I recently went on a free City Guide Walk called: "San Francisco, Paris of the Pacific". The walk was conducted by the delightful Gilles - also a private tour guide in French, check out his website here.
Well, you can imagine my state of mind! Here was finally the missing link between my hometown and adoptive city. Here was proof that my coming to San Francisco made sense in the grand scheme of things (imagine dramatic music here... probably by Howard Shore).
The walk focused on the period running from 1849 to 1853. During this time, 3 waves of French people undertook the grueling 6-month journey to San Francisco and achieved the popularity that coined the term "Paris of the Pacific".
So to what extent does that influence still hold true today? Can San Francisco still be considered the "Paris of the Pacific"?
Let's first consider the population and language.
At the highest point in the 1852-53, there were 8,000 French people living in SF, compared to around 30,000 today while the overall population has been multiplied by 20 over the same period. However, even though the population did not grow proportionally, it is uncanny how I tend to hear French speakers everywhere I go in SF and French institutions, groups and libraries abound in the city*. In the 1850', the French people were called "Kesskeediz" (Whats-he-sayin') because of their patent unwillingness to learn English. Well, that statement certainly does seem to hold true today! Although, now I wonder if this is not intentionnaly done to capitalize on the appeal of the French accent...
Second, let's look at the business side,
I was surprised to learn that far from the rugged adventurers I had imagined, the initial French settlers were actually bourgeois Parisians, disillusioned Republicans, Bonapartists, journalists, aristocrats... who were the only ones to be able to affoard the steep boat fee of 1000 Francs (roughly $3000 today but probably 10-20 times that in actual purchasing power). When these elegant "Messieurs" set foot in San Francisco (fashionably late of course... 18 months after gold was first discovered) they decided that they would rather set up shop in the city itself and recreate a home away from home. Apparently, if you walked around Commercial Street in 1853, with its wine shops, bakers, butchers, dressmakers, laundries, theaters and gambling houses it was easy to imagine yourself on it's Paris namesake. Now, I must say that even though there are some streets and shopfronts that openly lay claim to their roots - cafe Plouf and cafe Bastille in Belden place for example or the innumerable bakeries like Thorough bread and Pastry, Tartine, Boudin - the majority of French businesses are much less visible today, having removed themselves to that elevated and ethereal place known as "the cloud".
Finally, my review would not be complete without a look at the San Francisco mentality,
Probably the most lasting influence of French people in SF is the "art de vivre" that you find here, the love of culture, good food and drink. A French bon vivant called Louis Alfred Pioche was apparently so appalled at the culinary situation of SF in the 1850' that he brought back chefs from Paris to shape up the local hotel and restaurants scene. Nowadays, I find it telling that SF is rated number 1 for alcohol and book consumption in a study by the Bureau of Labor statistics (as seen on sfgate.com). I am constantly amazed at the daily cultural offering here (see a list of museums with Free entry dates here). One could also argue that the city's love of demonstrations bears a great resemblance to the French spirit of protest. The only area where French influence seems to have (somewhat) abated is in fashion as the inhabitants of SF have surrendered to the more practical constraints of winds, hills and yoga mats.
All in all I think that San Francisco can still be called the Paris of the Pacific. Actually France of the Pacific would probably do more justice to the diversity of the population today but I will pay hommage to my Paris snobbery here and just assume that "Paris, c'est la France"!
Further information and resources about the French in SF:
- I highly recommend taking Gilles entertaining tour to learn more about the colorful French characters of Gold rush SF. See next available dates.
- French consulate website
- Alliance Francaise de San Francisco
- An interesting report about the presence of the French in the tech industry.
- Books that I am reading on the subject:
Now it's your turn!
Have you noticed other traces of the French influence in SF I have missed out? Or similar traces in other foreign countries? Let me know in the comment field below!