Parkside kindergarten class, 1957. (Western Neighborhoods Project.)
by Woody LaBounty
Through World War II, the Parkside District and most of the southwest part of San Francisco was closed to buyers and residents who weren’t white. This segregation was enforced by racial deed covenants and by collusion between neighborhood associations, brokers, and lenders. Long after housing discrimination was made illegal, the Parkside remained white.
A San Francisco Examiner article in 1965 offered a cheerful assessment of St. Cecilia’s parish: “Parkside is a big-city district bypassed by the ugly problems typical of metropolitan America today. […] Its values, escalating through the affluent years, have always been above the means of most Negroes: result, no racial problem.” The only African-American parishioner at St. Cecilia’s was San Francisco supervisor Terry Francois.1
Racist practices that kept out African-Americans kept out Asian-Americans as well. Today, more than half of the residents of the Parkside identify as Chinese or Chinese-American. In the Sunset and Parkside, 53% speak a language other than English, with Chinese far ahead of Russian and Vietnamese.2 But in 1940, not one Chinese-American lived there, according to an analysis of the United States Census by the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), as part of its Chinese in the Sunset project in 2017.
Based on the excellent research done by Palma You and Steve Haines at CHSA, the first Chinese-American to buy a home in the southwest corner of the city did so just after World War II.
Taraval Street home purchased by the Lee family in 1946. (Google Street View, February 2015)
Sherman and Edna Lee bought their home on Taraval Street near 38th Avenue in 1946. Mr. Lee was an engineer with a manufacturing company in Chinatown that supplied restaurants with aluminum and pewter serving dishes. The market was somewhat limited because Lee’s product was of such a high quality he rarely got repeat customers. He also invented an auto rickshaw used in the Philippines and a coal-powered clothes iron that could double as a cooktop. (The Lee house could be an excellent candidate for city landmark designation.)
Girls posing at Sunset Boulevard in 1952. (Courtesy of the Sherman and Edna Lee Family, through the Chinese Historical Society of America’s Chinese in the Sunset project.)
Less than 5% of the Sunset District’s population identified as Chinese-American in 1950, but the population grew steadily in the district through the 1960s and the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act in 1968 began opening doors in more homogeneous enclaves such as the Parkside. While in 1970, the Parkside was still 85% white (7% Latino and 4% Chinese) according to the U.S. Census, a great migration was beginning. Perhaps half of the property sales in the Richmond and Sunset districts in the 1970s were by Chinese-American buyers. By 1975, Chinese-Americans made up 22% of public school students in the Sunset and Parkside. In the early 2000s, that number would be more than more than half.3
Richard Lim and son in first Navy jet in Larsen Park, 1966, (Western Neighborhoods Project/outsidelands.org)
On an Outside Lands San Francisco podcast episode about the Chinese in the Sunset project, Palma You described what attracted Chinese-American buyers: “A lot of them moved from Chinatown to get away from the overcrowding… They were looking for more space and more parking, and once they left, a lot of them never looked back.”
Then Chinese buyers began arriving from overseas. Higher allowances for Hong Kong emigres to the United States ahead of China’s 1997 take-over increased San Francisco’s Chinese population in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Richmond and Sunset districts, not Chinatown, became the preferred landing spots for these arrivals.
Just Won Ton restaurant at 1241 Vicente Street.
But just because families were able to move to and buy in the Parkside and Sunset doesn’t mean the welcome mat was put out.
“Growing up on the west side of town in the 1970s and 1980s, I remember lots of overt racism—shops selling Nazi memorabilia!—and much of it was directed at Chinese-Americans. Loose affiliations of white teens in the Sunset branded themselves with quasi-gang names such as “White Punks on Dope” and “S.D.I.,” which stood for “Sunset District Incorporated.” With drinking, graffiti tagging, fighting, and vandalism, these gangs also harassed and tried to intimidate Asian-American business owners and residents.
As this year has shown us, racism might hide from time to time, but it never goes away. In 1995, a reported 100 black and Asian students brawled on the Lincoln High School campus. In 1997, teens scratched swastikas on Asian-American businesses in the Sunset District. Fifteen to twenty white youths allegedly yelled racial slurs, kicked, and punched five Asian-American teenagers at 19th Avenue and Taraval in 2003, with only one identified and charged with felony assault and hate crime enhancement. Racist graffiti and swastikas were spray-painted at A. P. Giannini School in 2005. And on and on…4
Marco Polo Italian Ice Cream at 1447 Taraval Street features gelato made from Asian fruits such as durian, lychee, jackfruit & guava.
But having lived in the Parkside, my daughter attending a Chinese-Immersion program at nearby West Portal Elementary School until 2011, I can’t help feeling progress and seeing corners having been turned. Walking in the Parkside District in 2020, the restaurants, the Boba tea shops, the Chinese characters on churches and businesses (even old-school Oceanside Sheet Metal) all give off the feeling of a neighborhood comfortable with its identity and aware now that Chinese-American life has been a significant part of its history.
In 2000, the city switched from citywide to district elections of the Board of Supervisors. The newly-designated District 4, encompassing the Sunset and Parkside, had the largest number of Chinese-American voters. Incumbent Chinese-American supervisor Leland Yee moved across town to ensure he could win re-election.5
Since then, District 4 has elected only Chinese-American candidates, and one, Katy Tang, was a homegrown product of the neighborhood’s foggy streets.
Katy Tang and her brother on a Sunset District sidewalk, 1980s.
3. “The City’s People,” San Francisco Examiner, July 14, 1977, pg. 6; Ted Mao, “Chinatown” (editorial), San Francisco Examiner, July 1, 1975, pg. 35; Maura Kealey, “Summer on Ortega Street,” San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, October 9, 1977, California Living section, pg. 14.
4. Henry K. Lee, “Racial Tensions Flare at S.F.’s Lincoln High,” San Francisco Examiner, September 30, 1995, pg. 15; Gregory Lewis, “Swastikas in Sunset scare Asian residents,” San Francisco Examiner, March 9, 1997, pg. C1; Vanessa Hua, “Teen tied to hate crime must do public service,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 22, 2004, pg. B4; Rona Marech, “Reward offered for information on racist graffiti at middle school,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 8, 2005, pg. 14.