Strolling down one of the major drags in San Francisco's Chinatown, such as Grant Avenue, is like entering a universe that revolves around tourist paraphernalia, all T-shirts, carved jade, and possibly offensive tchotchkes. The oldest and largest Chinatown in America hasn't completely lost its charm – it still has plenty of social clubs, authentic restaurants, and on weekends you might catch a group of locals practicing on traditional instruments. It's just enough to make you wonder what the place was really like, back in the day.
Well, David Rumsey of the Rumsey Map Collection has the answer: San Francisco's old-timey Chinatown was really, really cool. Or rather, cool to think about: In reality, it seems seedy, exploitative, and possibly dangerous. (Which is how many of the city's white residents viewed Chinatown at the time – see the author's note below.) First, have a look at what's around Grant Avenue and Sacramento Street today: