The Barbary Coast was a red-light district during the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries in San Francisco which featured dance halls, concert saloons, bars, jazz clubs, variety shows, and brothels. Its nine block area was centered on a three block stretch of Pacific Street, now Pacific Avenue, between Montgomery and Stockton Streets. Pacific Street was the first street to cut through the hills of San Francisco, starting near Portsmouth Square and continuing east to the first shipping docks at Buena Vista Cove.
The Barbary Coast was born during the California Gold Rush of 1849, when the population of San Francisco was growing at an exponential rate due to the rapid influx of tens of thousands of miners trying to find gold. The early decades of the Barbary Coast would be marred by persistent lawlessness, gambling, administrative graft, vigilante justice, and prostitution; however with the passage of time the city's government would gain strength and competence, and the Barbary Coast's maturing entertainment scene of dance halls and jazz clubs would influence American culture. The Barbary Coast's century-long evolution would pass through many substantial incarnations due to the city's rapid cultural development during the transition to the 20th century. Its former location is now overlapped by Chinatown, North Beach, and Jackson Square.
San Francisco's Barbary Coast arose from the massive infusion of treasure hunters, called 49-ers, seeking their fortunes by panning for gold as they searched for a potential gold mine.
Before the Gold Rush of 1849 there were only a few hundred people living in tents and wooden shanties within San Francisco. However, after the gold rush the population of San Francisco would increase fifty-fold in just two years--from 492 in 1847 to over 25,000 in 1849. That quick and extreme growth combined with a lack of strong and robust government would create many opportunities for criminals, corrupt politicians, and brothel owners. For many decades murderers and robbers could commit their crimes without punishment, sometimes boldly in public view. As a result, the Barbary Coast became a wild area representative of the Old West, and had many problems with political corruption, gambling, crime, and violence.
Around 1848 a group of volunteers from the Mexican-American War were eventually discharged and settled in San Francisco. Many of them were from New York City gangs from the Five Points and Bowery districts. About sixty of them organized into a gang called the Hounds, paraded around as if they were military, and even creating a headquarters named Tammany Hall within a tent on Kearney Street. In 1849, these thugs began to call themselves the Regulators as they harassed Mexicans and those of Spanish origin, and extorted money from local businesses for protection services. Anyone who would not pay was likely to lose a nose, ear, or suffer greater bodily injury. However, after a group of 230 men organized into a militia and confronted the Hounds with possible arrest, they quickly fled from San Francisco.
The Hounds was not the only group of criminals to set up business on San Francisco's Barbary Coast. By the end of 1849, several ships from Australia brought former members of Great Britain's penal colony - including ex-convicts, ticket-of-leave men, and criminals - to San Francisco, where they would become known as the Sydney Ducks. These Australian immigrants had become so numerous that they dominated the neighborhood. They opened boarding houses and various types of groggeries which had prostitutes affiliated with their businesses. People who entered these groggeries and brothels were frequently later beaten and robbed.
A newspaper of the day, the San Francisco Herald, states of Sidney Town:
When looting San Francisco's neighborhoods, the Sydney Ducks even set fire to San Francisco six times between 1849 and 1851 in order to distract citizens from their pillaging and murdering. Whenever they planned to start a fire, they waited for south westerly winds so that Sidney Town would not also catch fire. The citizens of San Francisco became enraged and in 1851 they formed a first Vigilance Committee. Two of the Sydney Ducks, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie, were then arrested for arson, robbery, and burglary. The vigilantes then held a quick trial, and later hanged them.Vigilantes, unauthorized individuals who use trials and lynchings to punish criminals, were not uncommon in the Old West but San Francisco's Vigilance Committees were the largest and most organized of America's history. The hangings scared the remaining Sydney Ducks into fleeing the city. Within two weeks after the hangings, Sidney Town had but only a few dance halls, saloons, and brothels remaining. That relative peace would only last for two years before criminals started to once again return to the Barbary Coast.
In the latter half of the 19th century, San Francisco saw administrative graft, boss politics, and a persistent lawlessness. For a while after the hangings of Whittaker and McKenzie, San Francisco functioned as a law-abiding city. The hangings frightened corrupt judges and government officials, who then began to do their duties with a rare diligence, not seen so far in San Francisco. This new competency in government would not last long, and by 1852 corrupt government officials developed a system of high salaries and expensive projects with political kickbacks that would drain the city's treasury to near bankruptcy. This financial crisis at city hall would create a great strain on commerce and also affect individual businesses.
