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Though San Francisco is the state's smallest county, about 47.9 sq mi (124 sq km) in area, it is the cultural, commercial, and financial center of northern California. Though only the 4th-largest city in the state, it is the most densely populated (18,451 people per sq mi, 7,124 per sq km), it is the second-most densely populated in the US (after New York). When an overland Spanish exploration party led by Don Gaspar de Portolà arrived in 1769 it was inhabited by a few villages of the Yelamu tribe of the Ohlone people. Seven years later Juan Bautista de Anza established the Presidio of San Francisco, followed by Mission San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores). After 1821 it was part of Mexico, and the mission system gradually ended and its lands became privatized. In 1835 William Richardson of England erected the first independent homestead and, with alcalde Francisco de Haro, laid out a street plan for an expanded settlement, Yerba Buena. During the Mexican War commodore John D. Sloat claimed California for the US and Captain John B. Montgomery arrived to claim Yerba Buena two days later, on 7 July 1846, which was renamed San Francisco six months later. The California Gold Rush of 1849 brought rapid growth, raising the population from 1,000 in 1848 to 25,000 by the end of 1849.
The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, boasting 700 members in 1851 and claimed to operate in parallel to, and in defiance of, the duly constituted city government: It engaged in policing, investigating disreputable boarding houses and vessels, deporting immigrants, and parading its militia, and members used its headquarters to interrogate and incarcerate suspects without the benefit of due process. The organization was formed on 9 June and it hanged John Jenkins of Sydney, Australia, on 10 June after convicting him of stealing a safe. On 11 July it hanged James Stuart of Sydney, accused of murder and Stuart's associates Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie on 24 August for "various heinous crimes," three days after a standoff between the Committee and the police force trying to protect the prisoners. Altogether it whipped one, deported 14 to Australia, ordered another 14 to leave the state, handed 15 over to public authorities, and discharged 41. The Committee was dissolved during the September elections, but its executive members continued to meet into 1853. Its leaders reorganized a larger Committee (6,000 members) in 1856, which not only engaged in policing, investigating, and holding secret trials, but seized three shipments of armaments intended for the state militia and tried the chief justice of the California Supreme Court. Nevertheless, it worked closely with the municipal government; its president William T. Coleman frequently met with his close friend governor J. Neely Johnson to discuss goals and methods, and Johnson named banker William Tecumseh Sherman to command the San Francisco branch of the state militia, which bolstered the Committee's power. The vigilantes formed the People's Party, the city and county were consolidated into a single government, and the new party governed the city until 1867. Silver discoveries, including the Comstock Lode in 1859, further drove rapid population growth, and the Barbary Coast section of town gained notoriety as a haven for criminals, prostitutes, and gamblers. Port development and the establishment in 1869 of overland access to the eastern US rail system via the Pacific Railroad spurred more growth; in 1870, Asians, hired as cheap railroad labor, made up 8% of the population.
By 1890 the city's population approached 300,000, making it the 8th-largest city in the country, and by 1901 it was known for its flamboyant style, stately hotels, ostentatious mansions on Nob Hill, and a thriving arts scene. The first North American plague epidemic was the San Francisco plague of 1900–1904, amd 3/4 of the city was destroyed by earthquake and fire in 1906; more than half of the city's 400,000 residents were left homeless, prompting Jak London to remark, "Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone." Rebuilding was swift, however; many of the city's wealthy moved into newly developed western neighborhoods that survived the fire, including Pacific Heights, while their destroyed mansions on Nob Hill became grand hotels. In 1912 he city hired Michael O'Shaughnessy to supervise massive new infrastructure construction. No San Francisco-based banks failed in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, and during the Depression the city simultaneously undertook the construction of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. The United Nations Charter which created the UN was drafted and signed in the city in 1945 and the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco officially ended the American war with Japan.
