The gangs of San Francisco: remarkable footage from the late 1950s

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“Ask Me, Don’t Tell Me,” an amazing short film that I learned about through the Bernal Heights History Project, shows a glimpse of San Francisco street life in the late 1950s. (The film was published in 1961, but the aesthetic of its “juvenile delinquents” seems to owe more to the 50s, so let’s call it that. The 60s in San Francisco brings to mind flower children, which these aren’t.) It’s got some dated moments, but sparkles nonetheless as a little historical treasure.

The film is more interesting to me for its poetic pastiche of street scenes (and gritty bongos-infused blues) than it is as a record of the program, Youth For Service, that it was made to promote. I’ve never seen anything like this, nor have I read very much about these scenes in San Francisco. But as I watched the clip, I felt like I knew this world, if obliquely. These young men were the progenitors of the San Franciscans I grew up around. In their gestures, their expressions, their postures, and their voices, they foreshadow the later Bay Area culture with which I’m much more familiar.

This is post-War San Francisco. The Mission is just becoming a Latino district. The Fillmore — which the narrator calls “The Moe,” a nickname still in use today — has just undergone the disastrous redevelopment project that sent many of its residents to the East Bay. (Thus the “Harlem of the West” was stifled.) Eureka Valley, now known as the Castro, was still a working class Irish area. (Read all about it in Randy Shilts’s classic, The Mayor of Castro Street). The multiethnic San Francisco of the late 20th century was just taking shape — the city was still more than 70 percent non-Latino white. (The city today may be on its way to losing its exceptionally multiethnic character.)

Growing up, I didn’t know about any gangs with names like the Lonely Ones or the War Lords (feel free to correct me in the comments if I was simply oblivious —  a distinct possibility). And aside from motorcycle clubs, the days of wearing cuts had passed by the time I was watching the city through Muni windows. But in the slouched posture of kids on the back of the 14 Mission, in their slang, in the braggadocio and micro-awareness of neighborhood distinctions in San Francisco rap music, in the men congregating on corners like Cortland and Moultrie in Bernal Heights, I saw and heard the echoes of these earlier times.

The film also has some value as an artifact of the type of program it was made to promote, Youth For Service. Considering what happened with street violence in the rest of the century, it would be easy to laugh at the naïveté of this simple program. (Others like it exist today, of course.) It seems to be the sort of thing Tom Wolfe humorously ridiculed in his 1970 essay “Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers.” But the history of what actually happened in the decades after this hopeful-seeming project is really about much bigger forces: the Vietnam War, racism, the isolation of red-lining and the freeway system, the collapse of manufacturing in the United States, Reagonomics, the prison industrial complex, and crack cocaine and other hard drugs.

The 50 years since the film saw many changes in San Francisco, but there was some continuity to the story.  Here’s an idealized bookend to that period.

And it is something of a bookend, because now, San Francisco has definitely entered some kind of new era. It’s the capital city for one of the fastest growing, most powerful industries in the world. Its high quality housing stock — in enforced shortage — is some of the most expensive anywhere. There is still grim poverty and occasional, horrific violence — like the massacre in Hayes Valley this winter. But for better or worse, the days of a hundred neighborhoods, each with a thousand tough guys holding down the corners, seem now to be a thing of the past.

This film is that history.

35 thoughts on “The gangs of San Francisco: remarkable footage from the late 1950s

  1. I’d like to see your phrase, ‘high quality housing stock’ altered to ‘affordable high quality housing stock’. And as for the phrase, ‘in enforced shortage’, this could be expanded to point out that the city refuses to put limitations on out-of-control real estate speculation, particularly by investors from out of the country. Adding to this you could point out that cities down the peninsula, where much of the tech industry is located refuse to allow more high-density housing to be built near to those industries.

    • It’s not “affordable” so that would be inaccurate. As for the other points, sounds like a different topic from the one I’ve written about here!

      In any case, I’d like to know your theory on how a city could put limits on real estate speculation originating from outside the country. Sounds impossible in today’s globalized world. San Francisco is in the company of London and New York. The challenges are huge. The solutions must be creative. Lifting the drawbridge is not an option. This ain’t the Milagro Beanfield War… It might have been 30 years ago, but not now.

