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That portion of the city which a few years ago was the home of the wholesale houses, appears to have struck an era of retrogression and decadence that needs to be checked if the proud city of San Francisco is not to be made up in part of an unsightly quarter that bids fair to rival the “red light” district of New York and the Whitechapel rookeries of London. We are thinking of the northeast quarter of our city. From Battery Street to the bay, and from Sacramento Street to Telegraph Hill, the best business houses have taken their flight, and left the section to go to wreck and ruin. Neglected buildings, tumble-down shanties, vacant stores, worn out streets, and shockingly dangerous sidewalks are more nearly the rule than the exception within that area, which is now largely given up to sailor boarding houses, old clo’ stores, junk shops, whisky mills, fallen women, and uncleanly foreigners. It was not always so. The time was, and not so very long ago either, when the very first merchants of the city had their warehouses within a portion of the area described. It is true that at an early period some very unsavory classes plied their several callings on and about Pacific Street. There sailors frequented low grog shops, found congenial company and ways of spending their money. The area they blighted with their presence was deemed a very dangerous place for several years. Peaceably disposed citizens did not care to visit it after nightfall. Even the police gave the place a wide berth at times. Whaling ships and men-of-war were not infrequent visitors to the port, and when their crews came ashore, the police were glad to be out of their way. Sailors, as well as soldiers, seem to have grown better mannered since then, or otherwise the police would have had a hard row to hoe during recent war times.

But the section in which this state of things prevailed formed but a small part of the then business portion of the city. Front Street was the center of commercial activity. As we speak of “down town merchants” now, so we used to talk of “Front Street merchants” then. If any public movement was on foot about which it was desirable to know the opinion of the mercantile community the question would be asked: “What does Front Street say about it?” As a matter of fact, all the region to which we are alluding was reclaimed from the ocean for business purposes. Tidewater used to flow up as far as the lower end of Montgomery Street. Mud flats extended out for a considerable distance. It was at once seen that all that area could be easily converted into solid ground. The State took hold of the matter, appointed Tide Land Commissioners, and soon “water lots” were in brisk demand. Then reclamation commenced. Millions of tons of the sand dunes, that constituted the site of the future city of San Francisco, were dumped into the sea and became the foundation on which a mighty commerce should arise. It was a large area—large enough for the commercial needs of even today. Had matters been allowed to take their natural course, the city front would have remained where our pioneer merchants had placed it. But they owned their lots, and there was no further room for land jobbers and speculators in that quarter. The city front must be pushed up to and beyond Market Street or there would be “no money in it” for the speculators. Later on the railroad anchored itself at Fourth and Townsend streets, and caused all the ferries to be concentrated at the foot of Market Street. Still later on, all the streetcar lines were made to converge toward Market, and that cut the northeast side off from its natural customers in the Western Addition and beyond. To accomplish all this the early surveys of the southern half of the city were changed, and Market Street was made to run angle-wise from the ferries out through the Mission. As a result all the streets on the north side run into it at an acute angle, and that of course has made Market one of the great artery of the city. There is no other great street in the world like it. Heavy teams cannot too soon be sent southwards to Mission, Howard and Folsom, and ere long underground tunnels will carry the car traffic of the street, and then there will be a tunnel underneath the bay to Oakland.

Meanwhile, the early glory of the old business quarter has almost passed away, and such a condition of innocuous desuetude has overtaken it that it threatens to become an eyesore and an abomination. Something should be done to give it new life and save it from destruction. If it were taken hold of in the right way it could even yet be made to rival the region immediately south of Market, and we think it will do so some day in any event. San Francisco will soon contain half a million people, and within the lifetime of the present generation it will hold a million. With such progress ahead it will not be long before every foot of land on this peninsula will be needed, and that will be very specially the case with the desirable section to which we have been alluding. The business of the city will not move out towards the Potrero, which has irrevocably taken up its position as the local home of manufacturing. Commerce finds its natural habitat near the wharves. That of San Francisco will push back into its old quarters, because there is not room enough for it elsewhere, and because the geographical position of the city will ere long render the reoccupation of the olds streets an imperative necessity. Competing lines of railroad are coming this way in numbers greater than most of us imagine. They can only find their way into the city on its north or northeastern sides. Further wharf and dock accommodation, which is already badly needed, can only be had in that direction. All that portion of the city north of, say, Post Street, is naturally tributary to the northeast side, and it would be actually so today if the car facilities were equal to those on the south side. There should be cross-town cars, so that pedestrians could reach the Customs House, Post Office and the wharves without having to waste time in walking as at present. Above all, sanitary measures are pressingly needed for all that lower section of the city. The sewers are old and were badly constructed originally. Some of them are higher at their outlets into the sea than they are as far back as Montgomery. Although the city derives a large revenue from that thickly built-over quarter, its Mayor and Supervisors seem to have forgotten that any such section of the city exists. They should be made to parade along its sidewalks at night. All old rookeries should be condemned and torn down for sanitary reasons. If a wide street were constructed angle-wise across the district from, say, the ferries and Market to Washington and Montgomery, it would be an immense improvement. For the present, improvements do not trend in that direction. Realty between Market and Folsom, and between Fourth and the bay, is bringing high prices, and meets with ready sale. Great structures to accommodate wholesale business are going up in all directions. All this is well, and should serve as an incentive to other business portions of the city to go and do likewise. There is a boom on in that quarter, and it is justified. By reason of its accessibility to retail trade it must always be a desirable locality for wholesale houses, but the desirable area is not very large, and at the present rate of extension must soon be covered. It will always hold its own, and has no need to be jealous of other sections. If Chinatown could be relegated to some more out-of-the-way quarter, the effect upon the whole northern and northeastern section of the city would be good. Nobody cares to come into the city thorough or near that ill-smelling and unhealthy quarter. We do not know whether it is because our city is deemed to be beautifying itself rapidly enough, or that the erstwhile beautifiers have grown weary of well-doing, but certain it is that we hear no more about park panhandles or other public improvements. Since Mayor Schmitz came in the era of public spirit appears to have gone out. When it returns, it is certain that it can do no better thing for the city than to improve its northeastern sections.

San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser
August 23, 1902