We talk a lot about San Francisco’s heart and soul — how it’s being crushed by speculation, erased by gentrification, or hurt by those who don’t understand it. How it continues to thrive in various enclaves, how it’s kept alive by those willing to advocate for and rejuvenate it. But what is that “it”? What do we mean by the “soul of San Francisco”?
I was thinking about this as I walked through North Beach on a sunny morning last month, on my way to plant a verdant olive tree in honor of someone who epitomizes that it factor, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I was thinking about what I wanted to say to mark Lawrence’s 100th birthday tree commemoration. I remembered a letter he wrote in 2005 in support of the North Beach Formula Retail Controls, which the community advocated strongly for to preserve the neighborhood’s historic small business and arts and culture community. He opened the letter with, “North Beach is the neighborhood where the original San Francisco took root and should be preserved and protected as such.” Lawrence knew what that “it” was back then, and has championed the North Beach community as the original example of San Francisco’s soul for decades.
As I walked up Columbus Avenue, past Ils Lane, I thought about the fight to save low-income tenants by making 53 Columbus Avenue the first land trust acquisition and tenant co-op. Walking past City Lights Bookstore, I thought about the unique “staff pick” reviews handwritten on cards sprinkled throughout the bookshelves and my work with Lawrence to repave, light, and vacate Jack Kerouac Alley, now a popular space for block parties, including Lawrence’s 100th birthday. I continued on Columbus past Vallejo Street, greeting the Central Station shift change getting their morning caffeination from Caffe Trieste, with its life-size photos of Papa Gianni and generations of family facing out into the street for all to enjoy. There was Al Ribaya in his handmade leather work apron saying good morning to the Trieste baristas, the tables and morning coffee line crowded with a diverse mix of artists, cops, SRO tenants, homeowners, rich and poor, and everyone in between. There was Mr. Hong sitting behind his historic green-and-red newsstand, hawking his diverse selection of international and local news. There was Frances Lau, on her way to open up S & S Grocery on Grant Avenue, stopping to tell me her rent was going up and asking if my office could help. The latest crop of filmmakers in residence at the FilmHouse were setting up a test shot in the plaza out in front of New Sun Hong Kong, bathed in morning light under the “Language of Birds” art installation. And on and on
. . . everywhere I looked, I saw the soul of San Francisco writ large in North Beach’s alleyways, architecture, family businesses, and local community personalities, nestled between Coit Tower on the eastern skyline, Our Lady of Guadelupe Church’s historic bell tower to the west, and the TransAmerica pyramid to the south.
And by the time I ended up in front of 576 Union Street, I knew what I wanted to say about Lawrence and his century of living his truth. He knows the soul of San Francisco is its unique neighborhoods: specifically, those that celebrate and take care of each other. I’ve written before about those special personalities that fuel a neighborhood’s sense of identity and accountability to our neighbors (“Who we are: Tribute to community,” Marina Times, February 2017) and Lawrence is another example of someone who has devoted his life to preserving the communities that create our neighborhood character. The tenant activists, the rebels, the patrons of the arts, the titans of business, the second and third generation union workers, the immigrant families, the parents planning events at Joe DiMaggio Playground, the creatives, the quarreling lovers, and writers and poets — all living side by side in the beautiful jumble that makes North Beach so very special.
A tree blooms in North Beach, a living testimony meant to inspire and remind the neighborhood not just about Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s legacy but about all the things that make North Beach simultaneously like home and like no other place on earth. A belated happy birthday, Lawrence — you have always known we were never meant to be ordinary. Thank you for the gift of your advocacy all of these many, many years.