Immigrant Metropolis



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Wollenberg, Charles. Golden Gate Metropolis: Perspectives on Bay Area History. Berkeley: Institute of Governmental Studies, 1985.
Immigrant Metropolis
The Gold Rush, with its lure of quick wealth, attracted people of all races and many nationalities. French newspapers ran lotteries offering trips to California as prizes, and some of the winners may eventually have been part of San Francisco’s prestigious “French Colony.” Gold seekers from Mexico, Peru, and Chile caused a dramatic increase in the Bay Area’s Spanish-speaking population, and like the Californios they were often victims of Anglo violence and repression. Immigrants from Austria, New Zealand, and Hawaii pioneered transpacific routes, and significant numbers of Chinese began arriving in 1852. While many of the early immigrants soon returned home, others stayed, and the Gold Rush produced a cosmopolitan, multinational population mix that has characterized the Bay Area ever since.

In 1880 about 60 percent of San Francisco’s population was of “immigrant stock,” people who were either foreign-born themselves or children of foreign-born parents. This was one of the highest such percentages of any American city at the time. The impact of immigration was not limited to San Francisco alone; the entire Bay Area was affected. Immigrants and their children were found at every level of society, but primarily they were members of blue-collar families. The early history of the region’s working class is to a large extent a history of immigrants.



The Irish

The Irish were the Bay Area’s largest foreign-born group by the 1880s, when they and their children made up nearly a third of San Francisco’s entire population. The Gold Rush had come in the midst of the great migrations caused by the Potato Famine, and many of the new Irish-Americans eventually made their way west. “Eventually” is a key word here, for most of the Irish, like many other European immigrants to the Bay Area, apparently came west only after some years of residence on the east coast.

Some of California’s wealthiest and most powerful people in the late 19th century were of Irish descent. … The Bay Area’s first major urban politician, Senator David Broderick, the son of Irish immigrants, brought to San Francisco politics an important Irish presence that lasted for over a century. Blind Chris Buckley, the city’s infamous political boss during the 1880s, was of Irish descent, as was the major reform politician of the 1890s, banker James D. Phelan. This Irish political influence resulted in strong Irish representation in the municipal workforce, particularly in the police and fire departments. By the 1880s the Irish also dominated the region’s powerful Catholic clergy and its parochial schools.

Despite the prominence of many 19th Century Irish-Americans, most of the Irish immigrant population was working class. They did much of the basic labor that transformed the Bay Area into a major metropolitan region, and several of the most important leaders of the region’s thriving labor movement were also of Irish descent. Working class neighborhoods such as San Francisco’s South-of-Market area were predominantly Irish, as was early Ocean View, the industrial and farming community that was to become West Berkeley. In fact, Irish were found in virtually every Bay Area community that was heavily populated by blue-collar workers.



Other European Workers

The Gold Rush coincided not only with the Potato Famine, but also with revolutionary upheavals in Central Europe that caused significant immigration from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One of the founders of the Bay Area’s wine industry, Agoston Haraszthy, was a self-proclaimed Hungarian nobleman. Germans were numerous and important in retail commerce and in the region’s skilled trades. Oakland’s Fruitvale district was the site of a well-organized German immigrant community that included German Protestant and Catholic churches, as well as strong ethnic institutions. Founders of a number of important Bay Area Jewish families, including Adolph Sutro, and the Stern and Haas families that have controlled Levi Strauss & Company, were also part of the larger German immigration.

Scandinavian and British immigrants were important in the maritime trades, serving not only as seamen but also as skilled boat and ship builders. The Bay Area’s fleet of lumber schooners was called the “Scandinavian Navy,” because of the birthplace of most of the officers and crews. English and Scottish capital and entrepreneurial skill were also significant in the economic development of the Bay Area.

Most 19th century immigration to the United States came from Northern Europe, but by the end of the 1880s southern and eastern Europeans began arriving in large numbers. By the 1890s the Bay Area felt the effects of this “new immigration.” Portuguese, particularly from the Azores, played a major role in Bay Area agriculture as orchardists, dairy farmers, and cannery workers. They became an important part of the population of East Oakland, San Leandro, Hayward, and Half Moon Bay. Greeks, often working for the railroad or operating small cafes and stores, settled in the South-of-Market and West Oakland districts. Social and political upheavals in Czarist Russia prompted migrations of Polish and Russian Jews, including members of a remarkable community of socialist chicken farmers in Petaluma. Earlier upheavals had also caused the immigration of conservative Russian Christians, who settled on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill and later in the city’s Richmond district.