      • We can’t even stop other countries from buying up our resources! Look at how much housing and real estate the Chinese bought up, after the latest phony financial crisis. In our fairly stable Atlanta suburb, a lady from China flew in and bought up 10 empty houses for $250M. She found a manager and a repair guy, and flew home. Not a bad week’s shopping! And today, those houses are back up to their old value (100-150k? It was in a cheaper neighborhood). And the purchase frenzy continues today, with homes, businesses, and corporations.
        We are so dumb!

      • Nine siblings… she must have some amazing stories! I think a lot of San Franciscans–and not just the new ones–don’t know too much about Double Rock. That area looks like it’s going to change a lot in the next few years with the developments at Candlestick and in Vis Valley. I hope the community that has been there for so long stays strong. Thanks for your comment!

  2. See Proposition G on the ballot in November 2014, for an example. It would have gone a long way to reduce the real estate ‘flipping’ that goes on in San Francisco, whereby speculators buy a property, do a little work on it, and sell it for 3 or 4 times what they bought it for.( I know. The house nextdoor to me in San Francisco went through this precise scenario.) The Proposition was defeated by 17,000 votes. All of the arguments against the Proposition in the voter pamphlet were funded by the SF Board of Realtors; there were false scenarios presented and enough voters fell for those that the Proposition was defeated.
    http://ballotpedia.org/City_of_San_Francisco_Transfer_Tax_on_Residential_Property_Re-Sold_in_Five_Years,_Proposition_G_%28November_2014%29

    By the way, in this globalised world, many countries have laws regulating and often preventing how non-resident aliens can buy real estate. See Switzerland, Thailand, the Phillipines, and more. Furthermore, even some states in the US restrict the purchase of land or property by non-resident aliens. For example Alaska restricts mining purchases by non resident aliens, obviously because they see those resources as valuable to the state. Why not view housing as a limited resource in the City of San Francisco?

    • Much as I would like to emulate Switzerland, that paragon of affordability, all the examples you give are countries, not cities.

      It’s interesting to compare SF housing to Alaskan gold, which is a non-renewable resource that can be used up and depleted. Housing is expandable and reusable, though you’re absolutely right that wealthy landlords would probably love to put restrictions on new buildings so that housing remains as in short supply — and as valuable — as a precious metal.

  3. This was really cool!

    I wonder about this piece as an advertisement, since as a promotional video for Youth for Service, it serves the organization to show successful work projects, with all of these different racial groups working together without incident. Given the context of this piece, and the fact that there were contemporary advertisements that featured young Chinese men as the antithesis of a Juvenile Delinquent, I’m curious how accurately it depicts San Francisco at this time. (Ellen Wu talks about this a lot in her book “The Color of Success: From Yellow Peril to the Modern Minority.”

    For me, it seems like the ’50s/’60s version of a college brochure that features integrated peer groups working together joyfully. This is not to say that it is an inaccurate representation of the time necessarily, but it strikes me first and foremost as an advertisement. It makes me wonder how many young men worked with Youth for Service.

    That said, this is a really cool glimpse into an era of San Francisco that seems so long ago, and I really enjoyed watching the footage of the city.

    • That’s very true, this is a video brochure for a program! I know nothing about Youth For Service, but I think the program is sort of the least interesting part of the film. These street clubs and their membership were very real though, and I have no reason to think that the people of many different ethnicities depicted here (who appear to include whites, African Americans, Asians, and Latinos) were not real members of these clubs. For those who can attend the talk at the Bernal Heights Library tomorrow, you can apparently hear from a former member of the Bernal Heights-based Bandidos, who is the person who shared this film with the Bernal Heights History Project. https://www.facebook.com/events/1580352062229074/

  4. Greetings Eamon,

    This line in the Youth For Service Clip caught my attention….” If hair was a crime they would be right on Death Row with Chessman” A classic line that sets a timeline for this film as Carl Chessman ” The Red Light Bandit lost his last appeal and left this world in the Gas Chamber of San Quentin in 1960. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caryl_Chessman In grade school the teachers encouraged students to bring in news of the day and I found the article in the Chronicle about Chessman getting the death sentence so after watching the Caryl Chessman Story at the Geneva Drive-in with my family I felt the story was worthy of discussion and I brought in the article and I was politely told that that was not the story were looking for from first graders…

    By the 60’s there were two groups that wore Ben Davis and Frisko’s and that was the working class Longshoreman and the Barts and The Munn’s and other street clubs who had put zippers in the bottom of there pressed Bens or Frisko’s that would open up to a large purple satin bell-bottom.

