Heart of Chinatown: Portsmouth Square in San Francisco

February 25, 2015 | By | Reply More
Portsmouth Square, 1851.

Portsmouth Square, 1851.

 “San Francisco has always been a city!” the natives sometimes boast out, and by their definition, they are undeniable right.

Before it became a city however, San Francisco was for some eleven years the pueblo (village) of Yerba Buena (El Paraje de Yerba Buena – the place of the good herb). It nestled between Broadway, Pine and Stockton Streets and the San Francisco Bay. Its waterfront has since become Montgomery Street and its heart was the plaza we now call Portsmouth square.

Around Portsmouth Square on January 30, 1847, clustered twenty buildings. Four of them were shops, one was a hide warehouse, one a mule powered gristmill, one another warehouse, two doubled as hotels and taprooms, and one was an out-and-out saloon. The rest were homes.

Portsmouth Square 1850

Portsmouth Square 1850

On the plaza itself was the most important building in the village, the Customs House, which in its time was the local sear of two governments. It stood in the Brenham Place and Washington Street corner of the square (about opposite the site today occupied by the Nam Yuen and Sun Hung Hueng restaurants) and was built in 1844 on order of the Mexican governor, Jose Figueroa.

Walking in the neighborhood is also very enjoyable. For historical appreciation, begin at the corner of Kearny and Clay Streets. When William Heath Davis stood here in 1833, this area was a potato patch, planted by Candelario Miramontes, who lived near the Presidio.

Two years later, on June 25, Captain W. A. Richardson built Yerba Buena’s first residence uphill on what is now Grant Avenue and the village was started. The following year neighbors arrived to build nearby. By the time Captain John B. Montgomery, commander of the American sloop of war, the USS Portsmouth, marched his marines up Clay Street to fly the American flag on the plaza in 1846, there was a fair crowd to watch.  Captain Montgomery was ordered to seize Yerba Buena.

On July 9, 1846, the first American flag was raised near the Mexican adobe custom house in the plaza that would eventually be named Portsmouth Square in honor of the ship.

The Marines landed at a propitious time.

Sam Brannan and two hundred or so Mormon followers arrived just 22 days later, looking for a place to settle. One report says that when Brannan saw the flag he “grumbled and swore”, but he stayed.

A year later, there were 157 buildings around the plaza.

One of them contained a printing press and one a school. It was Washington A. Bartlett, alcalde, as the mayors were called then, of the village, who renamed it in San Francisco.

He did it to get the jump on another ambitious village now called Benicia at a time when settlers felt the town which bore the same name as the San Francisco Bay would be the one to prosper.

220px-Plaque_in_Chinatown_areaThe Gold Rush and the forty-niners did the rest to make the city of San Francisco. Almost as soon as the words “Gold! Gold from the American River!” were shouted by Sam Brannan on the plaza, the transformation was underway. Soon there were saloons, gambling houses, shops and hotels surrounding the square.

Near the center of town is a square, which… is called the “Plaza;” two sides of this are occupied by brick buildings, devoted solely to gambling. We have the “Veranda,” “El Dorado,” “Parker House,” “Empire,” “Rendezvous,” “Bella Union,” in one row… On entering one of these saloons the eye is dazzled… by the brilliancy of chandeliers and mirrors. The roof, rich with gilt-work, is supported by pillars of glass: and the walls are hung with French paintings of great merit, but of which female nudity forms alone the subject. – Frank Marryat, 1855

By 1879-80, when poet Louis Stevenson arrived in San Francisco, the city had already expanded beyond Larking Street, and there were Chinese children playing on Portsmouth Square as they do today. The marker given by Stevenson’s friends and the tablet commemorating the squares historical flag raisings are both there for to discover.

In 1962 Portsmouth Square, after many dowdy years, emerged from a face lifting, which included installing a four level garage in its depths.

Director Don Siegal filmed a scene from the 1971 movie Dirty Harry in the Square. As the character “Dirty Harry” follows “Scorpio” you see the stone bridge joining the park to the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, at the Hilton Financial, 750 Kearny Street.

In 1987, the park underwent its second major renovation. The first phase involved installing new elevators and bathrooms on the top of the park. The second phase began in 1994, included installation of child play structures, Chinese chess tables, benches, and landscaping.

Phase three included the construction of a new community room and play areas. This $3.9 million renovation was completed and the park was opened to the public in 2001. Now on the surface is one of the most usable small metropolitan parks in the world, with a children’s play area and an outdoor game room for adults, removed from the children by the simple device of elevation.

Today, the square is considered a part of Chinatown, earning it a nickname “Heart of Chinatown”.

On the Washington Street perimeter, look also for the new Buddha’s Universal Church. On the downhill side, the old Hall of Justice’s fate is undecided, but in its side alley, Merchant Street, the famous Blue Fox restaurant continues to flourish, just across from what was once the old city morgue.

 

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Category: Fog City - City of Fog, History

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