North Beach

North Beach

The popular neighborhood of North Beach has quite a history. It’s hard to tell today, but once upon a time, in the late 1800’s, North Beach really was a beach. But this beach was created with landfill, much the way the Marina District is today. The artificially created shoreline supported a fishing industry around its wharves and docks. From the Barbary Coast to the days of the Beats until today, North Beach has grown into a thriving community with a rich immigrant Italian heritage. North Beach Italian immigrants are credited with saving their houses from the fires after the 1906 earthquake by dousing the flames with blankets soaked in red wine from their own personal barrels. Where North Beach was predominantly immigrant Italians, now many native Italian- Americans have moved out now and a crossover has begun from Chinatown to North Beach of mostly younger, professional Chinese. The character of the neighborhood is still intrinsically Italian with a preponderance of Italian restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and bars.

Grant Avenue, the oldest street in San Francisco, runs through North Beach as well as Chinatown. But as Chinatown closes down at night, North Beach charges into high gear. The streets teems with people going to and coming from fine neighborhood restaurants, nightclubs and bars. The main drag of San Francisco’s Little Italy is Columbus Avenue, where City Lights Booksellers, the most famous bookstore in the city started by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is still going strong after fifty years. Another famous Columbus Avenue stalwart is the Columbus Tower/Sentinel Building. The green flat-iron at 916 Columbus has been home to Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios since 1972. It’s where Martin Sheen recorded the voiceover narration to Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and where the famed director privately screens his films. In the same building, the Kingston Trio and the Grateful Dead recorded songs in a recording studio that used to exist there.

The attraction of the neighborhood is not from just the imprint of the Italian community but what has been called the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950’s. The coffeehouses and bars of North Beach gave birth to the Beat writers and poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Courso, and Neal Cassady. Their poetry and novels led to the emergence of the peace generation and the social activists of the 1960’s.

East of Columbus on Broadway, is still home to strip clubs, nudie bars, peep shows, and in 1964, America’s first topless bar, The Condor Club.