Melanie Spiller's Reviews > The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld

The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury
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bookshelves: san-francisco-history

This book was published in 1933, not all that long after the Barbary Coast was shut down and modern San Francisco took its shape. In that regard, it's clearly drawn from the writer's own experiences as well as some research.

I enjoyed the sense of the time that I got, going back to 1848 and as far forward as the 1920s. The book is light on contextual history, heavy on politics and prostitution. I needed a map, so I printed one from GoogleMaps, and taped it to the inside cover. I live in SF, but even so, all the street name-dropping, especially in the first quarter of the book, made me get lost. Someone less familiar with SF would have an even harder time of it.

At least a half of the book discusses prostitution, which seems out of proportion somehow. It was clearly a huge way of making money in the region, but I wished for more about legitimate businesses (restaurants, rooming houses, grocery stores, etc.) and perhaps a bit more about the other illegal activities. Mugging is barely covered, and shanghaiing gets only a dozen pages or so. There was a LOT of money in the area (people were making as much as $50,000 a year in mining and mining-related industries in the 1850s and 60s), and I would have liked more about those industrious souls. The upstanding citizens of SF are discussed in their prurient interest in the bawdy houses, and a kind of tourism industry took advantage of their interest. Otherwise, how the rest of the city was affected by the Barbary Coast wasn't mentioned.

Also, very little was discussed about the earthquake and fire of 1906, which, for those of us living in SF, provided a "before and after" structure to the city. Asbury focuses on who was mayor and whether that mayor was part of the prostitution problem or not, rather than taking a larger view.

I've only just begun researching the area and the time period, so perhaps some of my criticisms are because the information I wanted wasn't important to this author. In general, I enjoyed the book. The writer's style was pleasant, he didn't sound lascivious even though he devotes so much attention to the bawdier side of the Barbary Coast, and I did get a strong sense of which politicians were trying to make SF a better place and which were trying to get rich off the efforts of others.

I would recommend this book, even though I gave it a lowish rating.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
October 20, 2014 – Finished Reading
October 27, 2014 – Shelved
October 27, 2014 – Shelved as: san-francisco-history

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