial beauty queen, getting high, throwing away his old life, and constructing a new one from scratch. In other other words, San Franciscans in San Francisco behaving like San Franciscans in San Francisco before either San Franciscans or San Francisco even existed. For more info, see Gary Kamiya’s excellent article here.
In 1835, 13 years later, Richardson finally moved out of the Presidio’s fort and small collection of buildings, constructing a sort of tent with a sail and four posts near the eastern shore of Y.B. at the time. Today, the eastern shore is almost a mile further east thanks to landfills. By now, the Spanish old-time settlers had taken to calling themselves “Californios” to differentiate and elevate themselves from and above the newbies moving to town. In other words, snobbery from the old timers directed at the new arrivals. In other other words, San Franciscans in San Francisco behaving like San Franciscans in San Francisco before either San Franciscans or San Francisco even existed.
The first real building outside of the Presidio came in 1836, a house constructed by a fellow names Leese, who celebrated with a party over the July 4th weekend to which he invited everyone in Y.B. In other words, the inhabitants of the settlement began to cement their reputation as a hotspot of parties, business, gambling, dancing, commodities buying and selling, more parties, card games, trading, alcohol consumption, even more parties, smuggling and other genteel crime, fishing, picking strawberries and still more parties. In other other words, San Franciscans in San Francisco behaving like San Franciscans in San Francisco before either San Franciscans or San Francisco even existed. Outsiders condemned the inhabitants for suffering from “the California disease;” the Californios thought they lived in paradise.
Perhaps the locals did live a little lazily; the first civic building project in the future City That Knows How did not start until 1844, when the alcalde William Hinckley built a footbridge over a small saltwater inlet. It couldn’t have been more than 10 feet in length–people used to jump over the inlet–but to the less than 50 people living in Y.B., this easily qualified as the biggest event of the social season.
So they threw another party.
In other other words, San Franciscans in San Francisco behaving like San Franciscans in San Francisco before either San Franciscans or San Francisco even existed.
The footbridge is long gone; in fact, so is the inlet. The intersection of Montgomery and Jackson marks the approximate location of the bridge. Right about here:
Incidentally, the legendary restaurant Ernie’s (if you’ve seen Hitchcock’s Vertigo, you’ve seen Ernie’s) used to host parties about half a block away from the intersection. If San Francisco is not change, then San Francisco is not at all. For more information about William Richardson, one of San Francisco’s first two great lovers, see this 1999 article. Today, you won’t see wolves, coyotes and bears fighting at Montgomery and Jackson over prey, but you will see bulls fighting bears; this intersection marks the edge of the Financial District.
Kind of not quite the same thing.
Vonn Scott Bair