Deng Mng-Dao, The living

The neighborhood around my parents’ studio was once the notorious Barbary Coast area of San Francisco, famous as a red-light district and home to flophouses for drunken seafarers. The ships that hundreds took to the 1849 gold rush docked in that area. Men abandoned the ships, the ships became silted in, and finally a fire destroyed them all. Buildings were raised over the buried ruins. Eventually, the area evolved into Jackson Square.

The area within a radius of a few blocks of my parents’ studio held an unusual mix of people: Mr. deMartini, who had a workshop where he hand-built garbage trucks. (When I was a boy, garbage trucks weren’t mechanized. Instead, they had steps up the side, and garbagemen would put garbage into huge burlap sheets, bundle them up, and carry them up the stairs to dump into the truck.) A mosaic dealer. An insane artist who painted canvas after canvas on subjects ranging from clowns to landscapes to still lifes—anything he hoped might sell. He would set up his paintings on easels on Broadway Street, a freeway on-ramp just a block away, hoping for customers. Next door, Chinese merchants grew bean sprouts in the darkness of their cellar.

The farmer's market was only three blocks away. A nearby warehouse cured Italian salami. Not far from that, the Four Monks company brewed a pungent wine vinegar. When the Blum's candy company got a new trainload of cinnamon, the smell permeated the surrounding blocks. Thomas Cara sold espresso machines long before the drink became ubiquitous. Lotus Fortune Cookie had a factory just a few doors away. (My father once asked the proprietor where he found the wording for the fortunes. "Benjamin Franklin," the man replied.) We were only two blocks from the edge of Chinatown, four blocks from North Beach with its Beat culture, Italian restaurants, and City Lights Booksellers. Sprinkled through all this were antique dealers, architects, decorators, printers, warehouses, grocery stores, furniture dealers, bars, restaurants like the once-exclusive Ernie’s and Doro’s, nightclubs (the Hungry I, the Purple Onion, Finocchio's, El Matador, Mabuhay Gardens), gas stations, lawyers (including Melvin Belli), the U.S. Customs house, the Loomis armored car company, a fire station, a public grammar school, apartment houses, topless bars, and car dealers. It was an eclectic mixture of people and businesses one wouldn’t find in today’s heavily zoned cities. Read more