Mike's Political Walking Tour of Old San Francisco

You may have seen the bronze, compasslike Barbary Coast Trail plaques embedded in sidewalks around the city. Each shows a clipper ship, some old buildings, and a smiling hatted miner holding a pan of gold. Along with a book by Daniel Bacon, the trail's organizer, these plaques lead you along a historical tour of San Francisco's first boomtown era, when women leaned half-naked out of whorehouses on Maiden Lane and Chinese tongs fought turf battles on Waverly Place with hatchets. It's colorful and easy to follow. It's also the dominant local bully of San Francisco walking tours.

Another tour, the Gold Rush Trail, exists on the Web, and by now its organizers might have painted a 4-inch-wide yellow line along the city's sidewalks if the Board of Supervisors' Transportation and Land Use Committee had granted permission. But because the trails overlap -- for about eight blocks -- Daniel Bacon and the San Francisco Historical Society (which backs the Barbary Coast Trail) raised a stink last October, and argued in front of Transportation and Land Use to disallow the line.

The committee listened, and political winds on the Board of Supervisors shifted against the Gold Rush Trail. The two groups went into arbitration, but deadlocked. So now the Gold Rush organizers have decided to lay off the fight for the yellow line until the winds shift again.

Now, both trails are organized by private nonprofit groups, but the Gold Rush project has been cursed with ill luck. According to founder Bob Burger, work on Gold Rush started before Barbary Coast; in fact the Gold Rush organizers wanted to paint their yellow stripe two years ago, in time for the Gold Rush sesquicentennial in 1998. But fund-raising problems and bureaucracy got in the way. (The Department of Public Works, for example, asked for a "geo-satellite positioning" map of the whole stripe, which cost $12,000 and took a lot of time. "The geo-satellite positioning is to turn up every tree, every fireplug that's on the sidewalk on the entire route," says Burger, "to show that our line is not gonna encroach on any existing thing.")

Barbara Kaufman sponsored legislation at the Board of Supervisors to establish the Barbary Coast Trail, and thinks there's no room for a competing tour. "To have these other folks come along and say they wanna paint the sidewalk with a line, and do very much the same thing [as Barbary Coast], seemed totally redundant. We already have one trail, why would we have a competing trail? It seems silly."

But why not two trails? The city has more than two already. Along the Embarcadero is something called the Embarcadero Trail, marked with pylons and plaques, and from Union Square on weekends you can also take the so-called Henry George School guided tour, which overlaps both Gold Rush and Barbary Coast so shamelessly it would kill Barbara Kaufman with an aneurysm if anyone tried to mark it (which no one is likely to do). So those of us here at the Weekly who resent autocratic attitudes on the Board of Supervisors have devised a tour of our own, which readers are invited to follow, free of charge, in case a) they want to comprehend this issue, or b) they like cable cars.

1) Barbara Kaufman's Barbary Coast plaque. The Barbary Coast Trail was paid for in part by selling the bronze sidewalk plaques to sponsors. Each plaque is discreetly labeled with the sponsor's name, and Barbara Kaufman's plaque is, or should be, at Post and Grant. (Bacon says it has been temporarily removed for street work.) A plaque runs $1,846 -- a symbolic number, commemorating the year 1846 -- and people and corporations ranging from Microsoft to the Chronicle to other local politicians have thrown money behind the project. Bacon uses his 150-odd sponsors as a reason to oppose the other trail.

"We were just really concerned that [the Gold Rush Trail] was going to adversely impact the message and the success of the Barbary Coast Trail," Bacon says. "It's been a big effort. Everybody from Carlos Santana to Wells Fargo to, you know, a couple little tiny companies you've never even heard of -- actually a couple of unions, too. So it's been a really great grass-roots effort to create the trail."

I called Carlos Santana's agent to learn whether the guitarist really objected to the idea of two competing walking tours.

"Um, Carlos is in Europe. So unless you can wait till about the middle of June, I don't think I'll be able to help you," said Susan Stewart of Jensen Communications.

"You're saying he doesn't feel passionately about this issue?"

"I could only get a couple of sentences from him when Tito Puente died."

OK, whatever. It's no surprise, though, that Kaufman bought a Barbary Coast plaque, because she adopted the trail as a pet project in 1996. "I walked the Freedom Trail in Boston almost 20 years ago," she says, "and I thought, 'Why don't we have one of those in S.F.?'" So Kaufman's close involvement may explain her rancor toward the yellow stripe.

Gold Rush Trail founder Bob Burger has another theory. "As you may know, Barbara Kaufman and Tom Ammiano are at each other's throats all the time," he says. "And the problem is that we got Tom Ammiano to be our sponsor, way back, and we assumed that you got voted up or down on the merits of the issue. We didn't realize that there are vendettas that go back years among these people."

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