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Then & Now: South Park Used to Be Home to San Francisco's Elite

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Public spaces change fast here in San Francisco, and for better or worse, it can be pretty crazy when you see what the City used to look like. Every week, we'll bring you Then & Now, a comparison of historic photos of the Bay Area with current views from the same perspective. Have a suggestion for a photo comparison that looks totally different (or shockingly the same)? Drop us a tip in the Curbed Inbox or leave a comment after the jump.

Quick note: See that vertical green bar in the middle of the then and now photos? You can move it horizontally to see the photos side by side.





[Then photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY/ Now photo: Alex Bevk] South Park, the surprising little oval park in the middle of SoMa, is one of the oldest parts of the city and used to be home to some of the most exclusive mansions in town. Established in the 1850s, ravaged in the 1906 earthquake, and reborn (twice) with the tech booms of the 90s and today, the little oval shaped block has seen a lot of change.

In 1852 British sugar and iron magnate George Gordon bought up the lots comprising the block, and laid out a plan modeled after the squares of London. Mega mansions of the super elite surrounded the park, which was only accessible to residents with a key, and a Dutch windmill in the middle of the park pumped water for them. When 2nd Street was extended in 1869 making the area accessible to less affluent residents, the park began to lose its exclusivity with wealthy residents, and in 1897 the city acquired the oval shaped park and opened it to the public.

South Park, pre-1906 Earthquake [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

By the time of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, the neighborhood had transformed into a working class community. Essentially all the buildings were destroyed in the earthquake, but the park survived and became a refugee camp site. The neighborhood was rebuilt as warehouses, light manufacturing, nightclubs, and hotels. According to a history by the Neighborhood Parks Council:
An influx of immigrants--Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Mexicans, and African-Americans- was joined in the ' 30s by longshoremen. To warm themselves while waiting for calls from the Union Hall, they built a bonfire in the middle of the park. Noxiously, it burned for the next 40 years, furthering the park's decline into a dangerous slum abandoned by city planners. It was fed with construction refuse, neighborhood garbage and junk and the park became a gathering place for drug addicts and the mentally ill. The city provided them with wood so that they wouldn't demolish historic buildings for fuel.

Man burning garbage in South Park, 1952 [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY] The area became a strong center for the Filipino community. Artists and designers began to move to the area in the 1970s, and by the 1990s the dot-com boom made it the hot spot for many of the tech industries biggest darlings. Things slowed after 2000, but have picked up again over the past few years as South Park has once again become home to many small Web-related companies.
· South Park History [Parks Alliance]