S.F. Releases 94,000 Historic Property Photos

Can you find your house or block?

San Franciscans frequently comment on how much the city has changed and now, thanks to more than 94,000 previously confidential photos, they can see precisely how their own house or block transformed.

The historic photos come from property files kept by the Assessor-Recorder’s Office, which partnered with the San Francisco Public Library in 2018 to separate sensitive information and build a website. History buffs or even the mildly curious can view photos from a point in time ranging from the 1940s to the early 2000s.

“This really opens up a vast resource,” Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu said at an unveiling on Wednesday. “These prints don’t deserve to be in a box.”

Though the photos aren’t yet available online, anyone may search an interactive database to find their block number or just peruse, locate the photos, and request them using an online form. When available, then they may view them the Main Library’s photo desk on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 1 to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. 

Digital scans range from $15 to $20 and reprints go from $10 to $60, depending on the request. More than 800 negatives from the Assessor-Recorder’s Office are also available online.

It may take a bit of work but can bring fascinating insight into San Francisco’s past, and how that may or may not have changed. Many of the photos were taken to appraise values of the homes but may capture old cars, children playing in the streets, how people dressed, and other snapshots of daily life. Some buildings look essentially the same while others no longer exist.

“It’s become less utilitarian and more a mashing of art and history,” said Woody LaBounty, from the Western Neighborhoods Project, about the purpose of the photos. “History makes the whole city more connected.”

Chu said adding more recent photos could be in the works down the line but that there are no immediate plans to do so. Given the drastic changes to San Francisco in the past decade alone, the contrast would be just as fascinating — though maybe some would need more time to heal some wounds of what was lost.

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