Tuesday, March 17, 2009

San Francisco - Chinatown

Some of the most fascinating and appealing attractions of large diverse cities are their isolated ethnic communities. These communities are typically well established enclaves within a city. Often times, they cater to tourists who are eager to catch a glimpse of a distant culture without spending the coin on airfare. The most successful of these cultural attractions are able to provide a vastly different experience for visitors and residents alike as they cross a street or turn a corner into the ethnic district. Naturally, the built environment plays a huge roll in setting the atmosphere.The San Francisco Chinatown is the oldest and largest in the hemisphere and has direct ties to the Chinese laborers who built the first transcontinental railway. Vegetable stands line the streets and every sort of business caters to the Chinese-language population. Despite sitting in the standard grid layout of the rest of the city, Chinatown is a vastly different place with a vastly different feel. As the modern day "placemakers" would say, it's quite a place. To fully understand why this historic collection of 16 or so blocks is so special, it is important to understand the two most important factors in "placemaking" (and no, hiring a consultant isn't one of them).

The Chinatown in San Francisco dates back to the 1850s. It didn't take long for the "natives" to see the Chinese as an economic and cultural threat so by the 1870s, ordinances were passed and deed restriction put in place to severely limit the ability of people of Chinese descent to own property outside of the historic Chinatown boundaries. This created one of the most important conditions for the creation of a thriving place, scarcity of space.Every inch of space was valued and there was no chance for sprawl. Dark alleys became vibrant streets and every bit of open land was built as close to the street as it was allowed. The size of the historic Chinatown district--16 blocks--made it perfect for foot traffic. Every place in the district was less than a five minute walk to any other. Conditions varied over the years, and much of Chinatown was "westernized" after a failed attempt by city officials to clear out the neighborhood following the devastating 1906 earthquake however old Chinatown lives on in the small streets and alleys that were made precious by racist legal codes.There are two generators of space scarcity, natural limits--water boundaries, poor transportation infrastructure, mountains...etc.--and artificial limits like cultural boundaries, racist deed restrictions, green belts, regional growth boundaries...etc. In the case of Chinatown, a natural boundary (San Francisco sits on a peninsula) encouraged city officials to implement an artificial boundary (racist deed restrictions and property ownership ordinances). Space scarcity alone though, isn't enough to make an interesting place. San Francisco is full of places that have no extra room, some are happening and some are avoided. The difference is culture. It turns out the melting pot analogy of America doesn't make much sense. I don't think many people want the entire country to look the same, feel the same, taste the same... Truffles are a nice treat, but I doubt most would adopt a truffle-only diet. Culture means contrast, and contrast can only develop in isolation. Old Chinatown was an incredibly isolated place. Much of the city was off limits to the Chinese and much of Chinatown was off limits to Caucasians. An incredibly strong language barrier maintained this isolation even when legal restrictions were removed.Of course, the Chinese started off with quite an advantage. As immigrants from a distant land, their various traditions were all different enough from the dominant American culture of the time that they were melded together out of mutual isolation. Overall though, culture develops quickly in relative isolation. In contemporary communities, this is most often done by providing sufficient services within a small geographic area so that nearby residents will be forced to interact primarily with one another.

Architects still struggle with the "lost art of placemaking", perhaps one day they will realize that their job is to design buildings, the inhabitants of which will be glad to "make the place" ... free of charge.

1 comment:

  1. can u tell me why chinatown,san francisco is a historic land mark please? i searched everything