First in a series

I had such fun and great public response with my recent science series that I have decided to do another essay series. This time it’s on my favorite American cities, mixing in some history, some tourist guides and with cheerful aplomb, some personal references.

Please forgive me if I ignore your favorite city; no offense meant, just different tastes.

Although born in Portland, Oregon, I grew up in the Bay Area of San Francisco, specifically in Oakland, educated both in Berkeley and San Francisco through the University of California system. So … we will start with San Francisco. Despite all of its cultural changes over the years, it remains my most favorite U.S. city.

The prominence of San Francisco has always been predicated on its location at the mouth of a huge bay (1,600 square miles) called the San Francisco-Oakland Bay or just the Bay Area. At least 5,000 years ago, in the era of biblical Job of previous columns, the San Francisco Bay Area was settled by the indigenous Ohlone people, who became entrepreneurs and traders, developing customers and contacts all along the West Coast.

The Spanish were the first persistent European settlers, muscling aside the Ohlone in 1769, through Gaspar de Portola, governor of California (born in Balaguer, Spain). Over the next 50 years or so the Spanish resisted French, English and Russian interest, although allowing a Russian fur-trading base.

The Spanish did not develop much, more interested in Christian missionary work, common for the Spanish along the length of California, developing the San Francisco Mission de Asis (named after St. Francis, the city’s namesake) now called Mission Dolores (Sorrows/Pain) after a nearby creek named for Mother Mary. A revised, magnificent Catholic Church stands at the site to this day.

Mexico took ownership after the 1821 Revolution. In 1835, the Mexicans allowed some English to begin development along the bay side of the peninsula, which eventually attracted Americans. When the Americans learned the English were interested in all of California, they started moving west and could no longer be resisted.

A group of migrating Mormons convinced the United States to “annex” the area in 1846, as we were then defeating the Mexicans in the Mexican-American War. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 made all of California officially part of the growing United States; U.S. statehood came in 1850.

All has never been the same since the Gold Rush of 1848-1850, which increased the population twenty-five-fold. A huge Chinese immigration along with prospectors (we now call the 49ers) from America and all around the world came to work in the gold fields, in support businesses and in the succeeding railroad development.

San Francisco continues to have the largest Chinese population in the U.S., although recent mainland Chinese emigration has reduced the worldwide status of San Francisco’s Chinatown. I have already written about the history of the railroads, the Big Four and the development of San Francisco (see “Plantation Life,” Jan. 16, 2018, Morning News-SCNow). Other famous businesses springing up during the Gold Rush include Levi Strauss, Wells Fargo Bank (see “Galloping to Legend,” Jan. 15, 2019, Morning News-SCNow) and Ghirardelli chocolates.

Surviving cholera, crime, corruption and the Civil War, San Francisco “really” grew in the 1860s. A quaint, popular reminder of those days remains: Andrew Smith Hallidie’s “cable cars.”

My medical school was founded in 1864 by a wealthy local surgeon, Hugh Toland, M.D. The city became a banking and trade center, rebuilt bigger and better with the foresight of developer-planner Daniel Burnham and banker Amadeo Giannini (Bank of Italy, now Bank of America) after the destructive earthquake and fire of 1906.

Two of my favorite places came out of that era: Golden Gate Park and Fishermans Wharf.

The city continued to grow during the world wars as a huge maritime shipping and construction port. A population shift occurred as people came from the Dust Bowl and the Deep South to work in the Henry Kaiser Industry shipyards building Liberty ships (completing one ship a day at production peak). Subsequent redevelopment led to more cultural dislocation.

Enter my era of the 1960s and 1970s. Because of the arts, literature (the city had long been a writers’ haven) and music, a U.S. counterculture arose, but the new culture also revived U.S.-based rock ’n’ roll music (see “Music Forever,” the Morning News-SCNow, Aug. 29, 2019) accompanied by a large gay influx, starting after the World War and in large part responsible for the U.S. gay liberation movement.

In the 1980s HIV-AIDS wreaked havoc across the city, although the virus originated in Africa, coming west through Quebec City; but the new epidemic also led to important AIDS treatment science and prevention programs.

Next, the 1980s led to skyscrapers resisted by much of the counterculture and portending a further move toward banking and international finance, but unfortunately accompanied by rising homelessness due to high housing prices.

And then another change with the development of the computer industry as the city and nearby San Jose became the U.S. center for the computer software business (centered here because of that “Junior” University, called Stanford) and what we call “high-tech.” The Bank of America and TransAmerica buildings have now been overshadowed by the SalesForce building, symbolizing the triumph of high-tech over banking and finance.

As a kid, I loved our family’s day trips to San Francisco to see Stowe Lake in Golden Gate Park, the Cliff House along Pacific Highway, the old Sutros Baths, the Marina, the Presidio, the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County, Fort Mason, Fishermans Warf, Twin Peaks, the Japanese Tea Gardens, Market Street, the buzz of the Business District, the impossible curves of Lombard Street, the incline of Jones Street (designed for horses, not cars, where the parked car wheels turn to the curb to avoid destruction) and the many prominent, public museums.

San Francisco continues to maintain a rich diversity of neighborhoods, public parks, world class museums, entertainment, nightlife and restaurants. And as a medical student, I explored most of them. I still love the city’s sights and smells: the broad, green grass fields and trees of Golden Gate Park alongside delightful salted ocean air.

Common to life in big cities, you have a chance to rub elbows with famous people: for me they included Herb Cain, Diane Feinstein, Daryl Hannah, Jim Nabors, John Fell Stevenson, the Flood family, the Campbell family, the Scoma family, the Spreckels family, the Laird family, the Gonzalez family, Herb Boyer, William Henderson, Peggy Fleming, Patty Hearst, Jerry Mathers, Thomas Maneatis and Cyril Magnin; some of those alive stay in touch.

I love being a tour guide across the city; I hope Florentines, the Hesters and the Robeys have enjoyed their private tours.

Ah … those were the days.

So, as a newspaper editor used to say: “Go West Young Man. Go West” and visit San Francisco.

Dr. Stephen Imbeau and his wife, Shirley, have been in Florence for more than 30 years and raised their three children here. He and Dr. Joseph Moyer started the Allergy Center about 21 years ago, and it is now one of the largest in South Carolina. Contact him at

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