San Francisco Values: The Real Story

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From Leah Garchik, former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle

I don’t want to dis Hawaii, which I know is part of the USA. But San Francisco is really on the edge of this continent, and from here, if you’re moving west, particularly if you’ve come all the way from the east, there’s no place to go but to jump off the cliff. And that’s what San Franciscans have done for hundreds of years: take flying leaps. They hopped out here for gold in 1849; they’re jumping into driverless cars for fortunes in 2019. This is a place where nuttiness is encouraged; and the nuts often reveal themselves to be geniuses.”

“San Francisco Values” are the three dirtiest words in politics. Conservative commentators from Bill O’Reilly to the blogger next door fling the phrase at political enemies with abandon. “San Francisco Values” has become shorthand for plastering an anti-American label on anyone supporting the secular progressive culture commonly associated with the San Francisco Bay Area. Fear is their subtext: stirring fears that this country will be destroyed by homosexuality and same-sex marriages, hippies and decriminalization of marijuana, anti-war activism, pro-choice politics, and lenient immigration policies. Yet the truth is very different.

In fact, San Franciscans reflects such truly American values as family, individuality, loyalty, patriotism, scientific creativity, diversity, and the use of public policy for the public good. It is when this value is explored, understood, and embraced, rather than mindlessly caricatured, that San Francisco’s vibrant affirmation of our national ethic and posture can be fully appreciated. When these perspectives are affirmed and embraced, rather than feared and shunned, they can help individuals and bring peace to the war of words that divide us.

Let us begin by tracing the evolution of the modern San Francisco Bay Area.

Many visitors reach San Francisco by driving up the magnificent coastal highways from the south that include Highways 101 and 1. These roads essentially trace the route followed by Father Junipero Serra, the five-foot-two-inch-tall Catholic priest who, between 1769 and 1782, founded nine Catholic missions along the Nueva California coast.

Mission San Francisco de Assis, which would eventually be renamed Mission Dolores, was founded by Fr. Serra at the mouth of the Golden Gate, in 1776, contemporaneously with the American Declaration of Independence back east. The Native American Muwekma Ohlone tribe had been resident across the Bay Area at least as far back as the Big Head effigy pendants era, circa 1100 AD, living in the counties now known as in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, as well as in portions of Napa, Santa Cruz, Solano and San Joaquin.

For seventy years, Nueva California continued to be part of the territory owned by Spain, and then part of the Republic of Mexico after that nation declared its independence from Spain in 1810.

The United States Congress voted to annex Texas, which was also part of Mexico, in 1845, and the Mexican-American war erupted in response to that preemptive legislation. As one aspect of that war, Commodore John Sloat claimed Nueva California for the United States in July 1846, and Captain John Montgomery specifically claimed the three existing Golden Gate area settlements of Yerba Buena, the Presidio, and Mission Dolores. A July 9, 1846 name-by-name census document of the three communities collectively identified 290 residents of Mexican and European descent. Including outposts, but not counting the Ohlone, there were fewer than 400 people in the area.

So how did San Francisco become the San Francisco that we know today?

The San Francisco Bay Area entered the twentieth century poised to begin making significant contributions to the future of the nation and the world. The city’s explosive and unbalanced growth incorporated adventurous, self-sufficient and independent-minded people, who made their own rules in an unregulated and ungentrified city, building a society in a deeply-held context of individual rights and choices.

San Francisco burned down six times between 1848 and 1851, well before the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Each time there was a fire, the entire community of Chinese, Mexicans, Chileans, Incas, French, and English, an amalgam that ranged from prostitutes to family members who settled in after the initial gold rush, put aside their differences, came together and rebuilt the city over and over and over again. Working with mutual interests in survival, these diverse communities developed a camaraderie and an appreciation for the others that provided a basis for the city’s legendary embrace of diversity.

There you have it.

Written by

Master researcher, journalist and non-fiction author. My new book, San Francisco Values will be out in June 2020. Connect with me at gerispieler.com

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