San Francisco, in many ways, has been defined by the vastness and outspokenness of its countercultural communities and movements, especially their sexual revolution and radicalism. For a city greatly defined by the concept of neighborhoods and these sorts of conforming areas, how were these countercultural movements able to spread so freely and easily? It would seem that much of the growth and strength of countercultural movements in San Francisco came in the footsteps of other groups moving around the city, and was in part caused by economic issues which either pushed these countercultural groups from their original neighborhoods and homes into other areas, or struggles which pushed groups away from the “moral” side of life.

One of the best examples of this strain and then cultural pushback and explosion can be found with the plight of the Chinese in San Francisco. At its inception, Chinatown was a place of “filth, disease, and inhuman habitation.” (Shah) It was also known as an area of vice and existed as part of the counter-culture to the creation of the white urban landscape at the time. In these early San Francisco days, poverty and poor public health forced the Chinese to remain in this area, and rather than preventing or fixing the issues within, it seems to have compounded them.


White women at Chinatown Opium Den (I.W. Taber, photographer. Chinese in California, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley)

Regardless of the quarantines and public health risks that Chinatown seemed to pose, the flock of non-Chinese to the vice district strongly aided the spread of gambling, opiate use, etc. Even the white males of “good repute” could be found in Chinatown and these dark opium dens (Berglund), pointing to a deeper city-level vice which needed to be addressed with more than anti-Chinese rhetoric and actions. While the city may have been successful at attempting to limit the spread of the Chinese population in the very early 1900s, as the century went on, ethnic people, and their cultures began to move out and around the city to areas they hadn’t been before. Post WWII, many Chinese-Americans, now mostly native-born, began to move from the city center and Chinatown into the more exurban areas of San Francisco who had previously been reserved for white communities, as shown in this map of the Chinese population’s spread in San Francisco in 1980. (Godfrey p.106) While the main population remained large in the Downtown area, those that were able to moved out to the farther areas of the city into new communities without the same density and crowding issues. While the Chinese at this time were not necessarily counter-cultural, their expansion set the tone and the pace for other groups to begin expanding outwards and spreading their ideas.

Much like Chinatown, other downtown neighborhoods also became hubs of vice and sin, most namely the areas of the Barbary Coast and the Tenderloin. Like Chinatown, much of the reputation of these areas stemmed from during and shortly after the Gold Rush. As Josh Sides wrote in Erotic City,“If early San Francisco’s financial leadership, political culture, and residential arrangements were inheritances from the Gold Rush, so, too, was its culture of disreputable amusement and sexual license, notorious from its very inception.”(Sides) Confined by the business district and the North Beach neighborhood, the Barbary Coast became one of the most profoundly sexually radical places in the country. Even the concept of topless dancing has been attributed to the Barbary Coast.


Carol Doda, “first” “topless” dancer acquitted from wrongdoing by Court (San Francisco Examiner)

Even though they were persecuted and prosecuted by the more “upstanding” parts of society, as the dancing and money began to pick up from these Barbary Coast and Tenderloin businesses (whether legitimate or not), there grew a sort of economic reliance on the bars and sex industries. The city couldn’t seem to get a grip on even the limited industrial side of the countercultural revolutions, let alone get near the cultural root of it all. Much of the issue was with the growth and acceptance of this counterculture, and that the growingly liberal courts wouldn’t take action against the industry and economy of the Barbary Coast and Tenderloin. (Sides)

The economic boom of the sexual revolution went as far as bringing it to the monetarily desperate African-American community in places such as the Fillmore. For many, the sex trade was a better trade than much of what they could’ve been doing given the discrimination and hiring practices of the time. While San Francisco was more progressive than most areas, it wasn’t free of racial issues post WWII, which forced many of the African-Americans in the city into poverty pushed them into more questionable industries, like the sex industry. (Sides) Like with the early 1900s Chinese community, economic constraints didn’t necessarily cause the radical changes in the African-American population, but they most definitely exacerbated the condition of the populations of the poorer communities in San Francisco.


2010 Map of San Francisco racial distribution.(Dustin Cable, University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service)I

The reason that it hit the African-American community as hard as it did, was because it was almost entirely ethnic groups that were struggling and starving and desperate. San Francisco, even in 2010, is still very separated and seemingly segregated to certain neighborhoods. Even though the U.S. was profiting, industrialization in San Francisco was dying, and the urban ethnic populations couldn’t necessarily get or even get to service jobs in the outer edges of the city and suburbs. (Murray) As discussed previously, there was, however, one industry that was booming and accepting of African-American labor. Much like with the “lower class” populations in the Barbary Coast and Tenderloin, there was refuge to be found in the sex industry within the sexual revolution of the city. There was money to be made, and even the people in power (police, politicians, courts) weren’t too quick to make arrests or indictments, regardless of how hard the religious communities pushed. It was almost the perfect escape, minus the seemingly degrading nature of the work, but what else was a person to do?

While economic booming in the Barbary Coast and Tenderloin, and economic suppression in African-American areas, brought the ideas of the sexual revolution into those areas, economic development forced the revolution out of North Beach and into the surrounding communities, specifically into the Haight-Ashbury. According to Sides, Haight-Ashbury was a very liberal area, one of the few willingly racially integrated neighborhoods in the area and resoundingly supported fair housing. (Sides) The residents of the neighborhood, however, were not in support of this new sexual revolution and radicalism. It would seem that they were primarily concerned with human rights, but not tolerance of human preferences or lifestyles. Unfortunately for them, as the city continued to push the Beat and gay populations out of North Beach with building and historical development projects to replace their housing, those North Beach radicals moved into the Haight-Ashbury area and brought their ideals with them.

Sides notes that the Beats sexual practices, compared with other groups and areas of the city, weren’t even necessarily that radical, but that it still began to get to the residents of their new neighborhoods who had effectively avoided the radicalism until then. For a time, Haight-Ashbury was known as a “family neighborhood,” and it held onto many of those values until the Beats began to play a predominant part in the economy of the neighborhood. In the 1960s, “hippie” business began popping up in the area, creating a larger local economy but also digging the roots of the new radical residents even deeper by intertwining their place in the neighborhood with their livelihoods. (Sides) While the sex radicalism didn’t catch on as completely in the Haight-Ashbury as it did in the Tenderloin and Barbary Coast, there was still the notion of the spreading and growth of the revolution in an area that hadn’t quite been touched yet.

While the sexual revolution and radicalism in San Francisco isn’t surprising, it is interesting to follow how economic and oftentimes cultural changes supported to growth of the radical communities and the revolutionary industries in the sexual world. For some groups, the booming economic gains were enough to spread the love throughout entire neighborhoods, and for some, the benefits were alluring enough to sell what little public standing they had left just to survive while being suppressed. And on the other hand, when the city tries to make economic changes against the growing countercultures, it seemed to only prove to increase those communities in other neighborhoods due to the allure and spread of the new ideals. The economics of the sexual revolution allowed for it to be spread in San Francisco at a greater rate than would normally be expected.

Works Cited

Berglund, Barbara. “Opium Dens in Chinatown.” FoundSF. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

(Map) Cable, Dustin. University of Virginia, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. FoundSF. Web. 13 Nov. 2016

Godfrey, Brian J. Neighborhoods in Transition: The Making of San Francisco’s Ethnic and Nonconformist Communities. Berkeley: U of California, 1988. Print.

Murray, Roz. “African American Segregation in San Francisco.” FoundSF. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Shah, Nayan. Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Berkeley: U of California, 2001. Print.

Sides, Josh. Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

(Photo 1) Taber, I.W. Chinese in California, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

“Where Topless Dancing Began.” FoundSF. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.