    In the late 60’s I worked a Dietz Shell at Buchannan and Golden Gate Ave in The City and across the street was The Pink Palace a 20 story Public Project that cat a large shadow of influence in the neighborhood. There was a great cross section of people and but the ones I remember was when a young woman came running into the station historic and crying out she could not see , I got her over to the hose bib and rinsed her face with water and she came around and said someone threw acid in her eyes. There were lots of cars being towed in from the Safeway Parking lot because peeps would go to The Fillmore Auditorium and not work about there cars…

    It was 1967 and I scored a 1938 Chrysler Custom Imperial More Door Sedan and a friend of mine was with me and I cashed my check around the corner at the Liquor store and picked up a six pack of Hamm’s Draft and an older gentlemen came up to my car on the passenger side and was pan-handling my friend and my friend told him I don’t have any extra ducats as I got my money wrapped up in my car; and this gentlemen said thank you and stated ” I guess I’m going to go home and lay up on the Duvan (Davian)and wait for the man to come with my welfare check” We had such a hoot over the colorful way he explained the plight of his situation that after that day that 1938 Chrysler Custom Imperial Four Door Sedan with dual side mount spare tires in the front fender wheel wells , free-wheeling a center arm rest in the back seat had a new name “The Duvan”

    Be Good,

    Tom (15)

    • Tom, I think I forgot to thank you for these fantastic contributions. Appreciate the memories and getting to know more about the past of the city. We are more than a picture on a postcard–these are the stories that made us!

    • It’s not a term I came up with, it’s what the U.S. Census uses unfortunately. I certainly don’t want to whiten brown people! You should direct your criticism at the government who came up with the census terms, and not at this humble blogger please.

  5. There were the Lords SF, City style gangsters, unidos, and many other gangs in the Mission District in the 70’same and 80’s! Must fought like men and fought with our fists, every now and then a knife or bat would be involved! Now a days everyone wants to use a gun and kill each other, but the cops are killing Our people today! My mom had 11 kids 8 boys and 3 girls and raised us on her own! Wasn’t easy but we survived the streets of the LaMission! Not we fight to live in our city and to stop the killings of Our Black and Brown people by killer cops! POWER TO THE PEOPLE WHO FIGHT FOR OUR RIGHTS TO LIVE!

    • Thank you for sharing those memories and your perspective! The Mission is under so much pressure nowadays and it’s good that there are still people working/fighting for unity and to keep the neighborhood strong.

  6. That was fun to watch. Thank you. I grew up in the Mission in the 70’s and 80’s and remember The Lords with their derby jackets embroidered in golden yellow script. My downstairs neighbor was one and though he acted tough, I knew he was a softy because of the way he treated his sisters and mom. There were fists fights and the occasional knife fight, but guns were rare. Friday and Saturday nights found Mission Street practically a parking lot with all the low riders. As a young white girl walking around the neighborhood and taking the bus everywhere, I always felt safe. We lived in the Mission because I had a single working mom and that’s what she could afford. After living out of state for a long while, it saddens me greatly that there is no neighborhood in San Francisco that I can afford. I count my blessings that I have a roof over my head, I just wish I could live in my hometown again. Thanks again for that glimpse into old S.F. and for a trip down memory lane.

    • Thank you! Yeah people sometimes talk about all the changes as if of course fancier things are better, but the Mission was never “blighted” even in the toughest years of the late 80s. It’s super painful to see that richness get diluted and see the dream of a city that is at least semi-affordable slip away further and further. I recently came back here after many years and the only way I could do it is by pooling resources with my extended family (having a multigenerational house).

  7. Ive seen this video many times. My fathers gang is represented here, The Warlords SF! He didn’t remember the filming of this and is not in the video. He said he wouldn’t have participated in it any way because he thought it was uncool at the time. Also probably because getting drunk was part of the lifestyle. I grew up listening to his stories of old school gang rumbles, race riots at Mission high, getting arrested and harassed by the police. His was a life of violence on the streets and at home. The warlords were unique in that they were a mixed race gang. My father was originally from Nicaragua but the kids in his gang were other Latinos as well as Irish, Italian, and the big Hawaiian kid that was the gang leader. He mentioned that he moved from SOMA to Noe Valley and this is where he joined the Warlords that ran Day Street Park. Also this was a step up into the white neighborhood, but was ofcourse still a working class neighborhood back then. He wrote a short memoir of his life growing up in SF in the 40s 50s and 60s. I need to dig it up and put it online.

