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

The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury
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it was amazing

There was a time when San Francisco was called "the wickedest, most corrupt and godless city on the face of the Earth—even more wicked than Marseilles or Port Said." This classic study shows you why. Following up on "The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld," which Asbury had written five years earlier (still to come were "French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld" (1936) and "Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld" (1940)), it traces the bawdier side of life in the City by the Bay from its roots when "the world rushed in" in 1849; around the early '50's a flood of ruffianly veterans of the frontier towns of Australia, joined by escaped convicts and ticket-of-leave men from New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, began to arrive, and the more enterprising spirits among them took over the flimsy frame and brick building of the old Chilean neighborhood and began opening lodging houses, dance halls, groggeries, and taverns there. After describing the character (or lack thereof) and crimes of the "Hounds" and "Sydney Ducks," whose activities led to the founding of the Committee of Vigilance in 1851, as well as the political corruption in which these groups flourished, and the "Second Cleansing" of 1856 as inspired by the shooting of James King of William, Asbury goes on to show how the Coast "settled" into its best-known and most modern incarnation, including the semi-legitimate businesses (auction houses, secondhand-clothing shops) that flourished there, the reluctance of the police to intervene in its affairs, and many of the most prominent criminal characters who called the district their home. Some of the Coast's "traps" weren't too bad, especially by modern standards, and Asbury introduces us to the best of them, the famous concert saloon known as the Bella Union, which was one of the goals of the earliest "slummers," and one of whose advertising sheets, dated 1862, ballyhooed "a constantly varied and and dance...grace and beauty...eccentricity...laughter for millions...dramatic, terpsichorean and musical talent..." Then he explores the vices of Chinatown, where bordellos and cribs staffed by Chinese slave girls (which they literally were) and opium dens abounded, even though this wasn't strictly a part of the Coast, and provides a look at the how and why of the infamous practice of shanghaiing, the various types of (mostly non-Chinese) prostitution, the effect of the Fire of 1906, and the decline of the district as San Francisco grew up and tried to forget how it had begun.

Some of what you'll find in these pages may shock you (though none of it is terribly graphic; the book was, after all, written in 1933), and judging by what I've been able to discover in most of a lifetime researching the social history of the 19th Century, San Francisco customs shouldn't be taken as being followed in the smaller towns and villages that dominated the country till well into the 20th. The chief fault of the book is that it doesn't always clarify when certain things happened or certain people and resorts were a part of the picture; if you're reading it for factual background, as I was, you'll find you have to go online and do some backup searching to get a clear idea of chronology. On the other hand, it shows as few other books do just how corrupt the city's government was for nearly 60 years, and why. It's a superior example of what it is, and a necessary read for those who wonder just how bad the biggest cities of the US were in their early years.

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Reading Progress

April 24, 2016 – Started Reading
April 25, 2016 – Finished Reading
April 26, 2016 – Shelved

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