Andrea J Larson: San Francisco - Gate to Gold and Gangsters

One of the most beloved cities in the United States, San Francisco still lures travellers from around the world with its iconic row house charm, steep hills and trolley rides, and most of all its historic reputation as the golden destination for Western Frontiers.

Only the truest of adventurers or the lowliest of creatures, it seems, would have taken on the treacherous westward journey to pursue unlikely riches. But the magnetic charm of San Francisco defies such logic. Unlike success stories from the East Coast, based on hard labor and steadfast persistence, San Francisco’s tales of fortune allow for second chances and a portion of luck along the way. Here, they not only want money, they want freedom, too. If New York embodied the classic American Dream, San Francisco offered the Dream with extras.

To this day, the symbol most associated with the westward journey of fortune seekers is the Golden Gate Bridge. Built between 1933 and 1937, the red steel beams and cords still suspend dramatically over the narrow passageway between the Bay and the Pacific Ocean. While its name is frequently linked to the gold rush era, it first came into existence prior to any gold findings in California. In 1846, US Army Captain John C. Fremont had referred to the narrow waters as the “golden gate to trade with the Orient.” Little did he know, that just two years later, not bespoke trade, but native nuggets of actual gold would change the country’s course of history.

On a sunny day, the view from the bridge is spectacular: on one side, wide open waters face the Pacific Ocean, with numerous sailboats floating away from metropolitan civilization. On the other, the blue-hued panorama of this zealous city: a measured mix of glossy high rises and historic row houses, the Port, Fisherman’s Warf, the Embarcadero in the distance.

Frequently, though, the view off the bridge is not quite this bright: looking out into the stiff, muggy San Francisco fog, the infamous and ominous Alcatraz sits firmly on its rocky island in the middle of the Bay. One cannot escape it – quite literally, indeed.

While San Francisco may represent the American Dream of the West, “the Rock” serves as a steady reminder that golden dreams don’t come true for all who pursue it.

Row after row of iron rods and rails, of rusty showers and too-tiny square cells surely deflated the dreams of even the most notorious gangster over time. Al Capone , Alvin Karpis (“Public Enemy #1), and George “Machine-Gun” Kelly would have listened to cries and commands, echoing deeply back and forth from chipped walls. Yet, it must have been the image of the San Francisco skyline behind barred dining room windows, which reminded inmates so glaringly of the of thin line between freedom and captivity. Looking over the frigid, salty waters of the Bay, freedom seemed so close and yet beyond reach. This realization was possibly one of the cruelest elements of the notorious Alcatraz experience. Not all handled it well. Not all survived.

Alcatraz, the Island of the Pelicans, as it is known in Spanish, was more than a desolate place filled with the lowlifes of society, though. The windy island provided a home to the wardens’ families: singing children played besides prison walls, caring housewives cooked comfort foods for hungry husbands after long, arduous shifts in Block C. A cookbook filled with family favorites documents this parallel reality on “the Rock” - a prison to some and home to others.

San Francisco, one may argue, combines these opposing qualities as well. John Steinbeck referred to the city as “a golden handcuff with the key thrown away”: it captures its residents fully, beautifully, possibly forever. It embodies the fine line between success and failure, between dreams and reality, between freedom and imprisonment. To this day, the spectacular stories about start-up wealth in the Bay area far outweigh the tight-budget lives of most, who are still waiting for the next stock offering and business opportunity to get in on. Nothing much has changed, it seems, in San Francisco. The American Dream of the West is alive and kicking in this alluring town, where – as Joe Flower so fittingly noted - “Freedom sips Cappuccino in a sidewalk café."