I had planned to reenact one of my favorite weekend pass-times in Berkeley, which is to stroll Telegraph Avenue, peaking into shops, admiring the dreds and piercings of the rail hoppers, envying the stylish eyewear of the professors, eavesdropping on the students gossiping evenly between Christopher Marlowe and whose sleeping with whom, before getting a book at Moe's books and then crossing the street to read it at Caffe Mediterraneum.
But in January Telegraph isn't as interesting as it becomes in summer, so I did the reverse and started at the cafe. In the upper floor, at the book exchange, I found exactly the book I had meant to purchase at Moe's, but better, because the copy I found was free, hardcover, and signed on the front page "Joe Greco Jr, February 23, 1948." The book in question is The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury.
My books have yet to arrive from New York, and I still haven't finished that book, the Skid Road, by Murray Morgan, a history of Seattle's first 150 years. However, I also don't have it with me, so I wouldn't be finishing it anyway.
But now in Berkeley and working in San Francisco, I thought I would read some of another historian. What Murray Morgan did for the Northwest with the Skid Road and the Last Wilderness (amazingly good books, both of them), Herbert Asbury did for San Francisco with the Barbary Coast.
Most famous for his book Gangs of New York, Asbury directed his attention to the seedy underside of San Francisco. Although he wrote during the first few decades of the 20th century, he was keenly interested in the time period from roughly 1830 to 1890, which is to say the time of greatest migration and displacement for all peoples of what is now the US.
Here is the beginning:
"The history of the Barbary Coast properly begins with the gold rush to California in 1849. If the precious yellow metal hadn't been discovered in the auriferous sands of the Sacramento Valley, the development of San Francisco's underworld in all likelihood would have proceeded according to the traditional pattern and would have been indistinguishable from that of any other large American city. Instead, owing almost entirely to the influx of gold-seekers and the horde of gamblers, thieves, harlots, politicians and other felonious parasites who battened upon them, there arose a unique criminal district that for almost seventy years was the scene of more viciousness and depravity, but which at the same time possessed more glamour, than any other area of vice and iniquity on the American continent."
I haven't read as good a beginning to a book since "Call me Ishmael."