Hanford’s 7th Avenue looks pretty much like any other busy street in a small San Joaquin Valley town. It’s a broad avenue populated with a haphazard array of muffler shops, fast food joints and gas stations. Yet less than half a block away exists another world, seemingly frozen in time, a cultural and historic artifact, built by Chinese immigrants who came to build the railroad starting in the 1870’s, a place called China Alley.
“This is an authentic Disneyland. It is like going into Epcot Center in the Chinese area and seeing that, but it’s authentic, not re-created,” says Steve Banister, a board member of the Taoist Temple Preservation Society. The organization was founded in the 1970’s to preserve and restore the historic temple, now home to a museum.
The temple, now restored and home to a museum, is just one of 11 historic buildings on the alley, including former Chinese herbalist shops, mahjong parlors, and noodle houses, most featuring distinctive traditional Chinese architecture. The block was also home to the internationally renowned Imperial Dynasty restaurant which closed in 2006.
Following its closure, activity in the alley dropped, and other businesses have recently closed. The ravages of time and the elements have also taken their toll. Directly across from the museum, the roof of the L. T. Sue Herb Company building is little more than tarps and plywood, and large cracks have appeared in its walls, two of which lean at alarming angles.
“You can see the roof of the L.T. Sue building and you can see the part that’s collapsing. The front wall is leaning towards Seventh Street and every time it rains we’re afraid that we’re going to come down here and see the L.T. Sue building laying on the middle of Seventh Street,” says Banister.
The economic and physical decline of the alley recently caught the attention of preservationists outside of Hanford, including the non-profit National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has issued a list of the “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” every year since 1988. The organization visited China Alley earlier this year, and on Wednesday announced that the alley and its buildings are included in this year’s list of most endangered places.
“Our staff was particularly impressed by the intact nature of this rural Chinese community, that reflected over 150 years of Chinese-American history,” says Elaine Stiles, program officer for the western office of the Trust. “The buildings are superlative examples, but certainly years of deterioration and disuse for the buildings, as well as unfortunately vandalism and deferred maintenance, have really brought them to the brink. They desperately need some support and intervention in order to survive.”
While this national recognition comes out of the serious threats facing the alley, it’s an honor that the Taoist Temple Preservation Society has been seeking for several years. “It sounds funny that you want and you work so hard to be endangered, but I think of something like the condor or the Bald Eagle. They were endangered and now they’re not on the endangered list, because people started caring,” says Arriane Wing. Her great-grandfather opened up a noodle house on the alley in the 1880's, and her family owned and operated the Imperial Dynasty.
Thick steel shutters from the 19th century still shroud the narrow windows and doors of the L.T. Sue Herb Company building. As Steve Bannister removes the modern padlock and swings them open, puffs of brick dust emerge from large holes in the wall. Years of ill-advised repairs to the bricks, including using portland cement instead of lime based mortar, have weakened the building's walls. Architect Chris Johnson has been helping the society stabilize the building.
“The first step is to get things stabilized structurally, to attach the walls and floors and make those positive connections to ensure the building doesn’t continue to shift and move, and collapse basically,” says Johnson. “I’m surprised it’s still there to tell you the truth.”
Inside, you can see the result of years of water damage. The original wood ceiling sags and Dr. Sue's wall of drawers sits slightly askew, stained by moisture and pigeon droppings. Yet amazing bits of history remain. The herbs still sit in their drawers, the brown wrapping paper is still on the counter, ready to serve the next customer. “A lot of these things are just as Dr. Sue left them like he went home one day and decided not to come back to work,” says Wing.
Right now China Alley's future remains uncertain. The City of Hanford is working to incorporate the block in a new plan for the east downtown area, and work to stabilze the L.T. Sue building is set to begin soon. And perhaps the future for China Alley may be similar to its past.
“I’m not sure that there couldn’t still be a similar type of use still in store. Maybe it becomes a tea house, or something along those lines which certainly I think would fit the character, style and feeling or the space as it is today,” says Johnson. “These things are important, because [they] once again help define us as a community. I think those are really important things which we can’t lose.”
2011 List of 11 Most Endangered Places
Bear Butte, Meade County, S.D.
Belmead-on-the-James, Powhatan County, Va.
China Alley, Hanford, Calif.
Fort Gaines, Dauphin Island, Ala.
Greater Chaco Landscape, N.M.
Isaac Manchester Farm, Avella, Pa.
John Coltrane House, Dix Hills, N.Y.
National Soldiers Home Historic District, Milwaukee, Wis.
Pillsbury A Mill, Minneapolis, Minn.
Prentice Women’s Hospital, Chicago, Ill.
Sites Imperiled by State Actions, U.S.