The University of Chicago has a beautiful campus! I am totally in love with all the ivy-covered buildings. Of course, I am a spoiled New Yorker and one only needs a trip to another city to realize how convenient my daily life is, but that said, I am really enjoying the clean air around me. Taking a walk on a fresh-smelling tree-lined street with beautiful, old brick houses and yellow lamps, on a cool summer evening is one of life’s great pleasures. The pictures below don’t even come close!
When you walk around New York and look up, more often than not, you see fire-escapes.
A few weekends back, on a sunny afternoon, I went out for a walk with the specific purpose of finding the oldest building in my neighborhood (yes, I am a crazy person!). My research was going pretty well – think I found something built as far back as 1880 – until I spotted the ‘Fallout Shelter’ sign on a building at a corner along Riverside Drive. And once I started looking for it, I found it EVERYWHERE…almost every second block has a building with a Fallout Shelter sign, at least around Columbia. Isn’t it wonderful when you notice something that has been there all along, for the first time?
I guessed these signs had something to do with nuclear war or a bomb attack, but I wanted to find out more about when they were put up and why there were so many of them around me and if these shelters were functional etc etc. And it’s at precisely such moments when you just HAVE to find out the answers to completely out-of-the-blue-questions that you pat yourself on the back for buying an iphone…ha ha!
So, this is what I found out. During the Cold War, when everyone was obsessed with the threat of a nuclear attack, several governments decided to build dedicated shelters to protect their citizens from radioactive debris in case of a fallout. The basements of many existing residential or commercial buildings were also converted into makeshift shelters and these days that’s where you are most likely to come across the yellow (or black) trefoil sign pictured above.
Other countries like Switzerland, Finland, Norway also undertook similar projects, but American citizens had the most shelter space available per capita. I suppose that explains why every second building around here seems to have that sign! In 1961, President Kennedy wrote a letter in Life magazine “setting off a wave of “shelter mania” which lasted for about a year.” People sang songs about them. Since 1980s most of these shelters have been decommissioned and are no longer active.
What I find amazing is that a small sheet of metal can carry with it so much urban, political and social history and we can pass by it everyday and not even notice. Can you imagine that not so long ago people who lived in our buildings and apartments thought so differently about their future? Of course, we all theoretically know about that time, but picture them living in your apartment and cooking in your kitchen and worrying about buying groceries in case of a nuclear attack. Imagine coming back from the park with your 6-year old and watching the super put up this sign outside your building and answering your child’s questions about it?
But the sad truth is that even though we, who live in these “sheltered” buildings, no longer have to notice these relics from the past, there are people elsewhere who do have to worry about being attacked by bombs every minute. And they do have to explain to their children why it is that they can’t go play outside. And their governments have probably not built any shelters for them.
This is the last post about San Francisco for now. The gate you see in the picture above, built in 1970, is the only authentic Chinatown gate in North America. More importantly, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in North America and also happens to be the largest Chinese community outside Asia. I learnt all this from Wikipedia, obviously. Do you know which city has the largest Korean population outside Korea? Los Angeles. I learnt this from The Layover…ha ha! Anyhow, once you walk through that gate, you’ll be on Grant Avenue – the only nice things about which are old buildings with beautiful rooftop pagodas and The Wok Shop (a really cool Asian kitchen supplies store). Otherwise, it’s full of souvenir shops and tourists.
HOWEVER, if you walk just one block to Stockton Street, parallel to Grant Avenue, you are in for a nice treat. It’s like a whole different Chinatown with real shops selling fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, dried herbs and other things real people shop for on a day-to-day basis. You’ll see hordes of people, but they won’t be the camera-wielding type. If Grant Avenue is for tourists, Stockton Street is definitely for travelers.
In fact, Stockton Street feels very similar to New York’s Chinatown, although it’s decidedly less stinky…ha ha!
All that walking around was quite tiring, so I sat down on the cool, concrete steps of an old, traditional looking building for half an hour or so before heading out for dinner at House of Nanking and then, to the airport.
I didn’t realize it at that time, but a little Google Maps search revealed that the old building where I sat down is actually the headquarters of the so-called Chinese Six Companies, officially known as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. These associations of Chinese-Americans were established in 1880s not just in San Francisco, but also in New York, Seattle and Honolulu. You can read more about them here. Here’s a cool picture of the early officers of San Francisco’s Six Companies*:
*Credit: The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. [call number, e.g. BANC PIC 1996.001--ALB] The Ethnic Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley. [call number, e.g. AAS ARC 2000/15: fol. 16: book 1] California Historical Society, San Francisco. [call number, e.g. CO-Placer: Auburn: FN-34385]