The Italians

The Italians comprised by far the largest of the “new immigrant” groups. A few northern Italian settlers had arrived during the Gold Rush, opening small businesses and restaurants. As we have seen, they and Dalmatian immigrants dominated San Francisco’s fishing industry, introducing lateen-sail fishing boats to the bay, and establishing Fisherman’s Wharf. In the 1890s this small Italian immigrant community was overwhelmed by a much larger Italian migration. While the bulk of Bay Area Italians continued to have roots in northern Italy, many of the newcomers immigrated from southern regions such as Sicily. By 1920 Italians had replaced the Irish as California’s most numerous foreign-born group.

As was the case in many immigrant communities, tensions arose between the older, established Italian families and the great wave of often impoverished newcomers. The Bay Area’s Italian community was split by old-country rivalries between north and south Italy and by political controversies imported from Europe. But along with conflict came mutually profitable cooperation. Established entrepreneurs such as Anthony Sbarbaro provided economic opportunity for hundreds of his recently arrived countrymen at the Italian-Swiss Colony winery at Asti. A.P. Giannini, another member of a well-established Bay Area Italian-American family, began his Bank of Italy by providing small loans to enterprising new arrivals. This gave Giannini experience in consumer-oriented banking that eventually helped him to build the giant Bank of America, despite opposition from the established financial elites of San Francisco and New York.

Like the Irish, Italians were found at every socioeconomic level of Bay Area life. But also like the Irish, Italians were primarily blue-collar workers. By the early 20th century, they practiced most working-class occupations. Moreover, working-class neighborhoods such as West Oakland and West Berkeley were becoming increasingly though not exclusively Italian. North Beach, settled by Chileans in early Gold Rush days, and then by Irish and Germans, was predominantly Italian by the turn of the century. So was the new neighborhood forming in North Oakland along Telegraph Avenue.

Contrasted with Oscar Handlin’s description of the immigrant as “the uprooted,” Andrew Rolle has called Italians of California “the upraised.” Although most Italian immigrants were city dwellers, some of the newcomers played a vital role in the development of Bay Area agriculture. They labored as agricultural and cannery workers and established truck farms, often on leased land at the edge of urban settlements. Before trolley lines promoted rapid development west of Twin Peaks and in the Outer Mission district, Italian farmers even produced substantial harvests within San Francisco itself. They also planted artichokes and other green vegetables along the San Mateo Country coast, and established dairy farms in Marin and Sonoma counties. Italian vintners and field workers were important to the growth of wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties, and in the Livermore and Santa Clara valleys. Italian immigrant families established fine restaurants and dominated the region’s wholesale fruit, vegetable, and wine distribution network. They also were active at the other end of the food chain, organizing the scavenger companies that exist to this day in both San Francisco and Oakland.

Prejudice Against White Immigrants

Italians and other European immigrants experienced prejudice and discrimination at the hands of “native” Bay Area residents – who themselves had often arrived only a few years earlier. Sometimes anti-immigrant sentiment was combined with religious bigotry. Thus prominent Jewish businessmen in San Francisco established their own social club, the Concordia, in part because they were banned from many of the city’s other men’s clubs. Some leaders of the 1856 Vigilance Committee displayed a not-too-subtle anti-Irish bias, and anti-Catholicism was behind some of the furious competition between public and parochial schools in late 19th century San Francisco. By the beginning of the 20th century, the large influx of Italians and other southern Europeans was raising new nativist fears.

What is surprising, however, is not the existence of such prejudice, but that it was less vehement and had less impact than in most other American metropolitan regions. Overt job discrimination against European immigrants was rare in the Bay Area. Moreover, multinational working-class districts were the rule, although some exclusive ethnic neighborhoods did develop. While eastern employers often used national and religious differences and friction between immigrant groups to break unions and strikes, the powerful Bay Area labor movement was largely the creation of immigrants from many nations, who showed a remarkable ability to cooperate and maintain union solidarity.

