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For the latest edition of our “Great Cities” series, LIFE.com features classic photographs of that smallish, hilly gem by the Bay: San Francisco. For a town its size—with a population of 800,000, it has just a quarter as many people as, for example, Brooklyn—San Francisco holds a forceful grip on the imagination of people around the country and around the world.
From the legendary, wide-open debauchery of the Gold Rush years to the Beat poets of North Beach in the 1950s; the Haight-Ashbury era and the brief (over-romanticized) Summer of Love of the Sixties; the locavore restaurant revolution, which arguably started in the East Bay with Chez Panisse; the unstoppable flowering of gay rights; the first stirrings of “maker culture” and the dawn of the Digital Age (Wired magazine, etc.), San Francisco and environs have been at the center of countless movements and “isms” for more than a century and a half.
The pictures here document The City (as San Franciscans habitually call it) from the 1930s to the early 1970s—a handful of decades during which SF transformed itself as dramatically as any metropolis in America. Despite all the upheaval it’s endured, however, San Francisco remains a singular place. It’s at-once whimsical and tough, self-absorbed and endearing—a cultured, world-class city that retains some of its Wild West character, while harboring neighborhoods that feel like distinct, companionable hamlets.
So, let’s celebrate a great American city. Whatever you do, though, do not call it “Frisco.” San Franciscans young and old get weirdly worked up about that nickname. You’ve been warned.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.