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On Columbus Street

NORTH BEACH

Inside a North Beach Deli

In a Nutshell...

North Beach used to be called Little Italy, after the Italian residents that filled the area, starting in the late 19th Century. Today it is not an exclusive Italian enclave, but there are still a great many Italian restaurants and espresso bars that remind one of its ethnic past. In the 1950's it was known for givening birth to the beatnik subculture. In fact, the term was coined by local newspaper columnist, Herb Caen to describe the hip bohemians of the day that frequented the area's night clubs and sobered up in the neighborhood coffee houses.

 

Today it is mostly known for its lively night life attracted by its many night clubs, bars and family owned restaurants. Daytime visitors can explore the neighborhood's small boutiques, bookstores and old world delis and fine bakeries. But it is not all sidewalk cafes and coffee roasteries. There is a stretch along Broadway where it crosses Columbus that is dominated by sleazy nudie clubs.

 

Location:

North Beach is the neighborhood at the bottom and to the east of Russian and Nob Hills and to the west of Telegraph Hill. Its main street is Columbus Avenue which runs from Fisherman's Wharf to the Transamerica Pyramid in the Financial District. The center of the neighborhood is the corner of Columbus and Grant Avenues.

 


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Some North Beach highlights...

 

City Lights Books

City Light Books on Columbus Street in North Beach

 

City Lights Books got its start in 1953 as the only bookstore in the US specializing in paperback editions. But that is not what made this small book store on Columbus Avenue, near the corner of Broadway Avenue, famous. It has played an important role in promoting avant-garde literature and beat culture. In 1956 its owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg's poem, Howl, which describes homosexual sex and promiscuous drug use. 1956 was a very different time than today and such things were not done. At least according to the authorities, who ceased the book and brought obscenity charges against Ferlinghetti. The result was an important First Amendment trial. In the end, Ferlinghetti prevailed, and the case paved the way for many books that had been previously banned, to be freely distributed. Or not quite. In 1966 there was pretty much a repeat of the Howl affair, when books were ceased from and obscenity charges were again brought against the operations of City Lights Books. This time for selling The Love Book, which contained an erotic poem. This time City Lights lost the case. But the ruling was overturned in 1974. End result of all this intrigue? The country is a much looser place than it was in the 50's, thanks to City Lights Books.

 

Washington Square Park

Washington Park in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood

 

In front of St. Peter and Paul Church, on Columbus Avenue and Union Street, is this neighborhood park. It was created by the city in 1850 and served as a squatters camp for the homeless after the great earthquake of 1906. Today one can take a break from trudging up and down crowded Columbus Avenue and take a moment to people watch and admire the park's statue of Benjamin Franklin (while wondering why it is not of Washington) and the monument to the city's firefighters who bravely battled the blazes of 1906 to save the whisky warehouse in nearby Jackson Square.

 

Saints Peter and Paul Church

St. Peter and Paul Church in North Beach

 

At 666 Filbert Street, just off of Columbus Avenue Saints Peter and Paul Church has stood as the neighborhoods most prominent landmark since its construction in 1924. It was built to minister to the Italian immigrant population, which is how it got its name of "La cattedrale d'Italia ovest" or "The Italian Cathedral of the West." But in reflecting the changing character of the neighborhood, services today are given in Mandarin and English as well as Italian.

 

The church is famous for being the place where baseball great Joe DiMaggio and movie star Marilyn Monroe were married in 1954. But that is not quite true. The church did not recognize DiMaggio's divorce from his first wife, therefore would not allow him to marry again in the church. So, the two were married at a civil ceremony and then went to the church for photos on the church steps.

 

The Beat Museum

The Beat Museum on Broadway in San Francisco

 

One of San Francisco's gifts to the world was the beatniks. In fact, the term was coined by local columnist Herb Caen. So it is only fitting that here in North Beach, within sight of City Lights Books there is The Beat Museum. This private labor of love houses an odd assortment of beat related items displayed in an appropriately beat fashion. There you can learn all about Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg and the rest of the crew. The Museum also has a small but excellent beat bookshop and souvenir shop.

 

Sentinel Building

 

The Sentinel and Transamerica BuildingsAlso known as the Columbus Tower, the Sentinel Building is something of a North Beach, if not a San Francisco icon. Construction started on it in 1905, but it was not finished until 1907 due to a little delay known as the great earthquake of 1906. There is a great photo of its steel frame while the city around it is a pile of ruble.

 

It was financed by Abe Ruef, a corrupt city boss who ran much of the city through a puppet mayor that he created. As the building was being built, Ruef was put under indictment on bribery charges. He occupied the top floor during his trial and following that he occupied a cell in the San Quentin Penitentiary. Once one of the most brilliant, powerful and rich men of the city, Ruef died bankrupt and in obscurity.

 

Many claim that caesar salad was first created in Ceasar's Grill that occupied the ground floor before it was closed for violating the Eighteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, aka, prohibition. But others claim it was Caesar Cordini who first tossed it in San Diego. We report, you decide.

 

In the 1960's it was owned by the folk singing group the Kingston Trio, who built a recording studio in its basement.

 

Today it is owned by director Francis Ford Coppola, who's movie company occupies the offices upstairs and who's Cafe Zoetrope occupies the ground floor. I am sure Mr. Coppola would want me to tell you that wines from his vineyards in Napa and Sonoma are available in the cafe.

 

Sleazy Night Clubs

Slezzy club on Broadway

 

North Beach brought the world the beatniks and television (OK, so, that one was just around the corner at 202 Green Street), US citizens the right to purchase all the obscene literature they want and espressos to the West. But there was another important first – the topless dancing bar. It all started at the corner of Broadway and Columbus Avenues in the Condor Club, when Carol Doda jiggled her dodas while wearing a one piece bathing suit, who's one piece ended below her belly button. Scholars record the important date in history when it started as June 16, 1964. Her act involved her dancing around on a baby grand piano, which could be raised and lowered by hydraulics (more on that in a moment). To keep abreast of the competition, over the years she had her act enlarged an additional 10 inches and in 1969 started appearing solo, having found the bathing suit to be anunnecessary distraction.

 

Perhaps I should not tell you this, but will, rather than have you learn about it on the streets: there is another notable story about Ms Doda's piano in the Condor Club. In the late night hours of November 23rd, 1983, the club's bouncer, one Jimmy "The Beard" Ferazzo and one of the dancers used the piano top as their love bed. Somehow the hydraulics got activated and the piano rose to the ceiling, pinning the couple. Several hours passed until they were discovered by the janitor, but by then the life had been squeezed out of The Beard. However, his lady friend escaped with her life.

 

The Condor Club is still there as well as several other of its sleazy imitators in the near vicinity, appearing as run down relics from another age.

 

 

bottem of the shadow

 

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