Portsmouth Square bridge to get artistic facelift

While Chinatown is often stereotyped as a destination for cheap touristy goods, the Chinese Culture Foundation is seeking to change that perception by reimagining one of the neighborhood’s most iconic open spaces — the Portsmouth Square pedestrian bridge.

The foundation is scheduled Tuesday to call for artists to design new elements for the bridge linking Portsmouth Square to the foundation’s Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco at the Hilton San Francisco Financial District.

The pilot project would transform the bridge, owned by the foundation and hotel, from a “bare” place where skateboarders and pigeon feeders loiter to an attractive space for families, community meetings and a space for Tai Chi practitioners and other groups, said the foundation’s Executive Director Mabel Teng.

However, Teng said the bigger picture is communicating a contemporary Chinese-American narrative that directly challenges two common misconceptions about the community.

“First, that Chinese Americans are a model minority, which is a direct hindrance to the fight for equality for the majority of Asians who have not made it,” Teng said.

“Second is the perception that Chinatown is a kitschy and ‘cheap’ tourist destination. That is really a barrier for people to understand that Chinatown is one of the oldest American neighborhoods and a gateway to new immigrants and home to the elderly and immigrant families.”

That contemporary Chinese-American narrative is one the foundation had been developing for months and is formally unveiling as its new mission statement at Tuesday’s gathering at the hotel, one of a series of events this year to celebrate the foundation’s 50th anniversary.

The number of artists who will be selected hasn’t been determined. The initial thought is they’ll redesign existing benches on the bridge possibly with murals, as well as a slab between two staircases leading to the culture center, perhaps like China’s Forbidden City.

The Innovative Open Space Project, as it’s being called, is made possible through $100,000 from the Community Challenge Grant Program and $25,000 from the hotel. It will be done in collaboration with the Chinatown Community Development Center and the Mayor’s office.

In August, the foundation plans to have artist Beili Liu reveal a decorative covering around the bridge symbolizing the end of the long fight for the Central Subway to Chinatown, as well as the beginning of the new art pieces.

The pilot phase for the bridge art project will end in fall 2016, with hope that they will become permanent fixtures and set a template for remaking more of the limited open spaces across the neighborhood.

“This cross section collaboration is really the beginning of a new narrative,” Teng said. “After this, we would like to continue to activate the rest of the community, and fundraising and support are going to be a big part of realizing that potential.”

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