The history of San Francisco’s Financial District – Barbary Coast neighborhood goes back over a century and a half to the days of the Gold Rush, when people from all over the world arrived here in the hopes to make their fortunes.
Under Spanish and Mexican rule, the area was the site of a harbor named Yerba Buena Cove (until 1847 San Francisco itself was referred to as “Yerba Buena”). Following the discovery of gold, Yerba Buena’s location on the natural harbor of San Francisco Bay was a magnet for anchorage of the ships bearing the Argonauts, with many ships being abandoned here and later used as part of the landfill for the growing city.
Today, Financial District serves as the main central business district of San Francisco and is home to the city’s largest concentration of corporate headquarters, insurance companies, banks and other financial and related institutions. Montgomery Street, sometimes referred to as the “Wall Street of the West”, is the heart of this neighborhood. Most of the city's tallest buildings, including 555 California Street and the Transamerica Pyramid are located here. Residential real estate in this neighborhood is among the most expensive in San Francisco.
Financial District houses many of San Francisco’s top restaurants but is relatively quiet at night and on the weekends. Adjacent to “FiDi” as it is occasionally referred to are the Union Square Shopping district, Chinatown, North Beach, Jackson Square, Embarcadero Waterfront and the South of Market (“SoMa”) districts, all of which are worth visiting, especially given the walkability of this area.
A story of this neighborhood will not be complete without a mention of the renowned Barbary Coast, a roughly nine block area centered on a three block stretch of Pacific Avenue, between Montgomery and Stockton Streets (today, its former location is overlapped by Chinatown, North Beach, and Jackson Square). During the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries Barbary Coast was famous for its dance halls, concert saloons, bars, jazz clubs, and brothels. California Gold Rush of 1849 gave birth to Pacific Avenue (then known as Pacific Street), when it became the first street to cut though the hills of San Francisco starting near the City’s heart – Portsmouth Square, and continuing east to the first shipping docks at Buena Vista Cove. During and following the Gold Rush, the Barbary Coast became a wild area representative of the Old West, and had many problems with political corruption, gambling, crime, and violence.
The area’s name was coined by the sailors the 1860s. The term “Barbary Coast” was borrowed from the Barbary Coast of North Africa where local pirates and slave traders raided nearby coastal towns and vessels and which housed the same kind of predatory dives targeting sailors that San Francisco’s Barbary Coast later became known for. San Francisco’s waterfront became one of the world’s epicenters of the so-called “shanghaiing” – a practice of coercing men to work aboard ship on voyages that took years, such as the one to Shanghai. At the time, life of a merchant seaman was often brutal and the pay was bad, hence the manpower tended to be in short supply. In the classic shanghaiing, cunning men known as “crimps” would lead their victims to a bar or a boarding house, where they would get them drunk and/or drug them. When the victim woke up, he would find himself aboard a ship destined for a long voyage and years of hard work.
Most of the Financial District – Barbary Coast’s buildings were destroyed as a result of the 1906 earthquake and fire and the city saw this as an opportunity to clean up the area. The Barbary Coast subsequently became known as “Terrific Street”, the term first used by the district’s musicians in describing the quality of the local music, including some of the first jazz clubs in the city. However, the enactment of the Red Light Abatement Act of 1917 as well as the Prohibition largely contributed to the vanishing of the excitement in the area. During World War II, in an attempt to revitalize the neighborhood, it was renamed “International Settlement” which attempted to draw tourists by appealing to the neighborhood’s nefarious past. During the latter half of the 20th century, the entertainment and dancing scenes migrated to the nearby Broadway Street, which housed many famous jazz and comedy clubs. Despite the brilliance of Broadway’s entertainment scene of the 1950s and 1960s, it also lost its popularity and by the first decade of the 21st century the area’s famous standup comedy and live music clubs were mostly replaced by cocktail lounges with recorded music (some live music clubs do operate in the nearby North Beach).
Aside from the Barbary Coast, there are a few other notable existing historic sites in the nearby areas include the Ferry Building at Embarcadero, one of San Francisco’s oldest and most notable landmarks which now houses a myriad of gourmet shops and restaurants, grand buildings of Market Street or Jackson Square with its almost miraculously preserved buildings from 1850s and 1860s, making it one of the very few areas in the neighborhood to survive the 1906 disaster. For those intrigued by the city’s dangerous past, taking a Barbary Coast Trail walking tour (http://www.barbarycoasttrail.org/) or having a drink at a saloon previously infamous for shanghaiing, such as the Old Ship Saloon (298 Pacific Street; it was constructed out of the ship called Arkansas which ran ashore on Alcatraz island in 1849), may be of interest.
This neighborhood has an impressive average Walk score of 100 and average Transit score of 100.
The below link provides further details on this area’s attractions: http://wikitravel.org/en/San_Francisco/Union_Square-Financial_District
The content displayed above was partially derived from a book by Rand Richards “Historic Walks in San Francisco. 18 Trails Through the City’s Past” as well as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbary_Coast,_San_Francisco; http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Waterfront-spot-where-the-drinks-had-a-brutal-4969060.php.