On the south end of Wentworth Place, a newly painted mural depicts abstract black calligraphy as Central Subway tracks and the train body in silver, swirled in ocean blue with local artist Jeremy Novy’s familiar sidewalk koi fish. On the north end of the alley, another mural of a pixilated dragon draws its colors from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency logo’s shades of red, blue and green.
The two murals are among the first public art pieces to grace Chinatown using funds from SFMTA’s Central Subway project. Through a competitive application process, the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco won the bid for the art projects. The art pieces tie the hard-fought Central Subway effort to the history of the community it is being built to serve.
“The Transcontinental Railroad was built by the Chinese that lived here,” said Central Subway Program Director John Funghi, during a tour Thursday. “And now we’re building Central Subway which will connect Chinatown to the rest of The City.”
Along with the two alleyway murals, the culture center introduced two woodblock murals of a dragon and phoenix rising from the ashes on the walls of Sweet Mart across the street from Portsmouth Square. Daniel Lo, after seeing the new murals in the alley, offered to his storefront as the backdrop.
“It’s beautiful and attractive,” he said. “Before, we had graffiti. Every month, we received a citation.”
Like Lo, the property owner at 41 Ross Alley, an empty storefront for three years, welcomed the culture center to occupy the space for art. For six months, it has become the San Francisco Chinatown Keywords School, an art gallery for local artists and students.
Though not connected to Central Subway public art funds, the gallery picked up momentum from the project. Other works planned with the transportation project’s funding in the next two years include art in the subway elevator telling Chinatown’s story, from the railroad to the subway.
In the past, art came to Chinatown mostly through individuals. For the first time, it has come from an “unprecedented collaboration” of artists, government agencies, community organizations and shop owners, said the culture center’s executive director, Mabel Teng.
“What we are experiencing is a transformation,” she said. “People often perceive Chinatown as being tired, insular, a very old man. But with this vision, you see a Chinatown that is innovative, energetic.”