Although the North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco, California is now several blocks from the bay it was named for an area that became landfill in the 1800’s. Bordered by Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach occupies the valley between Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill.
North Beach History
Best known as San Francisco’s Little Italy, the North Beach neighborhood was a favorite hangout of Beat Generation luminaries and the lively red-light district known as the Barbary Coast at the time of the California Gold Rush.
The Barbary Coast
The Barbary Coast expanded around Sydney-Town, named for its predominant Australian population, known as Sydney Ducks and stereotyped as criminals and gang members. Many were originally from Ireland having migrated during the Great Irish Famine to Australia then to San Francisco during the Gold Rush.
The Barbary Coast, which included areas now part of Chinatown and the Financial District, got its name from the Berbers who arrived from North Africa, but immigrants from Asia, South America, Europe and the eastern United States in addition to those from Australia streamed into the area. Most came seeking gold.
Men outnumbered women 70 to 1 on the Barbary Coast which was soon known for bawdy entertainment, gambling houses, dance halls, and all sorts of crime including the practice of shanghaing relunctant sailors for departing sea voyages. The fire following the 1906 earthquake destroyed most of the buildings though many were quickly rebuilt.
It wasn’t until around 1915–17 that first vigilantes and later the San Francisco Police Department tamed the area, though Broadway east of Columbus, anchored by the Condor Club on the corner retained the red-light district vibe.
In the years following the 1906 earthquake the rebuilding of the neighborhood and its proximity to the bay attracted Italian immigrants who came from the coastal fishing villages along the gulf of Genoa and the Ligurian sea and found that California gave them an opportunity to continue doing what they had been doing for a living in Italy—fishing. The first settlement of Italian fishermen in California was in the San Francisco bay area. As early as 1870 Italian fishermen were providing ninety percent of all fish consumed in San Francisco.
Joe DiMaggio, who’s father was a fisherman, played baseball in North Beach as a kid at the recently renamed Joe DiMaggio playground. Joe moved to North Beach at the age of one and lived at Valparaiso and Taylor. DiMaggio’s famous marriage to Marilyn Monroe at San Francisco’s City Hall lasted just 274 days.
Another Joe—Joseph Alioto, former San Francisco mayor—was born in North Beach. The son of a Sicilian immigrant and fish processing owner/operator, Alioto was mayor of San Francisco from 1968 – 1976.
Some of San Francisco’s Italian fishermen migrated south around 1871 and settled in what is now known as the Little Italy neighborhood in San Diego. A visit to North Beach isn’t complete until you’ve tasted at least one of the neighborhoods signature dishes such as bruschetta, calzoni, cannelloni, carpaccio, lasagna, minestrone, parmigiana, cannoli or gelato.
If you’re making your first visit to San Francisco’s North Beach a guided culinary walking tour is a great introduction to the food and flavor of the neighborhood.
North Beach is an ideal location for sitting at an outdoor cafe and enjoying an espresso or cappuccino during the day. At night the neighborhood vibrates with some of San Francisco’s liveliest nightclubs and bars.
The Beat Generation
North Beach in San Francisco was also home to the Beat Generation. Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady—who inspired the writing style Kerouac adopted for his successful book ‘On The Road’ and later served as the driver of the psychedelic bus ‘Furthur,’ with Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters chronicled in Tom Wolfe‘s ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test‘—and many other Beatnik poets and writers lived and performed their live readings in the neighborhood. Ruth Weiss—beat poet and friend of Kerouac and Cassady—continued to give live performances in North Beach long after many of the other beat poets had left or died.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded City Lights Bookstore in the North Beach neighborhood in 1953. Based on the idea that good books could be affordable, the all paperback bookstore was the first in the U.S. Ferlinghetti’s publishing of Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg—and notoriety from the obscenity trial which followed—helped make City Lights a literary landmark. The bookstore has served for fifty pluses years as a meeting place for writers, artists, and intellectuals.
North Beach Festivals
The North Beach Festival—San Francisco’s oldest street fair—turns Grant Avenue and Green Street into a pedestrian shopping and party mall each June.
Student and professional musicians perform, sidewalk chalk art is produced and cooking demonstrations vie with many art and craft booths for attention.
The North Beach Jazz Festival is held (almost) every year in late July. This indoor/outdoor jazz fest typically features over 100 local and international artists in a week long festival. A tribute to Christopher Columbus, the blessing of San Francisco’s fishing fleet, a fiesta, Columbus Day parade and other traditional events are all part of North Beach’s celebration of it’s Italian heritage each October.
Washington Square Park
The Church of Saints Peter and Paul—known as “La cattedrale d’Italia ovest,” or “The Italian Cathedral of the West”— with its twin spires is on the north side of Washington Square Park in North Beach. Step inside to see the 40-ton Carrara marble altar designed by Charles Fantoni, dome painting by Ettore & Guiditta Serbaroli, a replica of Michelangelo’s “La Pieta” and 14 foot rose window.
Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe posed for pictures on the steps of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in 1954 after their marriage at SF’s City Hall.
A Volunteer Fire Department Statue at the north west corner of Washington Square, along Columbus Avenue, was built using funds bequeathed to San Francisco by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a life long admirer of fire fighters. Coit Tower, at the top of Telegraph Hill can be viewed from the square. Climb the nearby Filbert Street steps to see historic Coit Tower Murals and panoramic views of San Francisco.
A statue of Benjamin Franklin, donated to the city in 1879 by Dr. Henry Cogswell—a dentist who made his fortune during the gold rush—can be found near the center of North Beach’s Washington Square. On March 19, 1887, Dr. and Mrs. Cogswell endowed Cogswell Polytechnical College in Sunnyvale, CA.
Cogswell was a temperance advocate who erected water fountain/statues in several cities—Pacific Grove, Washington D.C., Boston, Buffalo, Rochester and Pawtucket—as an alternative to saloons for thirsty passersby. Some included statues of himself and several, like the Jewell Park Drinking Fountain in Pacific Grove, were melted down during WWII metal drives.