The looting of the city's treasury could not have happened without the help of the most powerful man in San Francisco, David Broderick, who was a state senator and held tight control over San Francisco from 1851 until his death in 1859. Broderick's corruption was such that no man could be elected to public office unless he made a deal with Broderick to share half the profits from his office. As a result of these backroom deals, Broderick accumulated a large amount of wealth which further strengthened his position as a powerful city boss. As news of the treasury's financial crisis became known, another even larger uprising of enraged citizenry would occur.
James King, a popular journalist and publisher, vehemently protested the administrative graft of Broderick which angered one of Broderick's biggest supporters, a supervisor named James Casey. While King was standing in front of his newspaper's building Casey shot King in the chest, causing a mortal wound which would ultimately launch the formation of a second Vigilance Committee in May 1856. Within two hours after Casey's shooting of King, a mob of 10,000 people surrounded the jail where Casey was being held. The vigilantes then demanded that the jail release James Casey into their custody, and the badly out-numbered jail guards acquiesced to their demands. King died six days after being shot, and subsequently Casey was put on trial by the Vigilance Committee. King's funeral attracted over 15,000 people, but by the time the funeral had ended Casey had already been convicted and hanged by the vigilantes. Now energized by wide public support, the Vigilance Committee set up shop in a large building near the wharf which included jail cells, court rooms, a surrounding wall to resist any military intervention, and was nicknamed Fort Gunnybags. During the two months that followed the hanging of Casey there was not a single murder in San Francisco, and less than a half dozen robberies. In August 1856 the vigilance committee decided to disband and give control back to the elected officials.
It was not until the 1860s when sailors gave the district its name, and began to refer to it as the Barbary Coast. The term "Barbary Coast' is borrowed from the Barbary Coast of North Africa where local pirates and slave traders launched raids on nearby coastal towns and vessels. That African region was also notorious for the same kind of predatory dives which would target sailors, as had been done on San Francisco's Barbary Coast. Miners, sailors, and sojourners hungry for female companionship and bawdy entertainment continued to stream into San Francisco in the 1850s and 1860s, becoming the Barbary Coast's primary clientele. During its early days San Francisco had become a "wide" open city where police had little to no control in stopping the activities of gambling, drinking, drag, and Prostitution. The fact that San Francisco functioned as a port city meant that it was able to sustain large transient populations that were less likely to conform to social rules and regulations.
"The Barbary Coast is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whoremonger, lewd women, cutthroats, murderers, all are found here. Dance-halls and concert-saloons, where blear-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous. Low gambling houses, thronged with riot-loving rowdies, in all stages of intoxication, are there. Opium dens, where heathen Chinese and God-forsaken men and women are sprawled in miscellaneous confusion, disgustingly drowsy or completely overcome, are there. Licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, loathsome disease, insanity from dissipation, misery, poverty, wealth, profanity, blasphemy, and death, are there. And Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass, is there also."
- Asbury, in Benjamin Estelle Lloyd's Lights and Shades of San Francisco (1876)
During this time San Francisco went through much commercial growth and became an important shipping port, but matured to a level which would forbid any more uprisings by vigilantes. Without the threat of vigilante justice, corruption and crime begin to return along with predatory dives similar to those of Sidney Town. The Barbary Coast would continue to build on its notorious reputation as a lawless city. With only one hundred policemen as of 1871, San Francisco had a severe shortage of law enforcement. At that time Police Chief Crowley said in his annual report that there was only one officer for every 1,445 inhabitants, while New York City had one in 464 and London had one for every 303 residents.