The comparative lack of prejudice and discrimination was due in part to the very newness of the region. Within a few decades, hundreds of thousands of newcomers, both American and foreign-born, arrived in the Bay Area. Even at the end of the 19th century, almost everyone was a recent arrival, and rigid social structures had not had time to develop. Except for a few brief periods of severe depression, the economy was expanding and the success of one group did not necessarily have to come at the expense of another. It is also significant that a large portion of the Bay Area immigrants came west after first living in the east. They were not “fresh off the boat” and thus already had considerable American experience and knowledge of English. Consequently they were probably less willing than east-coast immigrants to work for very low wages and serve as strikebreakers. They may also have had less need to maintain very close-knit ethnic neighborhoods. A final and crucially important point is that Bay Area whites, both native-born and immigrant, shared a common target of prejudice: the Chinese. Historian Alexander Saxton has called them the white worker’s “indispensable enemy.”



The Chinese: A Common Threat

The Bay Area’s long heritage of anti-Asian discrimination goes back at least to 1852, the year the first large-scale immigration of Chinese to California. These immigrants came from the troubled region around the city of Canton. The Cantonese pioneers, like many others in California, hoped to get rich quick. But they soon faced racial discrimination, and were forced to look for economic activities that served white miners, instead of competing with them. Since they were few women in early Gold Rush California, many of the mostly male Chinese found a niche in what the 19th century considered “women’s work.” They did laundry, cooking, and domestic service. Gangs of Chinese also worked otherwise-abandoned gold fields, and took low-paying jobs usually avoided by whites. By the time construction began on the transcontinental railroad, the immigration route from Canton and the tradition of cheap Chinese labor were well established. As we have seen, the Big Four and many other local employers took full advantage of that fact, profiting greatly from the prevailing racial prejudice.

Until the 1870s most California Chinese lived in the mountain counties where mining and railroad construction were centered. Even then, however, San Francisco was the unofficial capital of Chinese America. It was in San Francisco that wealthy Chinese merchants and labor contractors established stores, offices, and dormitories. San Francisco was headquarters for the regional associations, clan organizations, and tongs that were the institutional foundations of Chinese immigrant life. The Chinese community occupied old buildings near Portsmouth Square that had been vacated by white businesses looking for more fashionable locations. The same was true along DuPont Street (Grant Avenue), where the Bay Area’s oldest and most famous ethnic neighborhood developed. Other Bay Area communities also had Chinatowns, but none rivaled the size or importance of San Francisco’s.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 forced the Chinese out of the mountain counties and into new occupation fields. They became an important component of California’s agricultural labor force, and often established small truck farms of their won. Chinese became a significant part of the urban workforce. The number of Bay Area Chinese increased steadily during the 1870s, and by 1880 Chinese comprised about 10 percent of all San Franciscans. This figure does not, however, adequately indicate the Chinese economic impact. Since the great majority of Asian immigrants were young, unattached men, they made up far more than 10 percent of the labor force.

Unfortunately the rapid growth in the Chinese population coincided with the major economic depression of the late 1870s. As unemployment increased, white workers were willing to take jobs traditionally reserved for Chinese. At the same time, companies that previously hired only whites were now tempted to employ cheaper Chinese labor. Direct economic competition between whites and Asians exacerbated American racial prejudice and poisoned the social and political atmosphere. The causes of the economic hard times were complex and poorly understood, but the Chinese made a perfect scapegoat.

The Japanese

Meanwhile Japanese had replaced Chinese as the most numerous Asian immigrant group, filling employers’ demand for a new source of cheap, nonwhite labor. After the earthquake, the Japanese thus became the region’s chief target of anti-Asian prejudice. The hostility was reinforced by the long international rivalry between the United States and Japan, and social conflict in California often coincided with major international incidents. In 1906 for example, the San Francisco Board of Education attempted to force all Japanese children into the city’s segregated Chinese school. Japanese parents complained to Tokyo newspapers and to the Japanese government, and in Japan the matter was regarded as a national insult. President Theodore Roosevelt eventually forced the city to readmit Japanese children to regular public schools – the Chinese continued to be segregated – but the incident was one of many that left a bitter legacy on both sides of the Pacific. Later, California’s attempt to deprive Japanese immigrants of their right to own agricultural property through an “Alien Land Law” had similar international repercussions.



Although substantial Japanese communities developed in San Francisco’s Western Addition, and the South Berkeley-North Oakland neighborhood around present day Ashby and Alcatraz, southern California became the heartland of Japanese immigrant life. Job opportunities were restricted by the Bay Area’s powerful labor movement with its strong anti-Asian tradition. Opportunities were also limited by the presence of other established immigrant groups, particularly the Chinese and Italians, who occupied economic niches that otherwise might have been available to Japanese.




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