People conceived of San Francisco as a "new Constantinople" on the crossroads between the East and West.
However, the opening of the Panama Canal did not draw the original inspiration for the comparison with the ancient gateway city between Europe and Asia.
US Army Captain John C. Frémont, upon seeing the great seaway in 1846, named it "Chrysopylae," or Golden Gate, in clear reference to ancient Constantinople's "Chrysoceras," or Golden Horn.
From the time Captain Frémont saw San Francisco and its gateway to the Pacific many people believed that the city would eventually assume the role as a great cosmopolitan city uniting East and West.
With the construction of the Panama Canal and the plans for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition underway, this assumption would soon become a reality.
Yet far before the arrival of Captain Frémont or the construction of the Panama Canal, San Francisco's history already had a unique multicultural sensibility all its own (Brechin in Benedict, 104).
San Francisco had acquired a place through a history unlike any other city in the United States.
Whereas many East Coast cities had their beginnings with a largely homogenous, Anglo-Saxon population and found a greater ethnic mix later in their history, "the City by the Bay" had a unique history.
Born in Spain, raised in Mexico, and coming of age in the manic rush for gold, San Francisco embraced cosmopolitanism from its very origins.
Even before the Gold Rush of 1848 inundated the city with a broad array of people, the city thrived as an American locale made up of foreigners, not aliens.
The wide variety of nationalities and cultures mixed into a "social pudding" gave the city a unique flavor and atmosphere (Rosskam, 78).
All these varied cultures never lost touch with the culture of their native country.
In his "Bay Window Bohemia," Oscar Lewis summarizes this communal social spirit thus:
There was scarcely a time, such was its cosmopolitanism, when the members of one or another racial group were not congregating to observe either some religious festival or national holiday of their homeland.
Such festive gatherings, frequent throughout the year, were especially numerous during the summer and fall when rarely a day passed without one or more being held somewhere in town
The residents of the city, even though they may have had no personal cultural connection to the festival or event, never showed a reluctance to join in the celebrations, like Chinese New Year, St. Patrick's Day, Oktoberfest or a host of others.
Any opportunity for them to enjoy themselves they capitalized on (Lewis, 35).
In the nineteenth century, when asked to name the city most prone to enjoying itself, San Francisco and New Orleans came up most frequently.
Many of the centers of American culture on the East Coast saw the general zest for life in San Francisco as a moral weakness.
But what Easterners saw as "moral relaxation," San Franciscans considered nothing more than a demonstration of their orphan background.
As a part of the distant Spanish empire, or on the far reaches of Mexico's Alta California, or even as the terminus of the United States' frontier, San Francisco showed little respect for the orthodoxies of other major American metropolises.
Because of the distance from "authority" and the conventional restraints of society, the inhabitants of San Francisco lived their lives as they pleased.
From this greater sense of freedom sprang their own type of amusements and diversions (Lewis, 25-26).
Cut off by thousands of miles from older centers of culture, "forty-niners" and other San Francisco inhabitants had to create their own entertainment, or do without.
Along with the natural beauty provided by the bay and the diverse backgrounds of its many inhabitants, San Francisco saw the emergence of an original artistic, musical, literary and social culture.
More than that, their culture showed an uncanny tolerance and sophistication.
It had an intellectual climate that engendered a love for the arts, good food, and good drink (Lewis, 25).
San Francisco's culture depended on its artists for their spirit just as they depended on the city for an atmosphere that encouraged free expression.
William MacDonald looked at the artists of San Francisco with pride.
The men and women who best typify the spirit of San Francisco have consciously sought, not simply orientation in world culture, but an adequate self-expressionů
That the pursuit of self-expression has often been highly self-conscious, that the lines of effort have not always been successfully concealed and that the result has sometimes been bizarre, San Francisco itself would be the first to admit (par. 3).
MacDonald believed that the artists of San Francisco exemplified the cosmopolitan worldliness of San Francisco and that their art lived more vividly because of it.
Many of San Francisco's supporters boasted of it as "An American Paris" (Lewis, 28).
"Life was lived in Frisco." William Reedy wrote in his St. Louis weekly Reedy's Mirror, "It was a little of Paris, of Rome, of Perkin...
A town of a temperament in which lightness blent with a native beauty sense" (Lewis, 30).
There were, of course, detractors who pointed to the seediness of the notorious "Barbary Coast," a waterfront district that many vagrants, prostitutes and criminals frequented.
However city leaders, interested in putting an end to the more maligned distinction, sought help in developing their town in the image of the great European cities.
In 1904, they enlisted the help of Daniel Burnham, the famed architect and director of Chicago's 1893 World Columbian Exposition to design a "City Beautiful" plan for San Francisco "worthy of an ocean as big as the Pacific" (Brechin, 151).
The City Beautiful movement, which had seen its finest exemplification in the 1901-1902 renovation of Washington, D.C., believed that in reforming the landscape and look of a city, other reforms would spring forth and inspire its inhabitants to moral and civic virtue.
Burnham, in particular,
believed that American cities could rise to cultural parity with classic European centers of culture through the use of the European Beaux-Arts style (Rose, "City Beautiful").
His plan for San Francisco envisioned a "hilly Paris by the Golden Gate" (Brechin in Benedict, 95).
Great boulevards cutting through the city's existing grid would converge "spider-web like" on central axes throughout the city.
To give the city a focal point for civic and cultural activities, much like the Mall in the nation's capital, the plan called for a magnificent city center.
Monumental buildings of stone would replace many of the wooden shacks built along the existing grid. Burnham and his firm also proposed that the city devote one-third of its area to parks and greensward to serve an estimated population of over two million.
Finally, grand structures would sit atop the apices of the city's most prominent hills as memorials to the pioneers and monuments to the city's future in
the Pacific. (Brechin, 151-153).
Unfortunately the plan, submitted in 1904, did not receive immediate attention, and on the morning of April 18, 1906, the "Great Earthquake" struck causing a massive fire that burned for the next four days and devestated much of the city.
Taking more than 3,000 lives and causing damage in excess of an estimated $500,000,000 (in 1906 dollars), the "Great Earthquake" left the city in ruins.
Yet in the wake of this great calamity arose an even mightier call for the City Beautiful plan.
The belief remained that a plan like Burnham had devised would bring physical and social order to a city in chaos.
But San Francisco's inhabitants thought the rights of the owners of private property more important than that of the civic government.
So, due to the commercial necessity of the city's merchants, residents and shop owners, the decision was made to rebuild on old property lines rather than follow Burnham's City Beautiful plan.
By rebuilding in record time in its former appearance, San Franciscans made certain that the City Beautiful plan Daniel Burnham and his firm created would never materialize (Lee, 80).
Yet the spirit of the City Beautiful lived within San Francisco, and it eventually rose from the ashes of the quake in the form of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.