Dodging Lions and Wasting Time

Coliseo3by CJ Verburg

Coliseo2aDid you know San Francisco has more historical monuments and landmarks than Rome? (Pls RT)

Its strong Italian roots are one reason San Francisco’s North Beach is such a pleasure to explore. Known for its artists as well as its pasta, this northeastern corner of the city takes in a bit of the Financial District, Nob Hill, and Chinatown, half of Russian Hill, and most of Telegraph Hill and Fisherman’s Wharf. Stand in the middle of its main thoroughfare, Columbus Avenue, and (if you’re not hit by a giant white Google bus) you’ll see the CupolaTransamTransamerica Pyramid at the south end, like the Arc de Triomphe. This distinctive spire replaced what was once the largest and most important building west of the Mississippi, the Montgomery Block (Montgomery between Washington and Clay), the city’s center of commerce in the 19th century.

A block north is the wonderful bronze-and-glass tower now owned by the neighborhood’s most famous filmmaker (Columbus & Kearny). High above the red awning of Cafe Zoetrope is what I like to think of as the Francis Ford Cupola. To see artifacts from The Godfather and other Coppola films, visit beautiful old Inglenook Vineyard (briefly renamed Niebaum-Coppola) in Napa County. Francis Ford Coppola is also the founder of North Beach Citizens, where homeless neighbors can get help with housing, food, clothes, even books and furniture.

The intersection of Columbus with Broadway is also where North Beach intersects with Grant Avenue and Chinatown. This is the densest part of the city in residents, tourists, and tourist attractions, from strip joints and comedy clubs to cathedrals. Columbus-Bwy2Restaurants include not just Italian and Chinese but Thai, Japanese, Basque, Istrian, and Irish/Indian, among others. It’s hard to find a bad one–they can’t afford the astronomical rent (see below). The Chinatown-North Beach border is most visible in the mural that covers a building on the corner of Broadway, Columbus, and Grant.  The Italian wrap-around side was recently restored; the Chinese side awaits funding. An aerial sculpture of flying books lights up at night to honor North Beach’s literary side.

CityLCurrently celebrating its 60th birthday is City Lights Books, cofounded by local poet and legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti has said he doesn’t think of himself as a Beat poet, but others tend to, if only because he’s the last man standing from the Ginsberg-Kerouac era.

BeatMuseumSAcross the intersection, where the other neighborhood bookstore used to be, is the Beat Museum. Decades ago, when I worked a block down the hill at Canfield Press, this corner of Broadway was my bus stop, under a bright larger-than-life sign depicting another local legend, stripper Carol Doda. Now in her late 70s, Doda has a line of lingerie and occasionally makes personal reappearances. I hope she kept the sign.

A block farther, beside the Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi, is the Nuova Porziuncola. Former mayoral daughter and city supervisor Angela Alioto–now the National Director of the Knights of St. Francis–spearheaded the transformation of the erstwhile monks’ basketball court into a replica of the “tumbled down chapel in the woods” where a poor Umbrian wanderer became St. Francis of Assisi. (How did he get hold of all that marble and gilt?) She’s now working on the Poets’ Plaza, AKA Piazza St. Francis, proposed for the block of Vallejo St. in front of the Shrine.

bfranklinA few more long, colorful blocks north is Washington Square Park. This is the neighborhood’s common, where Chinese tai chi exercisers dance around a boom-box every morning like graceful worshipers, homeless people and coffee-breakers share benches, and babies, dogs, pigeons, and techies frolic on the grass. In a grove of poplar trees stands a statue of that most San Franciscan founding father, Benjamin Franklin. The Mime Troupe still performs here every summer.

Looking north down Columbus, you can almost see to the end of the cable-car lines at North Point (Powell Street line: disembark here for CostPlus, Ross, and Trader Joe’s) and Aquatic Park (Hyde Street line: Fisherman’s Wharf and–ta da!–our own little North beach).