Enter 1906: A massive earthquake leads to the mass migration of European immigrants out of what is today called North Beach. While the Germans, Russians and Eastern Europeans made for more secure ground, Italians remained behind. Even more continued to come in from Italy. Between 1918 and 1948, the influence of Italians on North Beach reached its height with over 60,000 residents claiming Italian descent and five Italian language newspapers circulating the area. #
What is known today as Little Italy, North Beach is more than just its physical boundaries. It is a collection of stories, a transformation of culture. The industry in the area stands as an economic force for the city today. Remnants of the Beatnik generation continue to haunt Columbus Avenue. North Beach remains a place where pasta, poetry and people of all cultures can exist harmoniously.
Some of the more colorful legacies left behind from the red light district of San Francisco are the strip clubs on Broadway. The strip club The Roaring 20s, across from Kerouac Alley, marks the beginning of San Francisco’s red light district. Lusty Lady offers the world’s only unionized and worker owned peep show co-op. Condor Club, America’s first topless bar established in 1964, advertises free music on Sunday. Then there is Little Darlings, a club on Columbus Avenue that serves fully nude dancers but no alcohol as a rule.
Alcohol and the prohibition of it by the federal government played a large role in shaping the character of the neighborhood. San Francisco was known to be a ‘wet’ city during Prohibition Era. The mafia found room to grow in this ‘dry’ climate, providing what most San Franciscans wanted, booze. With the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933, the bootlegging business had no demand and the San Francisco Police Department encouraged the mafia to leave town.
The city-wide boycott of prohibition laws was but a first of many examples of civil disobedience in San Francisco. The growth of the Beatnik generation and concurrently the City Lights Bookstore off Columbus Avenue next to Kerouac Alley also shaped the character of North Beach. The Montgomery Block Building, built-in 1880, served as a magnet for artists around the country and created a history of bohemian life that would be conducive to the Beatnik life.# Part of the government works project the New Deal, the building at the start of Montgomery housed artists who were being employed by the federal work program the Works Progress Administration. The TransAmerica building now stands where the “Monkey Block” once stood.
In a recent report on the economic impact of San Francisco nightlife, District 3 of San Francisco, which contains the neighborhoods of North Beach, Union Square and Chinatown accounts for roughly 36% of the 4.2 billion dollar industry. According to the report, roughly 48,000 people were employed by these businesses in 2010. Home to many restaurants and modern eateries, North Beach draws many of the tourists who come to visit San Francisco.
Tosca Cafe plays a perfect host to evening festivities with its soft yellow lights, cheerful red upholstered furnishings and skilled staff. The old Wurlitzer jukebox next to the authentic espresso machine croons, welcoming in curious visitors. Restaurants like Rogue Ale Public House and small eateries like Cafe Divine represent some of the newer elements of the neighborhood. But there are other institutions within Washington Square that speak to the tradition of the neighborhood. Goorin Brothers Hat Shop has been around since 1895. Liguria Bakery, a family run and owned business, has been in the area for 101 years.
Like any thriving major American city, San Francisco is in a constant state of flux. North Beach as a neighborhood is no different with a growing Chinese population next door. The Italian-American population within the area is declining while neighboring Chinatown’s population of young Chinese professionals is rapidly growing. To this day the neighborhood on the other side of Columbus Avenue has been threatening to spill over into traditional North Beach. Despite what the numbers say about the housing situation within the area, the neighborhood is not without crime.
According to City-Data.com, the average residential unit in North Beach costs at least $1 million. More than 55 percent of the houses in the area were built before the 1940s much like the rest of San Francisco. As of 2009, the average median household income for the area was between $70,000 and $110,000. Despite high-income residents and high-value properties, the nightlife and tourism industry within the neighborhood draws in a substantial amount of crime.
Crimemapping.com presents a clearer picture of what kind of crime is happening within the neighborhood. Within the last month alone there have been multiple instances of disturbing the peace, robbery, assault and public intoxication along Columbus Avenue. The main thoroughfare seems to be one of the main lines of criminal activity. Those who frequent Columbus Avenue often enough do not need to look at a website to know the nature of the majority of the crimes.
Lokesh Parmeshwar, a computer software engineer for Oracle who programs from his home in Chinatown, makes the trip up Columbus Avenue to practice on his favorite tennis courts at Joe DiMaggio Park. “I remember once when a woman had her purse stolen in broad daylight. The thief went at the woman at a sprint and then disappeared in an alleyway,” Parmeshwar recalls.
Crime in North Beach is not confined to just Columbus Avenue. Now a historical landmark, Washington Square grounds provides a place for people to gather. It also provides a backdrop for many crimes in the neighborhood. People like Helen Wolf, who has lived near Coit Tower for several year, talks about some of the threats to the beloved square. “It’s ironic that one of the few true landmarks left in the city is threatened by public works projects and vandals,” she says.
Despite clandestine activity in the evening, the Square stands as the last original public square preserved by the city. The other two, Union Square and Portsmouth Square, are now parking garages. At the center stands six poplar trees and a statue of Benjamin Franklin. The statue was given to the city in 1879 by one Dr. Henry Cogswell, a dentist who was against drinking, who planned to donate a public drinking fountain for every hundred bars. He never kept his promise, but the statue remains in the square with a time capsule buried in front of it to be opened in 2079.#
With all the changes happening in and around North Beach, Washington Square remains a solid focal point of cultural and neighborhood identity for the area. It represents the pulse of the neighborhood, in flux but remaining true to its character. “I hope my kids get to enjoy North Beach the way I did,” says Beth Manson, a freelance writer living in North Beach. “I remember enjoying Molinari’s every other day,” she says, referring to a delicatessen that serves up legendary sandwiches.
The Italian identity of North Beach is in no danger of vanishing. A thriving tourism industry and loyal locals will maintain the charm and character of this area. Strippers will continue to strip, relics of the Beat generation will continue to grace alleyways and trios of old men will continue to sip coffee off Columbus Avenue.
For me the experience of blogging the neighborhood of North Beach has been both challenging and enriching. As a writer it is heaven. I get to observe tons of interesting characters, smell fantastic foods and listen to live music. The senses are assaulted the moment you get into North Beach. At the same time it was almost too much to handle. Or rather, my thoughts were too disorganized to have any discernible plan of action.
This is where the reporting class came in. It forced me to create a plan for the story, it wasn’t required but it was NECESSARY. Sounds like simple logic or common sense to any journalist, but this has been my first foray into actual reporting of any kind. I have stretched my boundaries as a writer and as a person. I am geographically aware of the city and how areas create a polyglot culture.
The most interesting thing about North Beach to me is the eclectic nature of the place. There is literary genius next to topless entertainment. A growing Chinese wave pounding at the shores of an established Italian community. It would be pointless of me to keep reiterating this characteristic, but it is the most prevalent one. This constant collision between culture and shared living space has made North Beach a place where the air is thick with movement, thick with ideas. I look forward to spending a few more sunny afternoons in Washington Square as a result of taking this class.
Thank you all for a great semester, it’s been a pleasure and privilege to read your contributions to the class. I look forward to working with those who will be in pub lab next semester.
Take care =)