On our last tour with Rick Evans, we learned so much about our own Russian Hill neighborhood in San Francisco, that we anxiously awaited his additional tours. Although we were out of town for his recent Architecture and Chinatown tours, we did join him for his recent North Beach history tour. We learned even more about North Beach, whose history traces back to 1844, than we did about Russian Hill.
The neighborhood, which actually used to be a beach before the Bay was filled in, was created during the Gold Rush as a Mexican, Spanish and French enclave around Washington Square. It began attracting Italians, who provide much of the neighborhood’s current feel, in 1890, when it was discovered to be the only place in the U.S. where salami could be cured without special air treatment.
North Beach, like most of the rest of the city east of Van Ness Avenue, was almost totally wiped out by the 1906 earthquake and fire. The only two surviving building, appropriately enough, were a church (St. Francis of Assisi) and a bar (The Saloon), both of which are the oldest still in the city). The neighborhood, however, quickly rebuilt—funded largely by an Italian immigrant turned banker. A.P. Gianini, the founder of the Bank of Italy, reopened his bank—initially consisted of a plank over two barrels, on a street corner. The bank, which pioneered the concept of personal loans (in addition to business loans) and the practice of branch banking, later changed its name—to Bank of America.
By the time of prohibition, North Beach had become an established center of clubs and bars, many of which were transformed into restaurants, coffee houses and other covers for the ubiquitous speakeasies.
Italians, however, began leaving the neighborhood in the mid-1940’s. Rents began to fall and two new, more cost-conscious communities began to take root—especially Chinese and the “Beats.” By the mid-50s. the beat era was in full swing. Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened the City Lights Bookstore, Allen Ginsberg read, and Ferlinghetti later published “Howl” and Jack Kerouac wrote “On the Road”.
By the 60’s, however, the opening of a freeway made North Beach accessible to many more San Franciscans. This transformed it into one of the city’s primary entertainment venues. Clubs including Enrico’s and Amelio’s had become magnets for show business, sports and political celebrities. (Speaking of sports and show business celebrities, Joe DiMaggio, who grew up in North Beach, married his first and second (Marilyn Monroe) wives in North Beach.) It was also a center of jazz and comedy clubs including the Hungry I, which became a mecca for new talent. Barbra Streisand famously served as the opening act for Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce was a regular and Janis Joplin honed her trademark sound in the neighborhood’s clubs. It also became the center for strip clubs. The Condor Club, which was the first topless club in the U.S., was rapidly followed by more than 30 others, most of which then went bottomless.. (I guess you have to keep fresh in a competitive market.)
The profane, however, eventually succumbed to the blatantly commercial, and even to the profound. The strip clubs are now almost all gone. The neighborhood’s commercial character has now been subsumed by literally hundreds of Italian restaurants (from the Stinking Rose garlic restaurant to the Sotta Mare seafood bar). Some of the old Italian institutions, such as Enrico’s and Amelio’s, have sold out. Hungry I licensed its once illustrious name to one of the few remaining strip clubs.
Still, many institutions remain. Old-time coffee shops, like Tosca Café (which brought cappuccino to the West Coast) and Caffe Trieste (which brought espresso), continue to prosper. Francis Ford Copolla, for example, wrote much of “The Godfather” at Trieste, undoubtedly while listening to the coffee houses Saturday morning operatic concerts. So too do a couple of century-old Italian bakeries, such as Victoria with its sponge cakes and Liguria, which draws people from across the city for its focaccia. Music clubs are also regaining some of their prominence, as with blues at the Saloon and jazz at the Condor Club and Tivoli Savoy.
On the profound side, North Beach has more recently (2008) become the home of the Porziuncola Nuovo, an exact, three-quarter-sized replica of the Assisi church that was the home of St. Francis (the patron saint of San Francisco). It has since been the only Catholic church shrine in America and the world’s fifth Papally declared “Holy Place.”
The neighborhood is also undergoing a demographic transformation, with Chinatown busting beyond its traditional borders into North Beach. Chinese, in fact, now account for 60 percent of the neighborhood’s residents and have a half block long, unfortunately graffiti-scarred Gold Hill Mural, which traces the history of Chinese in America. Where is it located? Conveniently, it is just up the alley from another tribute to North Beach’s unique history—the Beat Museum. This, in turn, is located a block away from a mural of North Beach’s music and literary history, Broadway corner (at Columbus and Broadway), with its Bill Webber mural of famous musicians (along with a number of San Francisco notables) and the “Language of the Birds” sculpture, where illuminated overhead books symbolically spill literary phrases onto the sidewalk below.
Thankfully, much of the culture that these memoirs celebrate, continue to thrive in North Beach. Although the neighborhood will certainly continue to reinvent itself, here’s hoping that it will retain its vibrancy, heterogeneity and quirky character over its next 150 years.