This photo of the post-earthquake ruins of Temple Emanu-El's original building appeared on the cover of our Sept. 21, 1906 issue.
This photo of the post-earthquake ruins of Temple Emanu-El's original building appeared on the cover of our Sept. 21, 1906 issue.

Why the S.F. Planning Department is mapping Jewish history

From the Jewish bakeries of McAllister Street to the “free school” on Octavia Street, the Jewish history of San Francisco runs deep. That’s evident to anyone who peeks into J.’s newspaper archives, which go back to 1895.

The San Francisco Planning Department is also a repository of history, via its records of buildings that have shaped the city’s landscape.

This summer, the department did something it’s never done before: start work on documenting the Jewish history of the city. The report is part of a larger project to map the social and cultural story of San Francisco — entailing scrutiny of the entire 7-square-mile municipality.

“Basically [it’s] an effort to survey, from historical and cultural perspectives, every property in the city,” said Marcelle Boudreaux, a principal planner.

The project establishes a new way to look at city history that is about more than just famous names and architectural highlights, she said.

“We’re putting together the history of the city that’s really told through built environment,” she added.

Boudreaux said the first step is to collate existing research, already in the Planning Department archives, on the buildings and structures that are part of Jewish San Francisco history, a task an intern tackled over the summer by going through the files and doing hours of reading.

“We have a ton of research,” noted planner Melanie Bishop.

The Jewish story in San Francisco goes back almost as far as the history of the city. As the population ballooned during the Gold Rush and the decades that followed, Jews came, too, and settled down in the city’s neighborhoods.

When they did, they started building: synagogues (like Sherith Israel), institutions (like Mount Zion Hospital) and charities (like the Hebrew Orphan Asylum).

The city is mapping those prominent buildings, as well as others that tell a more everyday story of Jewish San Francisco, from the kosher stores on Webster Street to the South of Market warehouses of Jewish-owned wholesalers.

The Planning Department also has reports about different neighborhoods — based on geographical boundaries — and what it calls “thematic reports,” covering such subjects as post-earthquake housing and San Francisco’s Gilded Age architectural styles.

Next comes writing a “historic context statement,” a report that details how the shape of San Francisco intertwines with the history of its Jewish inhabitants. The city has already finished statements for Japanese American and LGBTQ+ communities, and is working on African American and Chinese American reports.

The long, arduous process has a 2025 completion date, and the city is relying on community partners for help. The Japanese American report was a perfect example of residents and the city working together to create a valuable document that can aid the city in assessing the cultural value of buildings, said Boudreaux.

“They had resources; they had the energy,” she said. “So that grew into a larger history and context statement.”

That’s why the Jewish community will be key going forward, she said. Working with Jewish community partners — from longstanding nonprofits with archives of their own to academics, researchers and historians — is central to the project, which will be the foundation for deciding how historic buildings are identified and treated in future decades.

The research “will help us comb out sites of interest to the Jewish community,” said Bishop.

While the city’s planners consider community organizations their best partners in the work, they also want to hear from residents at some point. Boudreaux said a system for getting public input will be implemented hopefully by the end of the year.

Don’t expect a comprehensive set of results anytime soon; the targeted deadline for completing all cultural context statements is several years off, and the planning department has many other irons in the fire. Still, Bishop said, it’s not going to be forgotten.

“We’re definitely excited to work on it,” she said. “We know there’s so much information out there.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.