Chinatown alley plan: $2M down, 24 alleys to go 

The communities of North Beach and Chinatown now have more to share than their love of food — Jack Kerouac Alley, the once blighted back street that served as a public restroom, has been transformed into an open-air passageway linking the two neighborhoods and their cultures.

On Saturday, Mayor Gavin Newsom, Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin and former San Francisco Poet Laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti are expected to join a large crowd at the alley, bordered by Grant and Columbus avenues and wedged between City Lights Books and Café Vesuvio, to celebrate the renovations.

"It was an alley with a Chinese fish truck backing up into it and unloading. It was a general-traffic street, sending fumes up into the bookstore," Ferlinghetti said Thursday. Now, "the two [communities] come together. One of the [alley’s] Chinese inscriptions is about the brotherhood of all men. There have been musicians playing in there already."

Jack Kerouac Alley — which is now closed to traffic and features sidewalk tiles with quotes from John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou and Confucius — is part of The City’s ambitious Chinatown Alleyway Master Plan.

Adopted in 1998, the plan calls for 31 of Chinatown’s 41 alleyways to be renovated.

The City originally allocated $2.3 million toward the project, but the seven alleyways that have received face-lifts so far have all but exhausted the funds. About $277,000 remains.

The seven alleyways — Jack Kerouac, Waverly, John, Commercial, Ross, Cordelia and Hang Ah — carried a $2 million price tag, nearly twice as much as expected. Most received new pavement, lighting, trees, bollards and artwork.

Commercial Alley, between Grant Avenue and Kearny Street, cost the most — $350,000 — after a resident lobbied for the street’s historic bricks to be preserved.

With 18,000 people, Chinatown is the most densely packed neighborhood in the country outside of Manhattan.

It is common for families to pack into small apartments for financial reasons, and as a result, the streets of Chinatown have become the community’s open space. Portsmouth Square on Kearny Street has long been called the residents’ living room.

Chinatown’s 41 alleyways create a network of passageways through the community. Many of the alleyways are home to barbershops, ma-and-pa grocery stores and residents’ apartments.

Ross Alley, bordered by Washington and Jackson streets and Stockton Street and Grant Avenue, is a thriving marketplace after being repaired. Chinatown’s fortune-cookie factory resides on Ross Alley, as well as Jun Yu’s Barber Shop, where one of the community’s biggest celebrity, Jun Yu, who appeared in last year’s "Pursuit of Happyness" film, makes a living.

It wasn’t always the case.

"There would be potholes everywhere," the Rev. Norman Fong, deputy director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, said. "There were rats and grease problems and crime with not enough lighting."

More issuesplagued the other six alleyways. Cordelia Alley, for example, sits behind a string of restaurants on Stockton Street. For years, the restaurants used Dumpsters on Cordelia, much to the dismay of the elderly residents living in a senior housing complex in the alley.

Smaller trash bins that could fit in the restaurants’ storage spaces were created, leaving Cordelia trash free — for the most part.

Two more alleyways — Beckett and Wentworth — will be completed with the remaining funds from The City. After that, Peskin said The City could seek more funds to start the next phase of the plan.

"We don’t allocate new funds until old funds have been used up," he said.

Alley plan

Under The City’s Chinatown Alleyway Master Plan, seven alleyways have been repaired for about $2 million. In 1998, The City allocated $2.3 million toward the plan, which calls for 31 alleyways to be repaired. Only $277,000 is left. All seven alleyways were repaved and new light poles and metal bollards were installed. Some also received major infrastructure work.

1. JACK KEROUAC

Location: Between Grant and Columbus avenues near Broadway Street

Cost: $321,000

Improvements: First alley closed to through traffic; bronze-cast references to literary history of alley and Chinese quotes about humanity in pavement; new drainage system; existing sewer line replacement.

2. WAVERLY

Location: Between Sacramento and Washington streets near Grant Avenue

Cost: $682,000

Improvements: Asphalt "streetprints" that visually connect the two blocks; enlarged sidewalks to prevent parking congestion; concrete seats with Chinese zodiac imprints; bronze monkey footprints and an alleyway name plaque.

3. JOHN

Location: Between Mason and Powell streets near Jackson Street

Cost: $275,000

Improvements: Bronze alleyway name plaque in pavement; improved drainage; undergrounding of overhead utilities; water main replacement.

4. COMMERCIAL

Location: Between Grant Avenue and Kearny Street near Clay Street

Cost: $350,000

Improvements: Preservation of historic bricks; bronze alleyway name plaque in pavement; improved drainage; sewer line replacement; water main replacement.

5. ROSS

Location: Between Washington and Jackson streets near Grant Avenue

Cost: $150,000

Improvements: Bronze monkey footprints, alleyway name plaque and a 3-by-3 bronze map of core alleyways in pavement; improved drainage; undergrounding of overhead utilities.

6. CORDELIA

Location: Between Pacific and Broadway streets near Stockton Street

Cost: $150,000

Improvements: Bronze alleyway name plaque in pavement; improved drainage.

7. HANG AH

Location: Between Sacramento and Clay streets near Stockton Street

Cost: $95,000

Improvements: Trees; concrete seats; historical references in pavement; paved imprint of alleyway name in Chinese and English; improved drainage.

arocha@examiner.com

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