Portsmouth Square: San Francisco’s Great Hidden Public Space

Portsmouth Square: San Francisco's Great Hidden Public SpaceWhen I lived in San Francisco, I walked down Kearny Street past Portsmouth Square hundreds of times, trudging between Market Street and North Beach. I’m chagrined to admit I hardly noticed the square. Elevated in 1960 to make room for a subterranean parking garage, the square has an enclosed feeling to it. Almost uninviting. Which is bad (because you can walk right by without noticing it) and good in that it creates an intimate atmosphere, one of San Francisco’s great public living rooms. Portsmouth Square is really San Francisco’s great hidden public space.

Or so I learned on a recent visit. Since one cannot seek out the Barbary Coast without going to this historic public space, I finally climbed the dozen or so stone steps from Kearny Street and plopped myself onto the square. And what a surprise. The place was crammed with Chinese locals–it borders on Chinatown and the Financial District–many of whom were in tightly clenched circles, energy bursting from each one. Some were squatting in that intriguing Chinese manner, playing a board game called Go or cards. A couple non-Chinese were anchored on the periphery of the square in full lotus position, deep in meditation. Locals strolled by flashing curious looks at them.

Until the 1906 earthquake, this was the center of San Francisco. Instead of being lined by Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, produce stands, and a Buddhist supply store (I’ll take a large dose of enlightenment and a side of wisdom, please), the square’s periphery was occupied by brothels and saloons. Where the tall, homely Hilton now stands was the first city hall. Minors, liquored-up on bad booze, would loiter in the square, where today Chinese residents are playing cards for money, thus carrying on the tradition of vice (depending, of course, on your definition of it) by making it the city’s only ad hoc casino.

Starting in the 1850s, Chinese immigrants came in waves after waves to get in on the Gold Rush. At first they were welcomed, but when more and more began turning up at the same time the unemployment rate was going up, laws were put into place to restrict and tax them. They persevered and today Chinatown and its particular Chinese-style architecture was a symbol that they intended to stick around a while. And thank goodness for that. After I left the square, I popped into a bakery and bought a barbequed pork-stuffed bun (for just one dollar) that tasted, at least for that moment, like the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life.