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Portsmouth Square: A Historic Hub And Community Centerpiece

Socializing in Portsmouth Square | Photo: Flickr/Michael Fraley

By Laura Thompson - Published on May 29, 2016.

Originally called the Plaza, and now known as the "Heart of Chinatown," the city's oldest public square harkens back to the days of Yerba Buena, the small coastal settlement that became San Francisco.

Portsmouth Square bears very little resemblance to its past, but the plaza is a significant historic and cultural space that continues to function as a focal point for community gatherings.

Chinatown has a population density of over 65,000 people per square mile, more than three times San Francisco's citywide density. With very little open space within its boundaries, it is no surprise that Chinatown's largest park is extremely popular among its residents. At any time of the day or evening, the square is bustling with a variety of activities. This is where community residents come together to play card games, chess or Mahjong, practice tai chi and socialize with family, friends and neighbors.

Children play in Portsmouth Square | Photo: Laura Thompson/Hoodline
The 1.3-acre plaza rests on a full city block bordered by Washington, Kearny, Clay and Walter U. Lum Place, named after a local advocate who fought for Chinese American rights. The square is divided into two levels. The upper level has large event spaces, seating areas, a playground and a pedestrian bridge planned to become an elevated mini-park that connects to the Chinese Culture Center. The lower level also has a playground, smaller gathering spaces and an indoor clubhouse under the bridge. The four-level Portsmouth Square parking garage is positioned under the square and accessed via Kearny Street. Pedestrians reach the plaza from all corners as well as from Clay and Washington streets.

Competitive card and board games are popular activities at Portsmouth Square | Photo: Laura Thompson/Hoodline
The public square was formed on a sloping hill in the early 19th century. It was laid out as an open field and quickly became the center of Yerba Buena's civic and commercial activity. The bay shoreline was only about a block away, near where Montgomery Street is today. In 1846, Yerba Buena was seized by Captain John Montgomery of the USS Portsmouth and renamed San Francisco in 1847, during the Mexican-American War. The square was subsequently named in honor of the ship.

For a small space, Portsmouth Square claims an impressive number of "firsts," and three of them are California Historical Landmarks. In 1846 the American flag was raised here for the first time after Captain Montgomery's claiming of Yerba Buena, the first public school in California opened at the southwest corner of the square in 1848, and the eastern terminus of the first cable car railroad system in the world was installed here in 1873. The discovery of gold in the Sierras was first announced at the plaza and it was the site of early municipal buildings including city hall.

Portsmouth Square in 1867 | Photo courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
Over time, the plaza's appearance has changed substantially. Once an open field, in the mid-1800s pathways were constructed, crisscrossing the land in a formal design, trees were planted, and by 1876, the square was covered with vegetation. By 1905, many of the trees were cleared.

Portsmouth Square in 1905. The Robert Louis Stevenson monument in the center was installed in 1897 and still stands in the plaza | Photo courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed nearly the entire neighborhood. Reconstruction began about a year after the disaster, and the buildings that surround the square today on the southern and western edges include many of the structures from that era.

Portsmouth Square in 1964. The old Hall of Justice (demolished in 1968) stands where the Hilton San Francisco Financial District is today. Dogs are now allowed in the square on leash | Photo courtesy of Alan J. Canterbury, San Francisco History Center
In the 1960s, the square was completely torn up to make way for a four-level underground parking garage to serve neighborhood businesses and tourists. The park design was again changed dramatically with renovations in the early to mid-1990s.

Today, Portsmouth Square is managed by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. The layout of the plaza includes the park use components that are important to residents, but the square has not been renovated since the 1990s.  In 2014, Park & Rec conducted community outreach, focus groups and planning analysis  to anticipate future upgrades, including the restroom renovation project that was completed in 2015.

Group exercise in Portsmouth Square | Photo: Laura Thompson/Hoodline
Chinatown is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city and Portsmouth Square is a must-see on guided tours. Many events are held in the square throughout the year, including the Chinatown Music Festival in August and Chinese New Year celebrations in February.

A view of the square from the pedestrian bridge spanning Kearny Street | Laura Thompson/Hoodline
Getting there: From the Montgomery BART station, walk up Montgomery to Clay Street, turn left and walk one block to the square. The 1-California bus stops on Kearny at Sacramento or Clay streets. The 8-Kearny stops across the street. Parking (fee) is available in the garage under the square. Restrooms and drinking fountains are located in the park. This park is wheelchair accessible.
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