San Francisco is beautiful. The combination of fog, hills, Victorians and water makes a city that shimmers in peoples’ imaginations and sticks with visitors the rest of their lives. It would make sense to assume then that the flag of our glorious city (and county) would reflect this. That it would be some legendary beacon speaking to the many iconic virtues of the City by the Bay. Right? Well if you thought this, you’d be painfully wrong.
To put it delicately, the San Francisco flag looks like it fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. Don’t get me wrong, I love my city. I’ve made a career of basically writing love poems about it. But just as the person you’re head over heels for might snore too loudly in their sleep, San Francisco has some unattractive flaws, too. And goddamn if the flag isn’t one of them.
I remember the first time seeing the flag. I was walking near City Hall on Gough or Franklin and I said to the person I was with, “What flag is that?” We got closer to investigate, and I and realized it was the flag of San Francisco. “I didn’t know S.F. had a flag,” I said, “ and I wish I still didn’t.”
The design of the flag is a white field with a phoenix rising from flames. The motto written on a scroll beneath the phoenix says, “Oro en Paz. Fierro en Guerra,” San Francisco is written in blue, and the whole flag has a gold border. This all sounds fine when you describe it, but when you see it, it’s utterly underwhelming. The “flames” look more like a crappy red crown drawn by an 6th grader, and the phoenix looks more smug than defiant. To be honest, that phoenix looks like a real asshole. Like, I bet he tips 7 percent when he goes out to eat and he snaps his fingers — I mean, feathers — at the server.
Unfortunately, I share a birthday with this ignoble flag. Officially adopted on Dec. 16, 1940, many people thought the phoenix represented San Francisco rising from the ashes of the Great Conflagration of 1906. These people were wrong. It actually represents S.F. rising from the ashes again and again and again after a bunch of Australian criminals, called the Sydney Ducks, repeatedly burned The City to the ground in the 1850s. In 1900, Mayor James Phelan suggested to the Board of Supes that S.F. adopt a flag and motto. After more than 100 designs were submitted, John M. Gamble’s design was named the winner. I’d hate to see what those other 99 looked like.
The words “Oro en Paz. Fierro en Guerra” translate to “Gold in Peace. Iron in War,” which is a pretty badass motto. It came about because San Francisco was the embarkation point for so many ships during the Spanish-American War, which occurred right around the time of the flag design contest.
Here’s the thing: The idea of the flag, with its phoenixes and flames and wars and stuff, is pretty amazing. It’s just that the execution looks like Gamble woke up hungover and said, “Oh man, I forgot this is due today!” and slapped it together. Look, we’ve all done it, but none of our hungover “masterpieces” have been enshrined as an official flag. So I’d like to see another flag contest.
Let’s get the flag we deserve. I know Autodesk is holding some kind of flag contest, but I don’t want this to be used as some kind of marketing campaign for a rich tech company. I want you, the citizens of San Francisco, to design flags that show what you feel best represents The City. Send them to info@BrokeAssStuart.com, and I’ll put the best ones on my site.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.