District Three is San Francisco writ small. In Portsmouth Square, in the heart of the district, the writing is tiny, like a miniature blueprint. This is where it all started.
When Richard Henry Dana visited in 1835, he found only a “shanty of rough boards put up by a man named Richardson, who was doing a little trading between the vessels and the Indians.” The site was bleak, buffeted by winds blowing across the sand dunes. But the bay was nearby — as close as Montgomery Street is now. Because ships like Dana’s were stopping there in increasing numbers to pick up cattle hides or provisions, California Governor José Figueroa had appointed former British seaman William Richardson to be Captain of the Port of Yerba Buena.
Richardson’s “shanty” stood on a dirt path, which he called the “Calle de la Fundación” (which was soon subsumed by a roadway called Dupont Street, which eventually became Grant Avenue). Apparently Señora Richardson complained about the living conditions, because he built a proper house nearby a year after Dana’s visit. Their daughter Mariana said later, “I remember before my father constructed his adobe house, while we were still occupying the tent, one night a bear put his paw under the tent and carried off a screeching rooster.”
Figueroa established the village of Yerba Buena for just one purpose: commerce. The village became the city of San Francisco; it moved from Mexican to U.S. jurisdiction. But it remained steadfast to its original purpose.
Directly below Richardson’s “Casa Grande,” a large plaza emerged, ringed by an assortment of civic and commercial establishments, as well as several splendid hotels and gambling houses. As the waterfront moved east, the actual port facilities followed, but the plaza was where Captain John B. Montgomery of the warship Portsmouth ran up the American flag on July 9, 1846 and where the city formally celebrated California’s statehood on October 29, 1850.
Dana had predicted, “If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity.” In time, the city’s commercial center moved a few blocks away, but Dana was right. In 2015 Forbes ranked San Francisco “eighteenth in the world’s top producing cities,” with a gross metro product of $176.7 billion.
Trade centers attract seekers of fortune from all over the world. Like tourists today, early visitors to San Francisco were astonished by the people they saw. Journalist Bayard Taylor wrote in 1849 of “Yankees of every possible variety, native Californians in sarapes and sombreros, Chileans, Sonorians, Kanakas from Hawaii, Chinese with long tails, Malays armed with their everlasting creeses, and others in whose embrowned and bearded visages it was impossible to recognize any especial nationality.”
The first Chinatown in North America grew up near Portsmouth Square, centered on DuPont between Pacific and Commercial Streets. Even the earliest residents were regarded as part — albeit a discomforting part — of the city. The Annals of San Francisco describes a ceremony conducted in the Square in 1850 where Mayor John W. Geary showered a group of “China Boys” with praise and a pile of religious tracts.
The relationship deteriorated in subsequent years. But the Chinese persevered, despite physical attacks in the 1870s under the banner of “The Chinese Must Go” and legal attacks in the 1880s under the rubric of the Chinese Exclusion Act. After the 1906 Earthquake, the General Relief Committee tried to move Chinatown to a location out of sight in Hunters Point, but the powers-that-were quickly met their match. Chinatown residents appealed to the government of China for assistance, and the city dropped its plans.
District Three extends far beyond Portsmouth Square, covering the northeastern part of the waterfront, the eastern part of Market Street and a bevy of picturesque hills. Anyone who works for the port or in the financial district will tell you that commerce, the founding principle of the Calle de la Fundación, is alive and well.
San Francisco’s Chinese community extends far beyond Portsmouth Square as well. Chris A. Smith writes in San Francisco magazine, “The Chinese-American community has become an electoral powerhouse.” Think Mayor Ed Lee. Think Supervisors Eric Mar, Katy Tang and Norman Yee. Think Assemblymen David Chiu and Phil Ting.
In a dramatic twist last year, former Supervisor Aaron Peskin, supported by Chinatown political activist Rose Pak, was reelected, defeating Julie Christensen, the choice of former Chinatown housing activist Mayor Ed Lee. This year Peskin is opposed only by Tim E. Donnelly, a property manager who hopes to inject his good commonsense into the workings of City Hall.
But Portsmouth Square left other legacies. The hospitable establishments that once ringed the old plaza were the great-great-grandfathers of District Three’s $300 tasting menus and $400 cocktails. The elegance of its hotels and brothels led directly the mansions selling for millions of dollars today on Van Ness Avenue and Filbert Street.
San Francisco’s love of the good life has a sad stepsister living in the district, a descendant of Portsmouth Square’s shanty-dwellers. According to the last census, 20 percent of the district’s residents subsist below the poverty line. In one of the densest districts of one of the densest cities in the United States, housing is scarce. Rents are high, in a district where 85 percent of the households are renters. Families in Chinatown occupy 73 percent of the city’s SROs, and according to the film Home Is a Hotel, every time a family moves out, two and a half more want to move in. Many buildings in Chinatown are dilapidated, and gentrifying rodents have begun to nibble at the edges.
Along the bayfront that inspired the founding of Portsmouth Square, tides nibble at the ancient seawalls. Inadequate now, they certainly won’t be able to protect District Three from the rising sea levels projected for the next few decades.
A banner near the top of Columbus Avenue reads: “Welcome to Broadway, where a golden past meets a bright future.” A mural on nearby Jack Kerouac Alley tells another story. In it, images of shore birds and flowers frame the Bay Bridge as it leads into the city. But somebody has disrupted the picture’s promise with blotches of white paint and crimson graffiti.