Why is it called Baghdad by the Bay?

I was asked by a friend working in Kuwait the other day why I chose the name “Baghdad by the Bay” for my site. I realized that while almost everyone in the Bay Area knows about Herb Caen who dubbed San Francisco with that name, there might be people outside of the San Francisco Bay Area who don’t know or understand why he came up with that name for San Francisco. Well, I figured it would only be fitting to let Herb explain it for himself so Herb will be our guest blogger for today. I’m sure he’d hate being called that since he never in the 60+ years that he was a news reporter ever used a computer and was proud of his “loyal royal” typewriter that he used from the beginning.

Herb was also known for making the statement, “One day if I do go to heaven, I’m going to do what every San Franciscan does who goes to heaven. I’ll look around and say, ‘it ain’t bad. but it ain’t San Francisco.'”

Please note that Herb died in 1997 so some of the references are a little out of date, but cut him some slack. Herb you may now take over the blog:

Hello, Visitors!

By Herb Caen

Greetings and welcome to San Francisco, city of the world, worlds within a city, forty-nine square miles of ups and downs, ins and outs, and going around in circles, most of them dizzy. A small “d” democratic city run by big-buck conservatives, a place where the winds of freedom will blow your mind and your hat off, where eccentricity is the norm and sentimentality the ultimate cynicism. Cable cars and conventions, boosterism living uncomfortably with sophistication, a built-in smugness announcing simply that we are simply the best. The only city better than San Francisco today was San Francisco yesterday–maybe. Remember, visitors, that you are lucky to be here. Have fun. Spend money. Marvel at our giddy combination of Kookville and High Kultur, busyness and booziness, millionaires stepping daintily over passed-out winos, hot-pantzed ladies of the night throwing themselves at your passing car. Enjoy yourselves, but don’t stay too long. Parking is such street sorrow.

Years ago, this wide-eyed kid from Sacramento dubbed it Baghdad-by-the-Bay, a storybook city of spires and minarets, gay banners fluttering in the breeze. A viewtiful city, he called it, a Saroyanesque pastiche of lovable gamblers and boozy bohemians spouting half-aphorisms in saloons run by patrician publicans. The most beautiful bay in the world–only superlatives were accepted–was breasted by ferries that looked like Victorian mansions with sidewheels. Then came the greatest bridges in the world–“the car-strangled spanner” of the bay and Joe Strauss’s suspenseful “bridge that couldn’t be built.” We looked around at the wonderful, funderful city and we were proud to be San Franciscans, the envy of all.

San Francisco, Queen City of the Pacific (the title was once non-ironic), gleaming jewel of the West Coast, surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by Republican reality. Occasionally a Republican mayor sneaks in, but it is essentially a city that votes the straight Demo ticket. I don’t even know how they get people to run for mayor: who wants to be Chief Kook of Kookville? We have a city father who is an unmarried mother of two and a gay seat on the Board of Supes, as befits the new demographics. San Francisco has a large gay population, and it keeps increasing, although exactly how gays multiply has not been explained. Nothing is ever explained in San Francisco.

“The city that was never a town.” There’s a thought that appeals to San Franciscans. Will Rogers may or may not have said it, but the phrase does conjure up a flash of the crazed and crazy place that was born in a Gold Rush and grew up overnight to become a fabled city. Tip to visiting journalists: “The coldest winter I ever spent was one summer in San Francisco” was one of the best lines Mark Twain never wrote, but who cares. Whoever said it was accurate enough.

Welcome visitors, to a city as confusing as the Democratic party. If you drive, don’t drink, but the driving will drive you to drink. We are casual about street signs, but you might find one if you look hard enough. Directions? Forget it, and don’t ask whatever looks like a resident. He won’t know either. If you keep going on a one-way street, you will soon come to another one-way street with traffic coming right at you. That’s what makes us colorful and our insurance rates the highest. Don’t worry about traffic lights. Green and red both mean go like hell; in fact you cross on the green at your own risk. Another tip: No Parking Any Time means park any time, usually on the sidewalk and sometimes on a pedestrian. There are a lot of tow-away zones, so check the signs. It is maddening to pay $60 to ransom your car from a towing company whose slogan is “Discover San Francisco”.

San Francisco, a city for all seasons (sometimes four in one day) and various reasons. A city that thinks nothing of spending $60 million to rebuild a cable car system that was obsolete a century ago and even less of letting drunks lie on the street as long as they aren’t in the way of the cables; “a sociological, not a police problem,” unquote. A city of soup kitchens and two thousand restaurants, some of them excellent and most of them crowded. A place where whites are a minority and “the largest Chinatown outside of the Orient” is no longer large enough. The mayor and both congressmen are Jewish women; do we need a Yenta Control Board?

So welcome, dear visitors, to Crazytown USA. You will either be crazy about it or become as crazy as the rest of us. Either way, may you all return safely to your funny country, that large land mass slightly to the right of Baghdad-by-the-Bay.

Thanks Herb, see you over at the Washbag later.




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2 Replies to “Why is it called Baghdad by the Bay?”

  1. As an occasional visitor to San Francisco, it’s clear that the late Mr. Caen knew of what beloved city he cynically wrote. Tho’ 20 years have passed since he typed those words on his “loyal Royal,” they largely represent truisms which the decades cannot improve or amend. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Ah San Francisco–iT AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE…a beautiful city filled with beautiful people—and then WW11 F—-d it up. My husband’s family arrived in S>F> in the late 1800’s and my family in 1900. Born in 1922 in a little house on Telegraph Hill and grew up in North Beach until my family moved back to Marin County where my other’s family lived. S.F. was a city in which we young girls (15-16 yrs old) could grab a street car (we lived in different neighborhoods of the City) come him from a movie in Downtown Market Street at a very late hour walk a couple of blocks home and not have to worry about being accosted by a n’ere-do-well. Haven’t lived there since the war. Hopefully the mountains where I live will continue to be a safe haven….

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