A flagpole stands in Portsmouth Square, barely noticed by people sitting on the benches nearby. It flies an American flag, fifty white stars laid out on a field of blue, one star for each state in the Union. One star stands for the State of California.
If that star could talk, what a tale it would tell, of a momentous day nearly 150 years ago --- September 9, 1850 --- and the events that led up to it. The funny thing is that, although this day would change their entire future, the people of San Francisco had no idea it was anything out of the ordinary. In that era before radios and telephones, before even a telegraph connected the West Coast with the rest of the world, Congress could decide the fate of people 3,000 miles away and they wouldn't hear about it until the Pacific Mail steamer arrived nearly six weeks later.
The wait must have been unbearable. The editor of the Daily Alta California wrote in frustration early that September, "Questions of great interest are being discussed, or else are settled already on the eastern side of the continent, questions, some of them, involving almost life and death, politically, respecting California." But the people of this region were no mere pawns in the hands of eastern politicians, for it was they, in fact, who had offered the opening gambit that would lead to statehood.
It was all intertwined, of course, with national debates over slavery and westward expansion, but the discovery of gold near Sacramento gave an unexpected twist to the familiar arguments. In the late 1840s, long rips had already appeared in the American fabric. Many southerners were set on fulfilling their manifest destiny by absorbing all the land west of Louisiana and planting it with cotton and slaves. Many northerners were equally enthusiastic, seeing a slave-free West as a counterweight to southern political ambitions. Little matter that the southwestern lands they wanted were part of Mexico. They'd just take 'em.
Or so they thought. But the Mexicans had other ideas. The two countries fought bitterly for more than two years, from the American annexation of Texas in 1845 to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848. And for the people of California, the chaos didn't end when the war did, because the wary politicians in Washington couldn't decide what to do with them. Instead, they advised Californians to live with what they already had --- in this case, government by Siamese twins, part inherited from Mexico and part imposed by U.S. military authorities. In effect, no government at all.
If California had remained a collection of sleepy little communities, it might have been able to function under this arrangement. But unknown to the signers of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, James Marshall had just found some shiny yellow particles mixed in with the dirt at Sutter's Mill. The communities began to wake up and smell the coffee. California, they realized, was on the verge of untold power and wealth, and either government-by-drift or government-from-afar was unthinkable. Peter H. Burnett, later the first governor of the state, expressed their alarm: "We are in fact without government --- a commercial, civilized, and wealthy people, without law, order, or system." The solution? To create a state and then ask the federal government to recognize it.
In September 1849 a pair of ships arrived in Monterey Bay bearing 48 elected delegates to a state constitutional convention. It was an extraordinary group of men. They were young: 32 of them were under 40. They were ethnically diverse: 22 were U.S. citizens from northern states; 15 came from slave states; 5 were foreign-born; and 7 were "native Californians," or ethnic Mexicans. By training and experience, they represented many occupations, from farming to the law.
But above all, the delegates represented labor. Whatever they had been back in the States, in California most of them were miners. They called themselves "workmen," prizing their hard-earned calluses, sneering at the soft white hands that were the hallmarks of gamblers. And perhaps because many of them had started out in other walks of life and chosen to work with their hands, they took pride in their new status, as contemporaries noted with astonishment. Bayard Taylor, sent west by the New York Tribune in 1849 to see what was happening, reported in capital letters, "Mining had made LABOR RESPECTABLE in California."
As a result, the crucial vote at the convention was unanimous: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this state." The delegates stated their opposition to slavery in class terms. To work next to "such competition," they argued, would "degrade" their own labor. In the racist atmosphere of the nineteenth century, it's likely that many of these white men were not happy about the free people of color who populated both San Francisco and the mining camps. But they tolerated their presence, or simply ignored it, for the sake of the financial rewards they expected. In the case of slavery, however, the delegates seem to have discovered an economic fact that modern workers are learning with the advent of workfare: the existence of an unpaid or poorly paid labor pool lowers the earning power --- and therefore the dignity --- of the rest of the workforce.
While the delegates undoubtedly knew that Congress
couldn't resist the lure of gold-generated tax revenues, occasional secessionist
rumblings during the next few months may have strengthened their case. A
year later, the deed was done and California was admitted as the 31st state.
At long last, on the morning of October 18, the Oregon steamed into
San Francisco Bay, bearing news and bedecked with red, white and blue. The
people of the city quickly gathered in Portsmouth Square for a spontaneous
celebration. Cannons boomed. Bonfires blazed. And word sped by stagecoach
to every corner of the new state: "California is admitted!"
