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By Simon J. Lau
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.
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.
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.
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.