(Abbreviated) tour of San Francisco by way of Grant Avenue

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By Simon J. Lau

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If there were one street that connected San Francisco’s past to its present, it would be Grant Avenue. Grant Avenue cuts through many of San Francisco’s most vibrant neighborhoods, from Financial District and Chinatown to Little Italy. With so much history in one space, one could learn a tremendous deal of San Francisco by exploring just this street alone. I personally spent several years living in North Beach and frequented Grant Avenue on my days to work and weekend trips into Chinatown and I can attest to the liveliness and diversity here. So without further ado, below is our (abbreviated) tour of San Francisco, past and present, by way of Grant Avenue.

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The Phelan Building, the former Savings Union Bank office, and the former Union Trust Company (left to right), were rebuilt after the 1906 Earthquake with San Francisco’s City Beautification Movement in mind. At its core, the Beautification Movement challenged city planners to combine timeless and beautiful architecture to what was then a ragtag urban infrastructure. Much of San Francisco, especially the now coveted areas along Embarcadero, Financial District, and SoMa, were industrial zones with many warehouses and manufacturing facilities. It was gritty, grimy, and at times dangerous. The 1906 Earthquake changed much of that. It allowed the city to reimagine and reinvent itself into a proper first class city with a healthy stock of well-built and beautiful architecture. The Beatification Movement led to a proliferation of high-end office spaces throughout San Francisco and Financial District specifically. Many of these buildings, including the three mentioned here, were eventually designated San Francisco Landmarks. The Phelan Building is arguably the most distinguished of the trio: It was one of the most coveted office spaces in the city at that time and remains one of the most prominent buildings along Market Street today.

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It is impossible to mention Grant Avenue without mentioning Chinatown. Grant Avenue acts as Main Street to Chinatown, and at its entrance lays Dragon Gate. As the titleholder of the oldest Chinatown outside of Asia, San Francisco’s Chinatown has for nearly two centuries served as the home away from home for many Chinese immigrants. In its early days, this area was overcrowded, rundown, and home to countless opium dens, gambling houses, and brothels. Ironically, it was only after the 1906 Earthquake that the area was rebuilt and transformed into the tourist destination that it is known for today.

One little known fact is that many of the early Chinese immigrants were male laborers. Few visas were issued to non-laborers, which led to a large gender disparity in Chinatown. Fortunately for these immigrants, the 1906 Earthquake caused a fire in City Hall that destroyed many immigration papers. Without immigration papers, these Chinese immigrants secured US citizenship by claiming birth on US soil. They further leveraged their newfound status to sponsor family and friends to America. This created a new class of immigrants informally known as “paper sons” and “paper daughters,” children who were unrelated to these male laborers, but earned US citizenship by claiming family legacy.

The Jazz Mural and the Language of the Birds installation are long-standing art features found at the intersection of Chinatown, North Beach, and Telegraph Hill. The Jazz Mural depicts North Beach’s rich jazz history and includes images of prominent musicians such as Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman, as well as local figures such as Emperor Norton. Adjacent to the mural lies The Language of the Birds installation, a collection of 23 sculpted “birds” (shaped in the form of books) that pay tribute to the neighborhood’s prominent literary heritage. Several notable literary figures closely linked to North Beach include Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet and author of Howl, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Lights Bookstore on Columbus. These “books” light up in timed intervals and give the appearance of flight. Combined, these art features act as a constant reminder of the neighborhood’s diverse history.

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This final stretch of Grant Avenue lays adjacent to many of the quintessential Little Italy establishments including Washington Square Park and Saints Peter and Paul Church. Besides these distinguished landmarks, this area also plays an important role in the social fabric of North Beach. Within several short blocks you will find local favorites that include Tony’s Pizza, Nik’s Cafe, and Comstock, to name only a few. It’s a wonderful spot to end a walking tour of San Francisco and begin a nightlife tour of North Beach.




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How I came to love photography

To view our full gallery or to purchase prints, please visit our album here.
By Simon J. Lau

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Dear Mr. Graham,

It was over a decade ago that as my teacher, you introduced me to photography and set in motion a lifelong passion to develop and nurture this interest. It was in those early days that you provided me with the tactical tools to develop and print film. I still recall your teaching me the process in creating test strips and how to use these strips to identify the “right” amount of time for each print. In another instance, I am reminded of your demonstration in “dodging and burning” to either bring out, or mute an under- or overexposed portion of film. It was this hands-on knowledge of film development that initially contributed to my keen appreciation for beautiful photographs.

At the same time, it was the role that you played in shaping my philosophical approach to photography that has had the greatest influence on my work. There was the time spent in your office discussing the tremendous opportunities and great struggles that life creates and connecting the significance photography plays in documenting and translating these notable moments in our history. It was this initial framework of translation and documentation that has remained a cornerstone to my photographic philosophy and my work.

Each time I find myself behind the viewfinder, I challenge myself to not only capture and record what I see in front of me, but also to frame a story for my audience. In framing this story, my goal is to create intimate photographs that bring to life a small piece of history. Doing so has trained not only my eye, but also my mind to approach events, individuals, and circumstances with a mental lens wide-open. One that is keenly aware of the many perspective that can emerge from a more sensitive observation of the world around us.

Thank you, Mr. Graham. I will never forget your hard work and inspiration in cultivating my passion to document, translate, and share my observations of the human experience with others.

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Sincerely,

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Simon J. Lau



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