Mark McGwire's home run in Busch Stadium must have set the air in motion all across the United States, because the wind in San Francisco on Wednesday drove the weekend's smog clear out of the city. Late in the afternoon vendors at the farmers' market in U.N. Plaza dodged newspaper fungoes as they stowed the last of their tomatoes and long beans. One Asian woman in a blue-and-white bonnet valiantly tried to sweep the area around her table, but new debris immediately covered the pavement.
The plaza was nearly empty. A few trucks barricaded the center, and at the sides dark-skinned men in sweatshirts rolled up the last of the canopies that had shielded the produce from the sun. Department of Public Works fences marked off one grassy rectangle. Elsewhere, people lounged on benches and on the grass, talking quietly in the fading light.
The other end of the Civic Center bustled, as workers laid out a red carpet at the entrance to Davies Hall and put the final touches on the encampment next door. Security --- private and SFPD --- was visible at every corner. An older guard with a shaved head stood poker-faced as I peered past him into the dining hall. Flowers in gleaming bowls, white tablecloths. Stanlee Gatti had done himself proud.
A different kind of party was just getting underway in the basement of the Main Library. What started as a simple reception around the work of Filipino-American photographer Ricardo Alvarado quickly became a nostalgic celebration as guests encountered familiar faces in the pictures on the walls. One matron soberly contemplated her own image as a young bride and then, laughing, called a friend to see herself in her first communion dress. When Library Commissioner Ernest Llorente looked out at the happy gathering, he commented, "This is like a reunion --- it takes me back to our days at the I-Hotel." Janet Alvarado, the slim, elegant daughter of the artist, appeared overwhelmed by fatigue and emotion as she described her three-year effort to exhibit her father's photographs.
The mellow music of Ben Luis and Friends echoing in my head, I left the library. On the steps three raggy-baggy teenagers stood --- actually, milled --- along with a skateboard and a tiny black dog. One of them, his hair hidden in a knitted tam-o'-shanter, ambled over and volunteered proudly that Luna was eight weeks old, part lab and part pit bull, and very smart. "When we went to get the puppies, she was the first one that came to me." Just off the bus from Santa Rosa, they had come to the Civic Center to meet friends who seemed to have gone to the bus terminal instead.
The undaunted trio waited calmly, while Luna tugged at the strap of a heavy green backpack. Across the street, men and women clustered in Civic Center Plaza like well-mannered guests at a chi-chi cocktail party. A police car drove silently down the walkway in the middle. No one looked at it. It didn't stop. At the far end of the park, the wind kicked up the colored pages of a newspaper supplement, slamming them against the legs of the benches.
Inside the white tents on Grove, shadowy figures were sitting around low-lit tables. Waiters paraded out of the depths of Davies Hall carrying trays filled with covered plates. As I paused to watch the diners, a gust of warm air burst out between the open flaps, pungent with the aroma of wine and expensive perfumes.
I cut back to Van Ness near the Opera House, where another tent stretched out like a hungry white caterpillar, waiting for the next opening night. Another party was in full swing at the Veterans' Building. As I passed, a skinny, gap-toothed woman in a yellow windbreaker offered to sell me a red rose. She carried about a dozen in a cheap glass vase. After I declined, she walked along with me, grumbling, "Mayor Brown chased me away earlier." When a large well-coiffed woman in blue-and-green sequins passed us, carrying a take-out box, the flower seller shot out almost automatically, "Want to give that food to the homeless?" The woman deposited in her hand a container full of sandwiches, salad, fruit and dessert. With a whoop --- "This is my lucky day!" --- the Lady in Yellow headed back toward the Veterans' Building, roses in one hand, dinner in the other.
Halfway down the block Gavin Newsom stood near the curb, unusual for this evening in his plain dark suit. He smiled a brave public smile as a pair of mink-jacketed women bore down on him, holding out gloved hands. I walked on. When I looked back a few minutes later, the supervisor was at the curb all by himself, looking expectantly up the street.
I wandered down to Market and returned to find that the symphony hall had become an illuminated Merchant-Ivory set. Men strolled back and forth, looking substantial in their dinner clothes, while the richly gowned women at their sides looked tall. In one body, they began to flow into the bright lobby of the building. A young woman in a baseball cap stopped to ask a policeman what was going on, expressing astonishment that the occasion was the symphony opening. The officer chuckled. "We weren't invited either."
Back in Civic Center Plaza, the revelers were beginning to settle down for the night. Small groups of men continued to hold subdued conversations. A pair of women had laid out their belongings on the opposite side of the elevator structure, away from male eyes and near the street light. They put their heads together, talking softly.
The library stood dark and still, portcullises barring every doorway. Just beyond, a dog barked in U.N. Plaza. Voices rose from an animated gathering crowded onto one end of a bench. On the grass beside the subway stairs, people stretched out, leaning on their elbows, watching the night.