Charles Fracchia is passionate about San Francisco's history. A lifelong resident of the city, he's published three books about it, including his latest, When the Water Came Up to Montgomery Street: San Francisco During the Gold Rush. He's also the founder and president emeritus of the SF Historical Society, and was one of the founders of Rolling Stone magazine. In his new book, the first ever to focus entirely on how the Gold Rush impacted SF, he theorizes that San Francisco's "instant city" development during the gold craze may be responsible for its culture of tolerance and inclusiveness today.
"San Francisco is the only city in the United States that, at its moment of conception, was inhabited simulaneously by people from every part of the country and every part of the world," Fracchia noted in an interview. "You had this mass of people unmoored from their homes and traditional surroundings, who came here and created a very different society. Most people in the 19th century never traveled more than 50 miles from the place where they were born, so there was no knowledge of people from other countries. Suddenly, you're in an area where there are people from China, Malaysia, France, Italy, Germany, Latin America, you name it. My theory is that out of this crucible, there developed an infrastructure where there was this benign attitude towards people from other cultures, economic groups and races. I don't want to say it was nirvana...but people growing up in New York, Boston and Chicago experienced a kind of warfare in their neighborhoods between various ethnic groups that didn't really take place here in San Francisco."
For those who want to get a taste of what the city looked like during the Gold Rush, Fracchia recommends a walk around Jackson Square, "between the Transamerica pyramid and Broadway, and between Montgomery and Battery," where many of the Gold Rush-era commercial buildings managed to escape the 1906 earthquake. "Jackson Street between Montgomery and Sansome is particularly spectacular in terms of having those early buildings." Fracchia also likes the Mission District: "Since it wasn't destroyed in 1906, there's a tremendous amount of housing stock there from the Victorian period. When I bring people on walking tours, a lot of them say, 'I never realized this was here.'"
Having spent his entire life in San Francisco, we were curious what Fracchia thought about the way the city has grown over the years. "That's a terrible question to ask an old coot like myself," he jokes. "Nothing ever changes for the better when you get older." When pressed, however, he admitted some disappointment with SF's direction. "There was really a life to the neighborhoods, and people all knew each other...I find that we've all become atoms, living very private, secluded lives. I also think the city has become more fractious, with much more infighting."
Despite his reservations, Fracchia is still passionate about San Francisco: he wants to write a sequel to Water, about San Francisco's Silver Age, and is also peddling his first novel, set in the city. "It's enough to keep me occupied for a while," he says, laughing.
Charles Fracchia will discuss When the Water Came Up to Montgomery Street tonight, Tuesday, January 26, at 6:30 pm, at the Mechanic's Institute Library, 57 Post St., Financial District. Tickets are $12. More information can be found here.