Entertaining the miners, entrepreneurs, and sailors would be a huge business and resulted in varied, inventive, and occasionally bizarre forms of entertainment. Except for a couple of restaurants, that three block stretch of Pacific Street was almost wall to wall with drinking establishments. They included dance halls, concert saloons which had entertainment and dancing, melodeons, cheap groggeries, and deadfalls which were dismal beer and wine dens. Initially the melodeons had mechanical reed organs which played music, however they quickly transformed into a kind of cabaret which had theatrical entertainment but no dance floor. The only women allowed in the melodeons were the waitresses and performers. Their shows usually contained songs, bawdy skits, and often featured can-can dancers. The deadfalls were the lowest of the establishments and had hard benches, damp sawdust on the floors, the bar was rough boards laid atop of barrels, had no entertainment, and their wine was often raw alcohol with an added coloring.
The Coast as it was called, also invented its own kind of dance hall, called a Barbary Coast Dance Hall. It was different than most dance halls in that the only women there were the female employees who were paid to dance with the customers, and received commissions on the drinks that they could encourage their male customers to buy. Lawlessness was so bad in the Barbary Coast district that police did not patrol alone, but chose to walk their beats in pairs and sometimes in groups. There was usually a murder every night and scores of robberies. And even while inside drinking establishments, a customer's property and life were still never safe. Prostitution was so common on the Barbary Coast that it was referred to as the Paris of America. Drug addicts of the district could even buy cocaine or morphine at an all night Grant Street drugstore for only two or three times the price of a beer. And during the 1890s San Francisco hit its peak alcohol consumption in having over 3000 licensed bars, and another 2000 unlicensed bars.
The waitresses were a major attraction for the saloons and were nicknamed the pretty waiter girls, though they were not always attractive or young. They were scantily clothed in gaudy outfits while they sold drinks and danced with customers for money. The saloons hired women to exploit the men, instructed to pick customers' pockets and then give half that money back to the management. The pretty waiter girls earned about $20 per week plus a commission on any drinks and dances that they sold. Small grog houses and deadfalls hired only handful of pretty waiter girls, but the larger dance halls and concert saloons employed up to fifty women. However some of the concert saloons, like the Eureka and Bella Union, made an effort to have notable Barbary Coast performers appear in their shows and actually had attractive women for their pretty waiter girls.
It was not unusual for the pretty waiter girls to put drugs into the customers' drinks, so they could later be more easily robbed and sometimes clubbed unconscious. Sailors, who were frequently the targets of the pretty waiter girls, had cause to dread the area because the art of shanghaiing was perfected here. Many a sailor woke up after a night's leave to find himself unexpectedly on another ship bound for some faraway port. The verb to "shanghai" was first coined on the Barbary Coast.
Most of the buildings on that stretch of Pacific Street were destroyed by the earthquake and fire of 1906. However the city's financial boosters then saw an opportunity to clean up the tone of the Barbary Coast, and transform it into an entertainment area which would be acceptable for every-day San Franciscans. Possessing a new sense of civic pride, the boosters invested heavily in reconstruction and within three months over a dozen dance halls and a dozen bars were rebuilt and operating. This new incarnation of Pacific Street would be gentrified and tame compared to the lawless pre-earthquake version of the Barbary Coast. However prostitution still persisted in the district and it was not until 1917 that Mayor James Rudolf made a declaration that he would close every brothel in San Francisco. Same-sex Prostitution and entertainment which featured female impersonators briefly existed in a bar on the Barbary Coast as early as the spring of 1908 when The Dash opened on Pacific Street. The Dash employed some female impersonators, and patrons could purchase homosexual sex in its booths. The Dash closed near the end of that same year.
The thriving district also got a new nickname, Terrific Street. The term "Terrific Street" was first used by musicians in describing the quality of music at the Pacific Street clubs, and indeed the first jazz clubs of San Francisco would occur on Terrific Street and attract national talents like Sophie Tucker, Sid LeProtti, and Jelly Roll Morton. It was at this time that the Barbary Coast gained a wider appeal and its large dance halls drew tremendous crowds.
The principal attraction of Terrific Street was dancing and many nationally known dance steps like the Texas Tommy and the Turkey Trot, would be invented on Terrific Street. At night, its brightly lit block could be seen from across the bay in Oakland despite the fact that neon lights had not yet been invented. From the seeds of cheap mining-town amusements of the old Barbary Coast, Terrific Street would bloom as a vibrant and glamorous district which also nurtured the beginnings of arguably America's greatest cultural contribution, jazz music.
