I Call It Frisco

Mar 24 at 6am

By Jamal Frederick

The word "Frisco” has always been a topic of contention. If you want to watch a normally mild mannered San Franciscan lose their decorum or scoff in disapproval, just use the word Frisco – they hate this term. The anti-Frisco people like to cite Emperor Norton’s moratorium on the word and quote Herb Caen as a reference for their disdain, but the nickname existed and was embraced long before even these iconic San Franciscans made their dislike for "Frisco" known. 

What the anti-Frisco San Franciscans don’t realize is that there is, and always has been, a community of people who live here who proudly call the city Frisco. From the working class who built this city to the musicians who adoringly sing about our fair town, they – and I – all call it Frisco. And we mean it with respect and love.

There is, and always has been, a community of people who live here who proudly call the city Frisco.

The first usage of the word goes back to the gold rush. Stephen Foster’s gold miner ballad “Oh! Susanna,” written in 1847, mentions Frisco. But some historians believe that the word actually derived from an Americanization of “El Fresco,” the name Mexican gold seekers called our “refreshing, cool” city. Whatever the actual origin, it’s always been the working class who embrace the term. Veteran SF Chronicle columnist Stephanie Salter eloquently wrote, "I grew up in the Midwest, where the servicemen of my father's generation used it. They shipped out of here and many didn't come back. To them Frisco was a magic word." Frisco represented opportunity, possibility, and new beginnings to many of the people moving West in search of something greater. The grassroots-dirty-fingernail-broken- back-builder of San Francisco had no issues with Frisco.

Being raised in San Francisco around black people, Latinos, the poor, and the working class, I grew up hearing people regularly call this city Frisco with affection and pride. We used it because it represented something cool, hip, and welcoming. We came from disparate backgrounds and belonged to different communities, but we shared the common experience of being from the other side of those with money, power, and influence. There’s an integrity and a naked honesty about the demographic that prefers Frisco.

It’s the spirit of Frisco that has kept some of the best entertainers and artists – past and present – coming to the city. Jack Kerouac called it Frisco in On the Road, and inspired so many to move this magical city to be a part of the culture. Count Basie and Billie Holiday spent time here, and called it Frisco. Otis Redding and Michael Jackson sang songs referencing Frisco with longing and happiness, as an exciting, enchanting, and charming place to be. The Bay Area hip-hop community almost exclusively calls its Frisco, including rappers from my Fillmore neighborhood, like San Quinn, and mainstream hip-hop acts like Biggie Smalls and Tupac. In this circle, Frisco is always used with conviction, authority, and a growling no-nonsense attitude. 

It’s more than a nickname; it’s a home, a culture, a struggle, and an experience. Frisco is a real thing.

Even Herb Caen eventually changed his mind. Caen, who has long been considered the city’s greatest champion (although he was originally from Sacramento) and who published Don’t Call It Frisco in 1953, later said, "Balderdash, the toughest guys on the old SF waterfront, neither rubes nor tourists, called it Frisco, and no effete journalist would have tried to correct them." I feel in this statement that Caen is speaking of a people from a different walk of San Francisco life. It’s the Muni driver and the construction worker and it’s also that tough cat with “Frisco” tattooed on his neck and the guy on a motorcycle with a large leather Frisco patch on his jacket. You can see and feel their deep seeded pride and loyalty for their city. 

To me and many others, Frisco represents a community and a history. It’s a sweat-soaked past and an integral part to the beautiful now of San Francisco. It’s more than a nickname; it’s a home, a culture, a struggle, and an experience. Frisco is a real thing.

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