Revisiting This Colorized 1940s Video of Downtown San Francisco in 2023

SF is still recording record-high office vacancy rates and, as of late, flood damage from the recent bomb cyclone. But the city has resilience deep in its historic bones.

Downtown San Francisco remains a figment of its former pandemic self. Although car and foot traffic has nearly doubled since 2020, both are still far down from before Covid-19 entered our collective lexicons. Union Square isn’t exactly a bustling sprawl come lunchtime on any given Tuesday either, but this past holiday season did see a return to semblances of familiarly ocular stimulus; tourists and locals alike saturated the area amid increased police presence to instill confidence in participating in material splurges.

But some 80 years ago, this same slice of San Francisco looked far different and was filled with amiable bipeds. And for one: It was paraded by mask-less patrons.

Uploaded by the YouTube account Nass — channel that’s dedicated to restoring old films and then converting them to digital files that can be uploaded onto the interwebs — last year, the eight-minute video is a collection of gathered clips that limelights San Francisco sometime in the 1940s.

The first minute of the video takes viewers on a steady-cam shot filmed off Washington Street near businesses, like the now-closed gift shop Suey Chong Company, while passersby meander the sidewalks dressed in era-appropriate regalia. (Those with a keen eye can note just how thick the smog was back then, the haze blurring an otherwise blue sky in the background.)

The next few minutes feature a ride-along through San Francisco streets. Now-vintage cars can be seen parallel parking along city streets, while others sit motionless and perpendicular to residential sidewalks; three SFPD officers are seen riding motorcycles; a portion of a sidewalk (perhaps a roadway, too?) is shown under construction; green flora can be observed climbing stoops and balconies and front entryways. What’s maybe the most surprising observation of all, however, is just how familiar the homes filmed in these scenes are — many of which sit nearly unchanged to this day.

Toward the end of the film, the still-operating Fisherman’s Grotto located in Fisherman’s Wharf is front and center as people walk about a nearby produce market. There’s a “No Cameras” sign hung above one entrance, a playful irony in retrospect. And just before the clip is set to come to an end, we, the viewers, are treated to an elevated vantage point overlooking 1940s Ocean Beach, which appears less developed and more expansive.

The pink convertible — tilted on one of SF’s famously steep inclines — that fills the screen in the film’s last four seconds is, truly, *chef’s kiss.*

If these past nearly three years navigating the pandemic in San Francisco have shown us one thing, it’s that the City by The Bay is ever-resilient and capable of a comeback. But even when that resurgence in foot traffic returns to downtown and elsewhere in the city, we’ll all be trudging along with familiar sights that harken back to a San Francisco positioned some eight decades prior.

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