Portsmouth Square in Chinatown is an important open space for the neighborhood’s residents, many of whom live in densely-occupied SROs. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco’s health and recovery bond leaves Chinatown behind

By Ding Lee

San Francisco’s effort to recover from the pandemic with a proposed $483.5 million Health and Recovery Bond this November is missing a critical piece: Portsmouth Square.

An historic San Francisco site where the American flag was first raised within San Francisco in 1846 and the discovery of gold was first announced in 1848, Portsmouth Square today is the heart of Chinatown, the most densely populated neighborhood west of Manhattan. After an intensive eight year planning and community design process, the square has been left out of the upcoming bond, leaving community members wondering if their dreams for a vibrant open space will ever be realized when such space is more important than ever.

Social distancing is not an option for most residents of Chinatown, which also has very little open space for much-needed respite, recreation and gathering. Historically, xenophobia and racism limited Chinese in San Francisco to a small geographic area, resulting in a neighborhood today that has more than 14,000 residents packed into 20 square blocks. More than two-thirds of Chinatown’s residents live in approximately 74% of the City’s Single Room Occupancies (SROs), in which entire families live in single rooms that average 8 by 10 feet and share kitchen and bathroom space with several other families. Chinatown has very little open space, and the pandemic has further threatened adverse health outcomes resulting from lack of fresh air and open movement.

Fondly nicknamed “Chinatown’s living room,” Portsmouth Square is Chinatown’s largest open space, serving as an essential recreational park and an iconic and historic civic plaza for the oldest Chinatown in America. The square is the community’s central space from dawn to midnight for child play and senior recreation, community cultural festivals, and civic demonstrations (most recently, the rally against xenophobia from COVID-19). Yet while hugely popular among locals and tourists, the square is dilapidating from aging infrastructure and outdated design, failing the community’s needs.

Renovating Portsmouth Square has for years been part of a larger public health plan, and the pandemic has highlighted how vital quality open space in Chinatown is. Between 2010 and 2018, more than a thousand community residents, businesses, family associations, and social service organizations participated in dozens of design workshops and community meetings to imagine an improved Portsmouth Square, resulting in a consensus design—an incredible achievement for Chinatown. With the pandemic devastating our economy, renovations to Portsmouth Square may be ignored for another generation if the 2018 design is not executed within the current bond proposal.

The Portsmouth Square project would support the economic recovery that San Francisco needs. Bolstered by the City’s landmark local hiring policy, Portsmouth Square would create good-paying “shovel-ready” jobs for local residents. Additionally, we would be investing in Chinatown so that it remains an attractive destination for tourists and locals alike. The financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic struck Chinatown first as fear kept people away from restaurants and tourist sites months before the shelter-in-place order. Many of Chinatown’s family-owned small businesses, which are an essential part of San Francisco’s tourism industry, had to close permanently in recent months. This disproportionate impact threatens Chinatown as a unique tourist destination and community hub. Funding the Portsmouth Square project will not only create open space for the community, but also provide long-term economic benefits for San Franciscans.

Like the other open spaces and parks included in the Health and Recovery Bond, Portsmouth Square is more than a neighborhood park; it is a local institution. Given the pandemic’s ongoing threat to our community health and economic survival, Portsmouth Square must be included in the upcoming bond — now, more than ever.

Ding Lee is presiding president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.

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