When Dragon Gate, the majestic gateway arch to Chinatown, was erected at the foot of the neighborhood on Grant Avenue in 1970, it drew many visitors near and far — and still continues to attract tourists.
But past the iconic archway, parts of the corridor today are often considered eyesores. Trash, gum and graffiti plague many storefronts on the avenue, once the main commercial corridor for residents who now prefer the food and upkeep of restaurants on Stockton Street or side streets.
“Grant Avenue used to be the place where all the locals wanted to come just as much as the tourists, to eat, to shop,” said Betty Louie, whose family owns several retail and residential buildings in Chinatown. “There were tons of things to do. There were always exhibits, and that has just kind of fallen by the wayside.”
Now retired, Louie, who sold the prominent store China Bazaar at 667 Grant Ave. in 2012, is on a mission to bring large-scale attractions to the avenue, in an attempt to please locals and new visitors.
One project would involve bolting down life-size replicas of China’s famous terracotta soldiers, buried with the first Emperor to protect him in his afterlife. The statues would be placed on the sidewalk, underneath an existing mural of the army on a building Louie owns at the Clay Street intersection.
“The music and art, everything is snowballing,” Louie said. “I’m trying to make it so we can have some kind of renaissance in the area, so someone will say, ‘I’m going to bring my friends there.’”
Louie, who already possesses eight replicas and would fund the installation herself, said initial communication with the Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Arts Commission for approval “did not sound very encouraging.” Still, she sent a three-page letter to Mayor Ed Lee last week in hopes of support.
“Maybe he will say, ‘Grant Avenue needs something.’ Nobody has touched Grant Avenue in decades,” Louie said, adding that The City has directed its attention to Stockton Street, where the new Central Subway station is being constructed.
Louie is also proposing a pilot program to replace nonuniform flower pots on the 600 and 700 blocks of eastside Grant Avenue, with new, identical planters. They would be purchased and maintained by the nonprofit Chinatown Merchants Association, at an estimated $10,000 price tag. Some say the planters are unkempt due to negligent store owners.
“Anything we can do to help our community, we think is worth it,” said Eva Lee, an association board member. “If we don’t take initiative, who will? I’m sorry to say, but the politicians are not helping us.”
Both new attractions would “definitely help,” said Kevin Liu, 36. His gift shops in the 700 and 800 blocks of Grant Avenue — New Shanghai, New Peking, Asian Trends and Asian Styles — have seen a dip in foot traffic over the past few years.
Liu said the avenue may be unappealing to visitors because some of the older storeowners don’t clean up — a habit he’s not sure the terracotta soldiers and planters will change.
“I don’t think it is going to make Grant look clean,” he said. “But I think it will make it look nicer.”
Louie said she has faith she can reinvigorate the restaurant scene with renowned chef Brandon Jew, to whom she leased the former Four Seas restaurant space at 731 Grant Ave. His new restaurant, Mister Jew, is slated to open this summer.
Louie has also organized a free music series this summer at Utopia Cafe on Waverly Place, an alley parallel to Grant Avenue, with a variety of genres including Cuban and western.