Mapping vice in 1885 San Francisco

I’m in the middle of reading Segregation: A global history of divided cities for a review I’m writing for the LSE Review of Books blog and discovered there a map I hadn’t seen before of Chinatown, San Francisco, 1885. According to the author, Carl Nightingale, “the map helped give an official stamp to a widespread belief that the city’s Chinese residents were the source of vice and disease and that their neighbourhood posed a threat to the city as a whole.”

Evidently the map was used as a political tool to demonstrate the supposed ‘viciousness’ and ‘disease’ of the neighbourhood. Looking back at Mayne’s review of newspaper accounts of 19th century slums reveals how the popular press frequently presented minority immigrant enclaves as a form of invasion: “In 1900 the Examiner noted that the moment the plague quarantine cordon around Chinatown was removed, the Chinese ‘began to swarm in and out'”. This sense of foreign intrusion was strengthened by styling Chinatown a ‘colony’. The term was widely used in American cities to characterize poor immigrant districts as being foreign in their character.

Whilst the ‘visual rhetoric’ (see Kimball’s article on the subject) of the map served a political purpose – to raise public concerns about the supposedly invasive population – the map also constitutes a historical record of the spatial distribution of the population, who had evidently constructed an intricate mesh of businesses – both legal and illegal – within the neighbourhood. The map uses a range of colours to illustrate the spatial patterning of the various vices that were of concern to the authorities: gambling (pink) – in locations set in back yards or in alleyways , Chinese prostitution (green) – in more prominent thoroughfares and tightly clustered in certain areas, White prostitution (blue) similarly patterned, but centred on the widest (and presumably most accessible) streets of the area. Rather than denoting a class of vice, the red colour indicates the location of Chinese Joss Houses – namely community-led Shen places of worship. I cannot comment on whether the mapping of places of worship is motivated by any negative readings of Chinese communal activity, but from an urban spatial point of view, they provide a further indication of the various temporal realisations of this particular minority community (as I will be discussing in a forthcoming article for Material Religion).

Figure: Farwell’s ‘Official Map of Chinatown San Francisco’ (1885) from


Kimball, Miles A (2006), ‘London Through Rose-Colored Graphics: Visual Rhetoric and Information Graphic Design in Charles Booth’s Maps of London Poverty’, Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 36 (4), 353-81.

Mayne, A., 1993. The Imagined Slum: newspaper representation in three cities 1870-1914. Leicester UP, Leicester.

Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

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