Back Story

The 58th annual North Beach Festival

The crowd from the North Beach Festival in 2011 (photos: steven restivo; courtesy of Dan Macchiarini)

Today what we call the North Beach Festival began in 1954 as the Upper Grant Avenue Street Fair. It was the progenitor of all the street fairs, festivals and streetscape events that exist in this country today. It was one of the earliest counter-culture iconoclastic artistic events originating in San Francisco. And it was the creation of local merchants and artists and had great community support and participation.
— Daniel Macchiarini

Son of Peter Macchiarini, founder of the Upper Grant Avenue Street Fair
I love North Beach — its excitement and vibrancy, its urban beauty and diverse culture and history. It’s a great neighborhood for socializing. There’s a wonderful Italian word for this, passeggiata. In the old days the Italian immigrant families put on their best clothes and rambled around the neighborhood. They would do a little shopping, stroll in the park at Washington Square, and stop to converse with their neighbors. The young people would flirt and have fun. What a wonderful, civilized idea.
— Ed Moose

North Beach restaurateur, raconteur and all-around good guy
Putting on the oldest free outdoor festival in the country is a big responsibility. Over these many years, it has had ups and downs, especially during those years when the focus was Washington Square Park, one of the finest outdoor urban areas anywhere. But we’re on the upswing, and I believe we’ve got it right.
—Brandy Marts, Co-President, North Beach Business Association, sponsor of the annual North Beach Festival

This month we celebrate the 58th Annual North Beach Festival on Saturday and Sunday, June 16 and 17. Several thousand locals and visitors are expected to browse, shop, enjoy some wine or beer, dine on Italian specialties, soak up the sun in Washington Square Park and surrounding streets, and socialize.

It will be party time, big time — the ultimate passeggiata — an economic jolt for North Beach and a cultural boon for the City. So how did this historic gathering get started?

Peter Macchiarini, brilliant sculptor and metal artist — way ahead of his time in creating fine studio jewelry and small metal sculpture — brought together a few of his neighborhood artist buddies at his studio on Upper Grant Avenue. “Let’s have a street fair,” he suggested. “People will come, we’ll display our stuff, sell it for a fair price, and everyone will have a good time.” It was as simple as that. It took Peter and his buddies six months to organize the Upper Grant Avenue Street Fair. It was held on a balmy San Francisco weekend in May 1954.

The Beats were just settling into North Beach, and many of them attended along with their North Beach neighbors and visitors from wherever. Everybody dined al fresco on focaccia and Italian salami, drank some beer or red wine, and bought arts and crafts from neighborhood artists and artisans, who were provided exhibit space at no cost.

It was also the height of the folk music craze, and nonamplified music poured out of places like the Savoy Tivoli. It was a bohemian event. What a sensible idea.

“Later the fair charged exhibitors fifteen bucks for a six-foot display space. And it made a small profit,” said Daniel Macchiarini, who literally grew up with the street fair his father and mother, Virginia, started. “But the profit was spent to pay locals to clean up the street when the event was over. It was recycling at its best,” said Macchiarini.

The event remained on Upper Grant until 1984 and then outgrew its short pants, became a teenager, and expanded to other parts of the neighborhood. It was renamed the North Beach Festival in 1985. As it grew larger each year, its center swirled around the beautiful but fragile Washington Square Park. And for several years, the event was highly controversial as neighborhood activists like Ed Moose, his wife, Mary Etta, Alessandro Baccari Jr., Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and others, sought to reclaim the park, which was getting chewed up badly.

Then the event gained its equilibrium with more and more support from neighborhood merchants. Best of all, Washington Square Park is no longer the festival’s ground zero. Certainly it’s there for festival patrons to enjoy, but it no longer is the site of mindless revelers hell-bent on having the time of their alcoholic lives.

In short, the park won. And we are all the beneficiaries.

As Brandy Marts said, “We are on the upswing. I believe we’ve got it right.” She’s now into her fourth year on the high-wire act that is the North Beach Festival — first as the elected president of the North Beach Chamber of Commerce and now as co-president of the combined Chamber and the North Beach Merchants Association with its newly merged identity, the North Beach Business Association. She shares the role with Shell Thomas, former president of the North Beach Merchants Association.

“We believe the festival’s footprint in the neighborhood is just right now,” Marts added, “and our organization is committed to the idea that its income be devoted to providing neighborhood services. And we are doing that. Last year after expenses we were able to provide Christmas season tree lighting along Columbus Avenue and Vallejo Street, permanent lighting along Upper Grant Avenue, and ongoing steam cleaning of neighborhood sidewalks.”

This year, Steven Restivo, whose event services company has produced the North Beach Festival for the past two years, tells us the 2012 version will feature more than 125 arts and crafts booths, more than 20 gourmet food booths, five “beverage gardens” selling beer, wine and nonalcoholic beverages, and three stages of live entertainment, including City Opera San Francisco, the Blue Diamond Fillups and the Mad Maggie’s. There will be street painting by local artists and sidewalk squares will be available for kids to make their own colored-chalk street art.

And, as in previous years, the Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi on Vallejo Street will present the traditional Blessing of the Animals ceremony both Saturday and Sunday from 2–3 p.m.

Officials say there will be ample parking. Sponsors include Verizon Wireless, S.F. Giants, The New York Times, and Comcast.

Ernest Beyl will see you at the North Beach Festival. He may be reached at [email protected].
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