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The neighborhood that is now Japantown (Nihonmachi) is approximately one mile west of Union Square and is part of San Francisco's Western Addition, a subdivision that came into being with the writing of the Van Ness Ordinance in 1855. The land then was sandy and barren, and accommodated primarily bobcats, rabbits, quail, and chaparral.
In the 1870s, San Franciscans began to move to this area. They built homes in a variety of architectural styles with the Victorian influence predominating. Van Ness Avenue was the eastern boundary of the Western Addition and also the breakpoint of the fire caused by the great earthquake of 1906.
The Western Addition remained untouched by the fire and provided a haven for the bulk of San Francisco’s burned-out population. Tent villages were hastily erected in nearby parks to provide emergency accommodations for homeless families. Later these families crowded into small apartments which Western Addition homeowners had built into the attics, basements, and wings of their homes. Many property owners raised their houses and placed stores beneath them, and additional commercial buildings were constructed alongside homes. Thus began the mixed land use which later brought restaurants, theatres, saloons, and hotels to the area.