We live in a city where people are obsessed with what’s new and what’s next, from the latest restaurant to the highest tech gadget. But there’s also a lot of amazing history in San Francisco. Since my elementary school years were spent elsewhere, I sadly missed out on learning all the basics. There were no field trips to Swensen’s and I never got to make my own Mission Dolores diorama. Any seven-year-old local could easily take me down in a good game of San Francisco trivia.
With my dignity on the line, I put myself on a quest to learn as much as I could about my adopted home and the institutions that have survived in a place that’s constantly changing. These are the first of the firsts and they are here to stay.
At the Levi’s headquarters on Battery Street, I met Lynn Downey, who is the historian for Levi Strauss & Co. Part of her job is to hunt down rare jeans for the company’s archives, which are open only to employees. She took me on a tour and, with white gloves on, let me photograph the prize of her collection, which is kept in an enormous vault: The “XX,” the oldest and most expensive pair of jeans in the world. They date back to 1879 and are worth $125,000.
Boudin Bakery is the oldest surviving business on the West Coast. In fact, its signature sourdough bread is still made from the mother dough that was created when the ovens first opened in 1849, right around the time of the Gold Rush. The bread still exists thanks to a long lineage of protective head bakers who treat it like one of their children – and French baker Isidore Boudin’s wife, Louise, who saved the original sourdough starter from the 1906 fire in a bucket. I learned that in 1850, a slice of bread cost $1 – if it was buttered, it went up to $2.
Tin How Temple is the oldest Chinese temple in America. Tucked away on Waverly Place, one of the best alleys in Chinatown, I had to go three narrow flights up to see it – only to find out how serious the no-photo policy is. The Temple has not changed much since the earliest immigrants worshipped here. There were only seven Chinese immigrants living in California when gold was discovered here in 1848, but three years later, when the temple opened, there were more than 20,000. Peering through the thick incense smoke, I was mainly struck by the red and gold lanterns and the women who appeared to be ceremoniously incinerating money.
This salty North Beach dive is San Francisco’s oldest standing bar – and the sixth oldest in the country. The Saloon survived the 1906 earthquake and fire because the local firemen loved it so much they diverted water from other sources to save it. During Prohibition, it was conveniently converted into a “soda fountain” that continued to sell the hard stuff from a back room. I could still feel the lawless spirit while hanging out here, especially after one of the patrons stalked me all the way back to my car.
I couldn’t complete my history lesson without paying homage to one of the city’s living, breathing institutions. Standing at 4'11" and weighing less than 100 lbs., Keiko Fukuda is the highest-ranked female judo practitioner in history. At the age of 99, she has been called the world’s oldest working professional athlete. She still teaches at the gym she founded in 1973, the Soko Joshi Judo Club in Noe Valley. She holds the rank of 10th Dan, which only three other people in the world – all men living in Japan – have ever earned. Sitting in on one of Keiko’s classes and watching the bodies hit the mat made me never want to get on her bad side. I sure hope she likes this story.
Misión San Francisco de Asís (aka Mission Dolores),was built by Ohlone Indians under the direction of the Franciscan Friars and held its first mass five days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It's the oldest surviving building in San Francisco. But it almost didn’t make it. Right after the 1906 earthquake, fire consumed the neighborhood and was about to reach the steps of the church. Firefighters had to blast the convent across the street with dynamite so the flames wouldn’t waft over.
Want to live like an original 49er? Most of these places are open and accessible to the public. Boudin Bakery has a history museum at its Wharf location. Mission Dolores offers daily tours – check its website for times. Drop into the Tin How Temple in Chinatown after your $6 Waverly Lane haircut. And top it all off with a cold one at The Saloon. You can use your awesome judo skills to prevent getting shanghaied.