    • Fascinating. Hard to imagine Day Street Park being a sought-after turf nowadays. But even when I was growing up in the 1980s I remember Upper Noe had an edge to it, though you’d never guess it now. If you get that memoir please post it here! I would love to see it.

  8. Eamon~

    Thanks for this post. I, too also enjoyed watching this bit of nostalgia. I grew up in San Francisco (Inner Richmond) during the 1960s to the late 80s. I come from a big Filipino family which has some a rich history in The City. I later moved to Oakland, but still have family that live in SF. I shared this on Facebook and one of my friends recognized his uncle in the film who ran with The Lonely Ones. He shared with me that his dad ran with a “street club” called The Stingrays. I’m doing research on a project about San Francisco “street clubs/gangs” from the 50s to the 80s, and this short tilm that you shared is priceless. I now live in San Jose with my wife and children, and rarely venture to SF. When I do, it’s not the San Francisco I remember (which is sad). Thanks again for sharing this piece of history.

    • Thanks to you too for sharing your memories. I hope you will post a link to anything you end up with on your project. The true street history of San Francisco is not as recorded as it should be, especially from the 1950s-2000. Even though the city we once knew has radically changed, we can still strive to give voice to the stories of the people who were here. It would be a double tragedy to have the memories of all that culture–not to mention fighting and struggling–just fade away.

  9. Ive seen this many times. My father was in a gang that ran Day Street Park in Noe Valley. His gang is represented here at 7:39(although hes not in the video) The Warloards SF. He had some great stories of gang life in SF 1950s/60s. Old school rumbles at Playland, race riots at Mission High, all kinds of trouble. Although most gangs were seperated by race, his gang was a mix of latinos, Irish, Italian, and the big Hawaiian gang leader they show in the video.

    This was a legit program as an alternative to trouble on the streets. Although my father did not participate or even remember the recording of this(possibly because heavy drinking was part of the lifestyle) He also mentioned or heard that this would be played in between movies at local theaters.

    He wrote a very short memoir that tracks some of this period of his life. Here is an excerpt:
    “The other thing that happened during those teenage years was that fighting had become as expression of my inner turmoil. Ive always been shorter than most of my friends, but what they and I knew was that to be in a fight with me was to be in a fight with someone who would not quit…………..
    …….and for a while I became one of the Warlords. I was proud of that jacket and when I entered a room or walked down the street kids would look at me as someone to be feared. It felt good”.

    • My family grew up in the Richmond. My oldest brother was a member of the Street Saints in the late 50’s-early 60’s. They would look for fights down at Mel’s on Geary, or down at OTT’s down at Columbus and Bay.

  10. My family grew up in the Richmond. My oldest brother was a member of the Street Saints in the late 50’s-early 60’s. They would look for fights down at Mel’s on Geary, or down at OTT’s down at Columbus and Bay.

  11. I walk through the homeless tent encampments every morning on my way to work in SOMA. Did you know that the SF cops freely turn a firehose to the homeless here these days? San Francisco is the coldest city in the country. Fuck the 1%

  12. Crazy…I just saw my Mom in this video…She’s dancing in the diner…She went to Mission High and said they would go to Hazels after school to hangout. I think shes like 15 or 16.

  13. Was a pre-teen kid in Bernal Heights.in ’50s Los Bandidos was neighborhood gang,BeBop and Alfred seemed to be around the most. BeBop the good looking, charismatic guy, Alfred the bigger, bad-ass enforcer type with a red blotch on his face Top Hats their younger auxiliary. At the park behind library, I would occasionally throw rocks at teen age gang members for fun. They would chase me around the playground equipment for a minute or so, then give up. Probably out of embarrassment. Hard to look cool as a gangster chasin’ a little kid. AND, I would NEVER throw a rock at Alfred. He was all business with no sense of humor.

  14. I remember going to the Youth for Service dances on Mission St between 11th and Van Ness. Gang fights at Precita park, Medallions, the Untouchables. A bonfire at Ocean beach with the Untouchables when Angel was shot and killed by the brothers from Visitacion valley.

    • Thanks for your comment and sorry for taking so long to approve it. I have been off the site for a little while. It sounds like you went through a lot. About what year did those gang fights take place? Do you feel nostalgia for those times despite the violence? Thanks again.

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