My final day of exploration lead me around, north park, downtown, north beach, and south of Market. I was lead by architect and fellow alley advocate, David Winslow. Before heading over to David’s, I revisited the V.C. Morris gift shop, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1948 masterpiece that I wrote my first paper in architecture school about. With a little more critical eye, this space only amazed me more.
After meeting David, we began by seeing his adaptive reuse of a warehouse off an alley into a mixed use catalyst containing a fold up coffee shop that draws a crowd out front throughout the day. the alley-like Linden Street is finally going through a remodel that David has worked for three years at getting constructed. As with most alley projects encountered this far, a serious political battle must be braved for even the simplest thing to happen in these spaces.
After reviewing construction progress and a few other north park alleys, we headed down to Commercial Street.
Commercial Street runs east-west and links the Chnatown neighborhoods with the financial district to its east, containing a myriad of shops, restaurants, and tabletop friendly dining experiences on the lunch hours during the day. After speaking to the Hair of the Dog restaurant manager, apparently tenants renew an annual permit to place tables and chairs into the alley from 10 am to 2 pm every day, providing an automobile free, pedestrian-friendly experience. This pattern is seen throughout San Francisco at places like Belden Place, the Irish Bank, and others. Coming from Seattle, this is remarkable policy, as it’s seemingly impossible to place a table and chair into an alley without doing it guerrilla. Not only is this simple permit great for the pedestrian experience, but it certainly grows an owner’s square footage and ability to draw a crowd. Apparently Maiden Lane and Belden Place both began as some of the roughest spaces in the city before brave entrepreneurs had ideas to transform them.
We then preceded to an amazing alley that recalls Lawrence Halprin directly east of the iconic Transamerica pyramid. This alley is one of my favorites thus far on the trip. Despite a lack of draw to the space, it tees into Redwood Park, a quarter block’s worth of large redwood trees in the middle of the city, and possesses a great level of detailing with plants breaking through a random paver pattern bearing ferns, flowers, and abundant seating. The alley is gated with no vehicular traffic and frames a view of the base of the tower behind it. Drainage is to the street in a simple slope style, but plant material and moss has started to grow between pavers giving it a great sense of being half landscape, half cityscape.
Hotaling alley is a collection of wanderfully small brick buildings that lined the edge of the old northeastern bank of the city before the fill began in the early twentieth century. This alley was apparently remodelled twenty or so years ago and has a lively paving pattern, ballards, and seemingly thriving planters. A map and plaque at the mouth of the alley tell the story of the area’s history.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the second most dense part of the United States besides downtown Manhattan. It is the birth place of San Francisco and was settled in the 1850s during the gold rush due to the large influx of hopeful young immigrants looking to make their fortune. Building stock is now 60% comprised of single resident occupancy (SRO) units consisting of 8 by 8 foot units that house bunkbeds full of families in the only affordable district in downtown that has services in place to facilitate immigrant relocation.
The alleys are packed full of everything from produce markets to senior family organizations, where the smell if hot tea and the sound of stringed instruments being played starts around 8 in the morning. Culture thrives in these alleys. The Chinatown alley masterplan has created signage, seating, plants, and a cohesive environment in the remodeling of 12 of 30 total alleys in this district.
A large part of the controlled cleanliness of these spaces was a revamped waste dipsosal regiment. As with most alleys in heavily trafficked areas, illegal dumping was a latent problem. As I witnessed today, dumpsters are no longer present, but owners and merchants keep regular trash bins in the back of their spaces and take them out to the mouths of the alleys everyday for pickup, eliminating illegal dumping and the need for garbage trucks to run down the alleys.
The masterplan continues to grow, and I was fortunate to snap some pictures as the last pavers were being placed in the newest remodel, Beckett Alley.
The primary thing I have not been able to learn is how these alleys drain runoff, as it has not rained on my trip, and there don’t appear to be any downspouts. This set of alleys pays testament to the fact that if you want to change something in your city, you only need to take action, be dedicated, and understand your community’s needs. The transformation of spaces such as these require political and social finesse. As they are typically not considered, these spaces require new legislation which takes time, but when done right, transforms the city and many lives for the better.
I would like to thank the Chinatown Community Development Center, the Reverend Norman Wong, and my fantastic tour guide Jessica for a rich experience and inspiration.
Today I met with Jasmine Kaw of the city of San Francisco’s Department of Public Works and formerly of the Chinatown Community Development Center. Her story was incredible. While doing her masters thesis at Berkeley in landscape architecture, she became interested in the Chinatown alleys through a professor and decided to do her thesis on documenting and proposing changes in the alleys. After the study was completed and problems highlighted, the study received public attention and she, with the CCDC, drew up the alley masterplan in the early 90s. After 3 years if community meetings, government meetings, and other necessaries, the collective forces began to push for transformation. The city was to build a large park for the ultra dense neighbirhood, but the site selected was deemed unfit and sold to a developer. The resulting fund was still to be put toward open space and upkeep so over 2 million dollars were put toward the implementation of the alleyway masterplan. They are wrapping up construction on the 12th alley and the city has now adopted the masterplan as guidelines for development in Chinatown. Since Jasmine began to work for the city, she’s been put in charge of a number of alley projects slowly gaining momentum around the city.
For lunch, I went to the notoriously buzzing Belden Lane where I spoke to restaurant workers about the setup and takedown of furniture and very interesting operable canopies every morning a d late every night. It was a fantastic environment like something off a European street.
This is a great city. The relationship of built space to open space is fantastic despite immense density. The day began with a trip to Chinatown to meet with the Reverend Norman Fong, essentially the director of a large consortia of neighbirhood grassroots planning organizations called the Chinatown Development Commission. He went into great detail about the beginning of the Chinatown alley masterplan drafted with his help by a masters of landscape architecture candidate ten years ago (who now works for the city and I will be meeting with tomorrow) in response to severe neglect of the neighborhoods’ alleys.
My general interpretation of the city is a dominant east west grain, an incredible density to open space relationship. The individual districts and neighbirhoods weld together through infrastructural edges and topographic change.
The alleys thus far are at the most elementary analysis benefitted from their low adjacent building heights and slightly south of east west orientation. Tiny sidewalks line both sides providing a specifically pedestrian environment and a clear demarcation of the difference between the building owners land and the right of way. There seems to be a number of alleys that have the permitting in place to leave furniture in them during the day for restaurant use.
Below is a GPS log of my travels around the city that I am trying to include as part of my study in each city.