Meanwhile, poet Kenneth Rexroth, the central figure in the area's literary culture from the 1930s through the 60s and among the first American poets to explore traditional Japanese poetic forms such as haiku, was laying the basis for the San Francisco Renaissance that would include poets such as William Everson (Brother Antoninus), Philip Lamantia, Bob Kaufman, James Broughton, Helen Adam, Bruce Boyd, Kirby Doyle, Richard Duerden, Ebbe Borregaard, Lew Welch, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who established City Lights, the first all-paperback bookstore in the US, in 1953 and its publishing arm City Lights Books in 1955). Rexroth had been homeschooled in South Bend, Indiana, by his mother, and by age four was reading widely in the classics. But she died when he was 11, and his father, an alcoholic pharmaceuticals salesman, died three years later, causing him to move to Chicago to live with an aunt. He spent his teenage years working odd jobs and attending the Art Institute of Chicago, associating with anarchists and other political radicals (he was active in the Industrial Workers of the World), and reciting others' poetry on street corners. When he was 18 he was arrested as the part-owner of a brothel and spent several months in jail. After traveling through the western states he moved to Greenwich Village in New York and attended The New School, then became a postulant at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park. Resuming his vagrant life, he visited Mexico and South America before spending a week in Paris, where he met Tristan Tzara and other Surrealists, as well as Ferlinghetti, studying for a doctorate at the Sorbonne, who persuaded Rexroth to go to San Francisco to experience the growing literary scene there. During World War II he and his second wife opened their home to weekly literary discussions, anti-war protesters, and Japanese-American convalescents avoiding internment. Rexroth and Madeline Gleason promoted a group of younger poets consisting of Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robin Blaser. In 1947 Gleason organized the First Festival of Modern Poetry, the first public recognition of the range of experimental poetic practice that was current in the city; over two nights it featured 12 poets, including Rexroth, Duncan and Spicer, to an audience of young poets and poetry lovers.
Before the listener-supported, non-commercial FM station KPFA went on the air in nearby Berkeley, its founder Lewis Hill outlined his plans to a gathering of San Francisco artists and writers who met in Rexroth's apartment, and for years Rexroth presented a weekly half-hour program of book reviews which he ad libbed into a tape recorder at home; many of these brodcasts became the basis of prose writings, including his autobiography; later, his weekly column for the "San Francisco Chronicle" presented a commentary and chronicle of the counterculture movement that centered on San Francisco in the late 1960s. In 1949, he married again during a trip to Europe (though he was still married to his second wife until 1955), but in 1956 she left him for the poet Robert Creeley. During the 1950s both Duncan and Creeley taught at Black Mountain College (founded near Asheville, North Carolina, in 1933 on the notion that the study of art was central to a liberal arts education) and acted as links between the San Francisco poets and the Black Mountain poets led by Charles Olson (and included Denise Levertov, Jonathan Williams, and Ed Dorn). Many of the San Francisco writers began to publish in the house journals of the Black Mountain group, Cid Corman's "Origin" and the "Black Mountain Review." When Allen Ginsberg arrived in San Francisco in 1955, Rexroth sent him to meet Gary Snyder, and Rexroth presided over a reading in October at the Six Gallery by Ginsberg, Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen; this was the seminal event in the Beat Movement, at which Ginsberg read "Howl" for the first time and led to Ferlinghetti's publication of it as the fourth in his Pocket Poet series. This reading signaled the full emergence of the San Francisco Renaissance into the public consciousness and helped establish the city's reputation as a center for countercultural activity. Beat Generation writers fueled the San Francisco Renaissance and centered on the North Beach neighborhood in the 1950s. (Though Rexroth always distanced himself from the Beats, he was featured in Jack Kerouac's novel "The Dharma Bums" as Reinhold Cacoethes.) In the 1960s "Hippies" flocked to the Haight-Ashbury district, established communes, and experimented with different lifestyles that rejected conformist and materialist values. In 1967 artist Michael Bowen organized the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park (where Timothy Leary urged 30,000 participants to "turn on, tune in, drop out"). In the 1970s San Francisco became a center of the gay rights movement, with the emergence of The Castro as an urban gay village and the election of Harvey Milk to the city's Board of Supervisors. Though the term "San Francisco Renaissance" is generally used as a label for a range of poetic activity, some such as philosopher Alan Watts and music critic Ralph J. Gleason insisted on seeing it as a broader phenomenon that also encompassed the visual and performing arts, philosophy, cross-cultural interests (particularly those that involved Asian cultures), and new social sensibilities.
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