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. Another popular source of entertainment in the Barbary Coast were female impersonators. 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 entertainment available in this district catered to single men and there was a substantial presence of homosexual prostitution, performances that featured cross-dressing and other forms of gender-transgressive behavior.
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 reincarnations 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.
"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 reincarnation of Pacific Street would be gentrified and tame compared to the lawless pre-earthquake version of the Barbary Coast.
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. 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.
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.
After the start of the Gold Rush in 1849, the visibility of the LGBT culture grew rapidly in the red-light district's entertainment business of San Francisco. Honky-tonk saloons of the Gold Rush developed into dance halls and bawdy houses that provided a space for gay men to satisfy their sexual desires in the same way their non-gay brethren did with women, but instead enjoying the company of other men. On the vaudeville stage, female impersonators reinforced the language and gestures of the emerging queer culture through glamorous song and dance routines. After the turn of the century, San Francisco became 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's reputation soon became known as "the gayest, lightest-hearted, most pleasure-loving city on the Western continent."
"While most of San Francisco's reputable citizens publicly bemoaned the inequities of the Barbary Coast and performed lip-service to the many campaigns designed to eliminate its more objectionable features, secretly they were, for the most part, enormously proud of their city's reputation as the Paris of America and the wickedest town of the continent." --Herbert Asbury, Barbary Coast 1933
Between the 1890s and 1960s, the emergence of a publicly visible transgender and gay male culture rooted in the sexually transgressive entertainments of the Barbary Coast. Specifically, these entertainments included performances by female impersonators who would entertain the tourist and local audiences with their flamboyant singing and dancing.Femininity, itself, became a very significant part of a female impersonator's performance. Costumes, make-up, hair styles, corsets, etc., make key components of an impersonator's image. The success of a female impersonator's popularity not only depended on these physical accents, but heavily on the ability in staying within the confines of "acceptable behavior." A lot of cross-dressers and drag queens (along with most non-heterosexual men of the time) would deny personal ties to the homosexual, queer community in order to be fully welcomed and accepted by society.Burlesque and Vaudeville theater became a safe haven for a lot of transgender performers to go to avoid public scrutiny and stigmatization.
Moving from a tourist-based queer culture to more of a bar-based community, The Black Cat bar specifically received much recognition for its creation of a protected, safe place for gay patrons.Jose Sarria, a drag entertainer at The Black Cat, staged satirical operas that would collect a crowd of more than three-hundred people. Audiences enjoyed watching him because his performances were spontaneous. They included outrageous female attire, political commentary, and gay humor, which inherently created a cultural pride between the bar-based gay and transgender community.
"There must be sustained action by the police and the district attorney to stop the influx of homosexuals. Too many taverns cater to them openly. Only police action can drive them out of the city. It is to be hoped that the courts here will finally recognize this problem for what it is and before the situation so deteriorates that San Francisco finds itself as the complete haven for undesirables. The courts heretofore have failed to support the arresting and prosecuting authorities. Without the support of the courts, the police and the district attorney cannot attack the problem effectively." --San Francisco Examiner, 1954
Between the year of 1863 and the end of World War I, a total of 45 cities in the U.S. passed "good morals and decency" laws which targeted transgender practices that were believed to be indecent during the time.Cross-dressing was the primary target for the criminalization of indecent practices. The term "cross-dressing" can be defined as wearing the apparel of the other sex. Police officials made hundreds of arrests for a wide variety of people including feminist dress reformers, impersonators/entertainers, and any individual whose gender identification did not match their biological sex. The legislation of this law marked a new approach in policing gender transgressions and establishing the boundaries of normative gender. This led many cross-dressers of the LGBT community to be removed from public spaces entirely, such as bars, saloons, coffee shops, etc. In 1867, the Board of Supervisors passed another law named, "To Prohibit Street Begging, and to Restrain Certain Persons from Appearing in Streets and Public Places." It prohibited the public presence and appearance of anyone who was "diseased, maimed, mutilated," or an otherwise "unsightly or disgusting object. While officials policed the problem-looking bodies and unsightly figures of San Francisco's streets, they gradually sought to manage public nuisances through the regulation of city space.
Many gay men and lesbians took the first steps into constructing a political movement of their own. In the 1950s, a group of male homosexuals created a group called, The Mattachine Society in Los Angeles. Their mission was to first create an analysis of homosexuals as an oppressed minority, then start to build a large movement of the homosexual community working towards full sovereignty. As the group became larger, the branch moved itself to San Francisco and started its own newspaper called, Mattachine Review. In San Francisco, they began educating professionals-doctors, lawyers, teachers-who heavily influenced public opinion. In teaching homosexuality as an issue of prejudice and discrimination, they hoped to change anti-gay attitudes on a global scale.
Queer activities, such as same-sex Prostitution and entertainments that featured female impersonators, existed in bars and other establishments in the Barbary Coast. The Dash, at the site of the former largest dance hall in the Barbary Coast called the Seattle Saloon and Dance Hall until it closed in 1908, catered to gay men living in San Francisco. The Dash opened in 1908 and was the Barbary Coast's first know homoerotic dance hall. The Dash employed female impersonators and one could purchase homosexual sex in booths featured in the establish for a dollar.
Another bar to employ female impersonators in the Barbary Coast was Finocchio's, which opened in 1929. The bar was opened by Joseph Finocchio and was on Stockton Street. The bar was seen as the symbol of gay life for 10 years, being a well-known place for gay men to socialize together. Finocchio's employed female impersonators that would eventually gain fame, such as Ray Bourbon.
After World War II, the gradual disappearance of "obscenity" laws, and the profitability of sexual entertainment brought upon a unique type of explicitness and public sexuality to North Beach, San Francisco. Compared to the early sex-district and it's popularity of brothels, the post-war district featured services such as fly-by-night apartment operations, streetwalking, and call-girl businesses. Although these prostitution acts became a main target for opponents of commercial sex, its diversification made it quite difficult for prosecution. For example, California Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that toplessness and crude dancing, historically comparable to the "lewd and dissolute" acts of prostitution, was considered not obscene and not necessarily illegal.
Live entertainment and photographic/motion pictures were the primary outlets in which promoted the post-war sex district's explicitness. In the late 1960s-70s, hard-core pornographic magazines, like Playboy, were displayed in store front windows in order to "captivate" the pedestrian as he or she walked by. In fact, after the war, pornographic distribution became a very profitable market due to the liberalization of obscenity laws. Statistically, 1970 sales were found to exceed $5 million from adult bookstores in San Francisco and $51 to $64 million globally. Although pornography established itself as a key player in San Francisco's economy, it received much backlash by the feminist population. Dianne Feinstein, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, proved to be the most powerful opponent of San Francisco's postwar sex district. In 1973, she lobbied for the ban of all signs and/or pictures that displayed sexual acts and body parts. This successfully diminished the public nature of sexual spectatorship that has been long lived within the North Beach community. Even though she didn't identify herself as a feminist, she received a lot of support from feminists in the bay area, and many associated with Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM). Starting in 1976, Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) staged many pickets in North Beach. One of the more memorable ones was called the "Take Back the Night March on November 18, 1978 which held over 5,000 women protesting against a female's bodily objectification in pornography. According to one reporter, Broadway street belonged to the women on San Francisco for a solid thirty minutes.