North Beach is an enclave of Mediterranean ambience overlaid with energetic and adventurous seekers of the good life. In the North Beach rakish bohemian culture there’s always been a sense of creative possibility. It wafts over the old neighborhood like the perfume of garlic, red wine, chili peppers, and incense. But now the old neighborhood is intermingled with Asians, Latinos and others who have added their own languages and lifestyles.
Mark Twain, Bret Harte, A. P. Giannini, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Sterling, William Saroyan, Joe DiMaggio, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Herb Gold, Beniamino Bufano, Enrico Banducci, Carol Doda, Melvin Belli, Grace Marchant, Vernon Alley, Jeanette Etheridge, Joe Mastrelli, Ron Spinali, Allesandro Baccari, Jr., Francis Ford Coppola, Michael McCourt. Others will come to mind.
This column hopes to capture the rich past and present of North Beach and to peek into its future — at times objectively, at times not. The intent is to reflect on the sense of vigor and panache that is North Beach. Boldface names and boldface lifestyles. Let’s get started.
What’s going on with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s plan to turn the Caffe Trieste–St. Francis of Assisi minichunk of Vallejo into Poets’ Plaza? Looks like a stalemate between church and state. Can’t we get off the dime and get the bucks together? It would be nice to complete this in Lawrence’s lifetime. And it should be called Ferlinghetti Plaza, not St. Francis of Assisi Piazza. Let’s vote secular.
LYON, TATI AND MAUGHAM
Recently Michael House, documentary filmmaker from Paris, has been here shooting a profile of San Francisco photographer Fred Lyon. House has been on the film festival circuit with what he calls “artumentaries” of Jacques Tati, French cinema genius who did Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, and of British writer Somerset Maugham. Lyon’s black-and-whites of North Beach — including one of sax giant Sonny Rollins at Broadway’s Jazz Workshop — are being snapped up by local decorators. The word “decorator” is a handy euphemism for someone who is paid to tell you what you should like. Lyon’s work is easy to like. He’s a San Francisco treasure.
SERIOUS WRITERS ARE SERIOUS
Novelist, SFJazz board member and Panama hat devotee Robert Mailer Anderson, whose novel Booneville put him into the “serious writer” category, is writing a book — maybe a play — about the characters who hang out at Caffe Trieste. So what else is new? Everyone who has ever had a cappuccino in Trieste is writing a novel, a play, a short story, or an epic poem about the joint. Tony Long for example. Someone who shall remain nameless — as they say — is writing a play about Capp’s Corner, which has a better cast of characters.
So what is North Beach anyway? La dolce vita with an attitude.