This is the heart of Chinatown at the intersection of Clay and Kearny in 1938—and also in 2022. These photos were taken on the southeast corner of Portsmouth Square, with a view east down Clay Street. The young boys standing on the corner are holding shoeshine boxes, perhaps looking for customers.
The photo—which is courtesy of the Western Neighborhoods Project—is a snapshot of history, frozen in time. From the mid-1800s on, Portsmouth Square was a center of commerce, culture and government. The square served as a cow pen when San Francisco was just a frontier town.
Over the years, it evolved—stone and brick buildings replaced tents and cabins; the square was planted with trees and bushes, and Chinese-owned businesses began to move in to cater to the scores of Chinese immigrants arriving in San Francisco.
By 1938, Portsmouth Square was the center of a bustling Chinatown that was decades-old and had survived an earthquake as well as racist attacks on its community.
The "Fountainhead of Corruption"
The photo above shows a train passing through on Kearny Street. Though cable cars were in operation by this time, the streetcar we see here is not a cable car but a part of the Market Street Railway.
Another fascinating part of this historic photo is the building in the background, behind the train. Today, the building houses a number of businesses including a spa and a noodle house. But in 1938, it housed McDonough Brothers Bail Bonds.
Conveniently located near the Hall of Justice (out of frame and just up the block on Kearny), the bail bonds shop (and Pete and Thomas McDonough, the brothers who ran it) are infamous parts of San Francisco history.
For the first few decades of the 20th century, the brothers were a major force in organized crime and civic corruption, with an FBI report calling them a “fountainhead of corruption.”
Judge tampering, bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, bribery and police corruption were just some of the crimes they were accused of. They also leveraged their support of burgeoning organized labor movements to exert their influence on the politicians of the day.
Much has changed in the decades since this photo was taken. The Hall of Justice has moved to SoMa, and there is a Hilton Hotel where it once stood. But Portsmouth Square remains as bustling as ever.
Editor's note: This post has been updated to use the term streetcar in reference to Market Street Railway Car #838.