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SF Then/Now: Cable Cars, Cows and Corruption in Portsmouth Square

Written by Michaela NevillePublished Sep. 04, 2022 • 11:00am
A composite image of a black and white photo of the northeast corner of Kearny Street and Clay Street in San Francisco Calif., circa 1938, bottom left, with a view east to group of kids, many holding shoeshine boxes and a color photo of Kearny Street and Clay Street, right, from July 29, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. | Courtesy OpenSFHistory/the Western Neighborhoods Project ; Juliana Yamada/The Standard

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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. 

A photo of pedestrians at the corner of Clay & Kearny in San Francisco, Calif, circa 1938. Image to be matched with archival image via Photo Courtesy OpenSFHistory/the Western Neighborhoods Project of street scene of Clay & Kearny, circa 1938, View east to group of kids, many holding shoeshine boxes, on the northeast corner of Kearny and Clay. McDonough Brothers Bail Bonds across Kearny. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

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.

Clay & Kearny, circa 1938, View east to group of kids, many holding shoeshine boxes, on the northeast corner of Kearny and Clay. McDonough Brothers Bail Bonds across Kearny. Market Street Railway (MSRy) streetcar #838. Courtesy OpenSFHistory/the Western Neighborhoods Project.

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.”

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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.

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Michaela Neville can be reached at [email protected]




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