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Mike's Political Walking Tour of Old San Francisco

Wednesday, Jun 14 2000
You may have seen the bronze, compasslike Barbary Coast Trail plaques embedded in sidewalks around the city. Each shows a clipper ship, some old buildings, and a smiling hatted miner holding a pan of gold. Along with a book by Daniel Bacon, the trail's organizer, these plaques lead you along a historical tour of San Francisco's first boomtown era, when women leaned half-naked out of whorehouses on Maiden Lane and Chinese tongs fought turf battles on Waverly Place with hatchets. It's colorful and easy to follow. It's also the dominant local bully of San Francisco walking tours.

Another tour, the Gold Rush Trail, exists on the Web, and by now its organizers might have painted a 4-inch-wide yellow line along the city's sidewalks if the Board of Supervisors' Transportation and Land Use Committee had granted permission. But because the trails overlap -- for about eight blocks -- Daniel Bacon and the San Francisco Historical Society (which backs the Barbary Coast Trail) raised a stink last October, and argued in front of Transportation and Land Use to disallow the line.

The committee listened, and political winds on the Board of Supervisors shifted against the Gold Rush Trail. The two groups went into arbitration, but deadlocked. So now the Gold Rush organizers have decided to lay off the fight for the yellow line until the winds shift again.

Now, both trails are organized by private nonprofit groups, but the Gold Rush project has been cursed with ill luck. According to founder Bob Burger, work on Gold Rush started before Barbary Coast; in fact the Gold Rush organizers wanted to paint their yellow stripe two years ago, in time for the Gold Rush sesquicentennial in 1998. But fund-raising problems and bureaucracy got in the way. (The Department of Public Works, for example, asked for a "geo-satellite positioning" map of the whole stripe, which cost $12,000 and took a lot of time. "The geo-satellite positioning is to turn up every tree, every fireplug that's on the sidewalk on the entire route," says Burger, "to show that our line is not gonna encroach on any existing thing.")

Barbara Kaufman sponsored legislation at the Board of Supervisors to establish the Barbary Coast Trail, and thinks there's no room for a competing tour. "To have these other folks come along and say they wanna paint the sidewalk with a line, and do very much the same thing [as Barbary Coast], seemed totally redundant. We already have one trail, why would we have a competing trail? It seems silly."

But why not two trails? The city has more than two already. Along the Embarcadero is something called the Embarcadero Trail, marked with pylons and plaques, and from Union Square on weekends you can also take the so-called Henry George School guided tour, which overlaps both Gold Rush and Barbary Coast so shamelessly it would kill Barbara Kaufman with an aneurysm if anyone tried to mark it (which no one is likely to do). So those of us here at the Weekly who resent autocratic attitudes on the Board of Supervisors have devised a tour of our own, which readers are invited to follow, free of charge, in case a) they want to comprehend this issue, or b) they like cable cars.

1) Barbara Kaufman's Barbary Coast plaque. The Barbary Coast Trail was paid for in part by selling the bronze sidewalk plaques to sponsors. Each plaque is discreetly labeled with the sponsor's name, and Barbara Kaufman's plaque is, or should be, at Post and Grant. (Bacon says it has been temporarily removed for street work.) A plaque runs $1,846 -- a symbolic number, commemorating the year 1846 -- and people and corporations ranging from Microsoft to the Chronicle to other local politicians have thrown money behind the project. Bacon uses his 150-odd sponsors as a reason to oppose the other trail.

"We were just really concerned that [the Gold Rush Trail] was going to adversely impact the message and the success of the Barbary Coast Trail," Bacon says. "It's been a big effort. Everybody from Carlos Santana to Wells Fargo to, you know, a couple little tiny companies you've never even heard of -- actually a couple of unions, too. So it's been a really great grass-roots effort to create the trail."

I called Carlos Santana's agent to learn whether the guitarist really objected to the idea of two competing walking tours.

"Um, Carlos is in Europe. So unless you can wait till about the middle of June, I don't think I'll be able to help you," said Susan Stewart of Jensen Communications.

