Helping San Francisco’s Chinatown Pivot To Success

Chinatown is notably one of San Francisco’s most densely populated neighborhoods, full of rich history, art, and locally owned businesses. On any given day, people travel from far and wide to the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue and enter the Dragon’s Gate, a San Francisco landmark, and one of the most photographed gateways in the city. 

“Grant Avenue is probably one of the most picturesque streets in San Francisco, said Eva Lee, who runs the Chinatown Merchants Association. “How many places do you see with this type of architecture? said Eva.” From the Pagoda topped building, to the red lanterns – even the Old St. Mary’s Cathedral is just very historic along this open walkway. Grant Street used to be called Dupont, and then they changed it to Ulysses Grant after the president”.

Eva, whose father Sinclaire Louie started businesses in Chinatown in the ’50s, had eight stores along Grant street. “He was ahead of his time because he used to buy wholesale to cut out the middle man, Eve added.” Eva’s mother, May Louie, founded the Chinatown Merchants Association in 1988, owned one of the most prominent gift shops in Chinatown, and started the Autumn Moon Festival in 1991. Eva keeps both her parents’ legacies alive by managing the merchants association and organizing the festival. 

COVID-19 has forced a significant amount of Chinatowns beloved shops and restaurants to close those doors indefinitely, and dozens of businesses that rely on that tourism and foot traffic are battling an economic crisis.

Livable City has repurposed our efforts from hosting our usual Sunday Streets and directed some of our resources to support economic growth in Chinatown. On August 1st, we supported the launch of San Francisco’s first “Chinatown Walkway Weekends,” which happens every Saturday and Sunday from 11 am-5 pm and closes off Grant Ave, from Bush Street to California Street to car traffic. This activation will continue until September 20th. 

“We’re using this as an experiment to kickstart and see if we can draw more of the locals to come and see what is in their own backyard, said Eva.” 

The street closure is also part of the City’s Shared Spaces program, which is geared towards the economic recovery of our locally owned small businesses. The program allows for outdoor dining, retail. Other benefits include increased space for pedestrians and cyclists to move more safely through neighborhoods. 

Now when visiting Chinatown on Saturdays and Sundays, you notice a handful of restaurants have taken over Grant Avenue, and businesses have brought their merchandise to the sidewalk. Foot traffic has also increased. It’s looking good right now, and it’s great to see the businesses open, see a little foot traffic, and hopefully, this will encourage more to open. “We want to keep up the legacy of supporting Chinatown and help revitalize the businesses.”  

Cultural Art organizations such as the ‘LionDanceMe‘ Company are also taking advantage of Chinatown Walkway Weekends. Executive Director Norman Lau, who was born and raised in San Francisco, spent most of his childhood in Chinatown. “As a young kid, this was like my playground, said Norman.” LionDanceMe specializes in LionDanceME Elementary Program currently offers classes on Chinese lion dance surrounding Chinese culture to middle and elementary school students. 

Last year Normans LionDanceMe performed over 400 shows, some of which took place at tech companies like Google and Microsoft. The company has also performed overseas in Spain and Dubai. This year Norman was hoping to surpass the company’s numbers of performances. “I had to find another source of income because my business has come to a complete stop, Norman said.” “All the school programs are closed, and the entertainment industry has shut down. All of our shows were about weddings, grand openings, parades, company parties, he added,” Now LionDanceMe has taken the company back to Grant Avenue- where it started. 

“Now we’re testing out the closures on Saturday, said Norman.” “I had meetings with parents and started small with a class of eight to see how it will work out; he continued.” “There’s an uneasy feeling with Covid-19 being around, but we are taking a chance.”

You can catch Norman and the LionDanceMe crew practicing on Saturdays during Chinatown Walkway Weekends. “We are practicing and staying in a confined area,” said Norman.” It also is an opportunity to try and show that we can do something safely if we follow the guidelines.

Walkway Weekends via its Facebook page event.