Today, the great city of San Francisco is beset with crime, homelessness, addiction, and violence. Despite the high taxes and housing costs they pay, San Francisco residents and businesses find that corrupt city officials ignore even their most basic requests to keep the streets clean and safe, to enforce the law, and to prosecute serious crimes. The ongoing exodus of people and businesses suggests people are giving up on the city.
San Francisco has been down and out before and managed to come back and do incredible things. The earthquake, of course. But another episode in the 1910s is a closer parallel with more murky circumstances.
San Francisco was one of the last American cities to have an authorized red-light district. When people talk about the old Barbary Coast, it conjures images of the Old Hippodrome and cheerful dance halls but the problem was outside in the shadowy corners, where a harsh underworld of prostitution, human trafficking (white slavery), opium, and violent crime existed.
The criminality was no respecter of persons. It victimized the poor and the rich alike. There were tragic stories of respectable girls being drugged and taken to the red light district to work. There were sons who were lured into what was euphemistically called the “night life,” but in reality was a world of crime and addiction.
Residents watched with alarm as conditions that had been unthinkable a year or two before were accepted as the new normal. And with each passing season, the city streets grew more dangerous.
The churches complained. The newspapers raged. Prominent citizens made demands. The people appealed to their elected officials. And nothing was done.
By 1917, San Francisco was fed up.
Strangely enough, it fell to a Protestant minister to rally the city.
Reverend Paul Smith who was led Central Methodist Episcopal at O’Farrell and Leavenworth streets, found himself at the center of the controversy. He had seen, with growing fury, that the city was turning into a slum. One Sunday morning after services, he watched as the young men leaving his church were waylaid by prostitutes.
“San Francisco must face the truth about itself,” Rev. Smith seethed in a letter published by the San Francisco Examiner. “With tremendous civic pride, justifiable because of its marvelous achievements, it has hushed all criticism and is livIng in a golden glow of self-satisfaction. The time has come for decent people to make themselves felt as they have in other large cities of the country. The city is losing population because it is dominated by saloon interests and those who control vice.”
This mention of “those who control vice” was the first hint of the leverage Smith possessed. Apparently it was too subtle for Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph. When Smith pleaded with him to take action and said, “San Francisco ought to have a fair chance,” the mayor ignored him.
Smith turned to Police Commissioner Theodore J. Roche. He probably knew Roche would not help his crusade but at least he managed to get him on the record.
“The president of the Police Commission says that he has passed through the district in which the Central Church is located for fifteen years or more and has never seen the occurrences that decent people cite,” the Examiner charged. “The most casual observer knows more than Commissioner Roche admits knowing concerning conditions in the city he is supposed to watch.”
Roche’s retort to the Examiner was:
“There is less crime in San Francisco now than there has been for years. The commission, during the four years we have been in office, has endeavored in a progressive, common-sense way, to clean up the city.”
It was a blatant lie that showed the police commissioner had no intention of acting on the people’s concerns.
Rev. Smith had an ace up his sleeve. He revealed to the Examiner that he had gotten possession of the names of the owners of the red-light district properties–the saloons, the drug dens, and the dingy apartment houses where prostitutes plied their trade.
The owners of these establishments were nothing like the downtrodden people who patronized them. They were wealthy, respectable, powerful people who were careful to conceal that they were profiting from the squalid conditions that they publicly denounced.
“The trail of vice leads to high places,” Rev. Smith charged.
He called for a mass meeting at the Dreamland Rink on the evening of January 25 to demand change. A huge crowd was predicted.
Most people in San Francisco were delighted to discover their efforts to reclaim the city had momentum. But news of the mass meeting drove out a different constituency–one that had stayed silent but could no longer afford to.
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