"You're saying he doesn't feel passionately about this issue?"

"I could only get a couple of sentences from him when Tito Puente died."

OK, whatever. It's no surprise, though, that Kaufman bought a Barbary Coast plaque, because she adopted the trail as a pet project in 1996. "I walked the Freedom Trail in Boston almost 20 years ago," she says, "and I thought, 'Why don't we have one of those in S.F.?'" So Kaufman's close involvement may explain her rancor toward the yellow stripe.

Gold Rush Trail founder Bob Burger has another theory. "As you may know, Barbara Kaufman and Tom Ammiano are at each other's throats all the time," he says. "And the problem is that we got Tom Ammiano to be our sponsor, way back, and we assumed that you got voted up or down on the merits of the issue. We didn't realize that there are vendettas that go back years among these people."

2) Cable Car turnaround!

3) Where is the Barbary Coast? This infamous section of old San Francisco is now a genteel, tree-shaded row of brick office buildings and ultra-modern furniture showrooms on Pacific Avenue. Architects, lawyers, publicists, and obscure firms with "International" in their titles inhabit what used to be saloons, whorehouses, and early strip joints. Especially notable is the Hippodrome, with its old-fashioned trashy lighting and naked-lady sculptures by the door. Both trails mention the building. Who works in it now? "SMED International."

Striptease? Nope. Furniture sales.

4) Cable Car turnaround!

5) The heart of the matter: Jackson Square to Portsmouth Square, via Commercial Street. Friction between Gold Rush and Barbary Coast arises from this six-block route in downtown San Francisco. Except for a couple of blocks on Columbus, these streets amount to the only significant overlap between the trails. When Dan Bacon and Barbara Kaufman insist that Gold Rush overlaps Barbary Coast with "one-third" (Bacon) to "two-thirds" (Kaufman) of its total length, they're including the length on Columbus where the trails crisscross, and stretching the total with their eyes. (See map.)

"Running a trail someplace else is fine," says Kaufman. "If you wanna do a totally different topic in a different direction, go for it." But two similarly themed tours in the same part of the city is a no-no.

6) Cable Car turnaround!

7) The Clarion Music Center. Everyone involved admits this debate is petty, hardly worth discussing, but everyone -- Kaufman in particular -- also seems prone to odd squalls of bitterness over it. Each side accuses the other of having a commercial interest in its trail. Burger points to Bacon's Barbary Coast book; Bacon says he's earned no profit from the book, and accuses Burger of trying to drum up foot traffic for certain local businesses.

"They had this harebrained scheme," says Bacon, meaning the Gold Rush organizers. "They wanted to put these little kiosks everywhere, sort of little computer kiosks that were actually gonna be hand-cranked to create the energy for it, if you can believe that. You hand-crank this computer kiosk, and then you'd go in -- this was the sort of commercial aspect, they would be putting these in all sorts of businesses, so they would draw people in. And that was how you were gonna get the content, was by going into these businesses, and winding these things up."

The windup cabinets involve some framed old pictures, a crank, and four buttons. You press a button to hear a recording explain why certain nearby sites are historical. The machines use silicon sound chips and batteries charged with old-fashioned "windup radio" technology. It's actually a cool idea. They would be activated by keys, which would cost $10. And, according to Burger, the contraptions would sit in vaguely appropriate places, such as the Pacific Heritage Museum or the Palace Hotel, which tend to get tourist foot-traffic.

So our last stop on our tour is the Clarion Music Center, at the corner of Clay and Waverly Place, which you'll notice from the map is right smack on the Barbary Coast Trail. Dan Bacon's book recommends stopping in. "This delightful music store carries an exotic array of musical instruments from every continent except Antarctica," it says, and lists some genuinely fascinating items available inside: Tibetan singing bowls, Indonesian ox bells, Burmese gongs, didgeridoos, etc. What it doesn't list, although you'll find it on a shelf near the sitars, is the Barbary Coast Trail book, retailing for $13.95.

Michael Scott Moore ( can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107.


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