Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History

Cherry Blossom Festival_GEOS SF

Cherry Blossom Festival, Japantown. Photo: GEOS SF.

Executive Summary

Full Report

Over the past several years, Heritage has delved deep into what we consider the preservation issue of the moment: how to conserve the city’s cultural and social heritage. For generations, San Francisco has been home to a thriving collection of local businesses, nonprofits, and other cultural institutions that reflect the city’s history, culture, and people.

Amid unprecedented economic pressures, however, mainstays of San Francisco’s cultural landscape – our cultural heritage assets – are increasingly imperiled by skyrocketing rents and property values, encroaching new development, and incompatible adjacent uses. Others are at risk because of perennial challenges that have nothing to do with the current boom cycle, but rather, result from difficulties during leadership succession or a diminishing numbers of traditional arts and craft practitioners.

Despite their effectiveness in conserving architectural resources, traditional historic preservation protections are often ill-suited to address the challenges facing cultural heritage assets. Indeed, discussions about how to best conserve the city’s non-architectural heritage have taken place among neighborhood and community groups, Heritage, the Planning Department, and the Historic Preservation Commission over the last several years.

In June 2013, Heritage worked with community and civic partners to organize a community summit entitled, “Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History,” to address concerns over the loss of cultural and social heritage assets. As a follow-up to the summit, Heritage is excited to release an extensive report entitled, “Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History: Strategies for Conserving Cultural Heritage Assets.” Based on proven international models, we propose a series of strategies in the report for stabilizing and revitalizing San Francisco’s cultural heritage assets for communities, nonprofits, small businesses, festivals, foundations, and government agencies. It is our hope that this report spurs new policy and programs, while creating a common language that can be used to further encourage productive discussion. To download a copy of the report or executive summary, follow the links provided below.


Executive Summary

Full Report


Conventionally focused on tangible architectural resources, in recent years the preservation field has begun to respond to calls from organized communities to develop meaningful methods for identifying and protecting intangible social and cultural resources. Recent surveys in San Francisco’s Japantown and Western South of Market (SoMa), as well as landmark nominations for such businesses as the Gold Dust Lounge and the Eagle Tavern, have indicated the necessity for a new and inclusive framework for understanding and conserving local heritage. The San Francisco Planning Department has undertaken several efforts to define and develop programs for preserving social and cultural heritage. The Department provides this working definition of the term:

Save Marcus Books (Steve Rhodes, Flickr)

Supporters of Marcus Books rally to save the historic business, a cornerstone of San Francisco’s African American community. Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr.

Social and cultural heritage resources, both tangible and intangible, help define the beliefs, customs, and practices of a particular community. Such social and cultural heritage resources include buildings and monuments as well as businesses, institutions, organizations, events and traditional arts, crafts, and practices. They are rooted in the community’s history and/or are important in maintaining its identity. (Memo from the Planning Department to the Historic Preservation Commission and Planning Commission from November 20, 2012)


Community Summit: “Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History”


The Palabuniyan Kulintang Ensemble performs at “Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History.” Photo: Heritage staff.

On June 15, 2013, Heritage hosted its first community summit to address concerns over the loss of social heritage resources. The goal of the summit was to initiate an inclusive dialogue within the broader community of San Francisco regarding the documentation, interpretation, and promotion of the city’s diverse social and cultural heritage and to create a platform for developing new policy and partnerships.

Photo courtesy of the Office of Historic Preservation

SF Heritage receives a 2015 Governor’s Award for its policy report, “Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History” from California State Historic Preservation Officer Julianne Polanco.

Keynote presenter Darlene Rios Drapkin of Urban Transformation discussed lessons from the Main Street program in culturally diverse neighborhoods in the Bay Area. Other speakers included representatives from the Alliance for California Traditional ArtsChinatown Community Development CenterFilipino American Development FoundationGellert Family Business Resource Center(USF), Japantown Organizing CommitteeLower 24th Streets Merchants Association, San Francisco Latino Historical Society, San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development’s “Invest in Neighborhoods” initiative, San Francisco Planning Department, and the Small Business Commission. Special guest Supervisor Jane Kim provided opening remarks.

The summit was made possible with generous support from the California Office of Historic Preservation and the San Francisco Planning Department.

Community Presentations

Presentations from community leaders outlining current social heritage practices are now available online. To view a PDF, please click on the name of the neighborhood below.


View of 24th Street in the Mission District. Photo: Heritage staff.

Bayview: Clyde Colen (Sam Jordan’s Bar) and Mary Brown (Planning Department)
Chinatown: Angelina Yu (Chinatown Community Development Center)
Japantown: Robert Hamaguchi (Japantown Task Force), Shelley Caltagirone (Planning Department), and Jonathan Lammers (Planning Department)
South of Market: MC Canlas (Filipino American Development Foundation)