An extreme shift in political policy came about in 1911 when a new mayor, James "Sunny Jim" Rolph, was elected to the first of ten terms. Rolph, along with a new group of city supervisors and the business sector, was committed to reforming the Barbary Coast district. Just before election time in September 1913, William Randolph Hearst's newspaper the Examiner, started a major crusade against the Barbary Coast and in a full page editorial suggested that it "should be wiped out."
Ten days later the Police Commission adopted resolutions that no dancing would be allowed in any establishment of the district which served alcohol, that no women - employees or patrons - would be permitted in any saloon of the district, and that even electric signs would be forbidden. As a result, some drinking establishments fired their female employees and became straight saloons, while others closed their businesses. Some of the larger dance halls moved to other districts and managed to survive for several more years by masquerading as dance academies or closed dance halls, but they never regained their previous popularity. In 1917 the brothels were eventually closed down due to the Red Light Abatement Act, but by that time all the excitement of Terrific Street had long since vanished. Following the Red Light Abatement Act, prostitution zones and prostitutes were forced to outskirt areas such as the Tenderloin and Union Square as shopping centers took over.
When Prohibition was adopted in 1920 and stopped the flow of alcohol to the bars, Terrific Street's block lost much excitement and its dance halls and concert saloons were gradually replaced by offices, hotels, and warehouses. However, after Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and liquor was again available, an attempt was made to revive its entertainment scene. The police commission quashed these efforts when, on February 27, 1934, it announced that no dance permits for the area would be issued. This action followed "the withdrawal by the California state board of equalization of state liquor permits for the district." Protests by women's groups and church organizations influenced these decisions. Still later, during World War II, in an attempt to revitalize the district, it was renamed International Settlement, and a pair of large promotional arched overhead signs, which read, International Settlement, were constructed on either end of that Pacific Street block. In the same way that the post-Barbary Coast establishments of Terrific Street attempted to draw customers and tourists with a reference to the Coast's nefarious past before the earthquake, International Settlement also tried to also draw tourists with a reference to that lost era.
During the latter half of the 20th century, the entertainment scene and dancing would spread one block north to Broadway, which is parallel to Pacific Street. Jazz clubs were everywhere on Broadway during the 1950s and 1960s. Some of Broadway's more famous clubs of that era included Basin Street West, Ann's nightclub, Mr. D's, El Matador, Sugar Hill, Keystone Korner, the hungry i, and the Jazz Workshop.
Mr. D's club, so named because Sammy Davis Jr. was a partial owner, presented performances by Tony Bennett and rhythm and blues legend James Brown. At Ann's nightclub legendary shock comedian Lenny Bruce received his start in standup comedy and created a sensation which drew the attention of journalist Herb Caen and Beat poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Basin Street West started out as a jazz club but later hosted Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner, and Lenny Bruce. The hungry i club was a premier showcase of new talent and presented early performances of comedians Phyllis Diller and Woody Allen, as well as vocalist Barbra Streisand when she was 19 years old. The El Matador club became very popular by booking pricey acts like Oscar Peterson, and its audience occasionally included celebrities such as Clint Eastwood, Frank Sinatra, and Marilyn Monroe. The Jazz Workshop became the premier club to hear jazz during the 1950s and 1960s when legendary musicians like Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, and John Coltrane would perform there. Comedian Lenny Bruce made headlines and would open a national discussion on the First Amendment's freedom of speech rights when he was arrested at the Jazz Workshop for using profanity in his comedy act. When strip clubs started to arrive on Broadway, some local jazz musicians working in the strip clubs would sit in and perform after hours at the jazz clubs. LGBT entertainments of female impersonators also appeared in North Beach at a nightclub called Finocchio's, which opened in 1929. The bar was opened by Joseph Finocchio and was on Stockton Street.
International Settlement's club acts, with their can-can dancers and old-fashioned chorus girls, were unable to compete with the incredible talent and excitement of the emerging Broadway scene, and by the early 1960s their popularity had fallen below a critical level. But despite the brilliance and innovation of Broadway's entertainment scene of the 1950s and 1960s, its live entertainment clubs would also lose their popularity with time. As of the first decade in the 21st century, Broadway had lost its standup comedy clubs and its live music clubs, only to be replaced by cocktail lounges with recorded music. However, some live music clubs still operate in other areas of North Beach.