Spirits of the City

Three Universes in Three Blocks, a Closer Look at Joice Street

By Paul Madonna and Gary Kamiya

Joice starts (actually it ends, but we’re going backward) high on Nob Hill, as a delightfully unexpected, rather grand staircase running north off Pine Street, an arterial so onrushing that turning onto these steps feels like you’ve exited a freeway onto a country lane. At the landing halfway up the steps is another surprise: a tiny shrine, complete with a little statue, to the City’s patron saint, Saint Francis of Assisi.

Joice then descends to fabled California Street, once the promenade for the mansions of the City’s super-rich. Like a waif wandering into a champagne reception, Joice barges in just half a block below one of the City’s most iconic intersections, California and Powell. But no sooner does it cross California than Joice loses its Nob Hill glamour and descends into utilitarian edge-of-Chinatown drabness, mooned by the unattractive derrieres of big buildings on both sides. This bleak stretch is worth braving, however, because at the end of this block, on the corner of Joice and Sacramento, stands the Cameron House, which for decades was the home of Donaldina Cameron, a Presbyterian missionary who saved thousands of girls from sex slavery in Chinatown brothels.

Joice’s final block runs deep through the heart of Chinatown, and offers non-postcardy views of two superb brick buildings, both by Julia Morgan — the towering YWCA residence building on Powell Street (now senior housing), and the former YWCA itself, which houses the Chinese Historical Society Museum. And here, on the corner of Clay, is where this around-the-world-in-three-blocks street begins and ends.

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