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San Francisco is a surprisingly small and compact city. You can drive from one end to the other in less than a half hourthat is, of course, if you are in the right place at the right time. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, say the financial district during the afternoon rush hour, it could take you a half hour to go a few blocks. Those blocks are part of a city full of well-defined and unique neighborhoods. We will concentrate on those neighborhoods that combine beauty, historical interest, and other elements that define the quality of life in San Franciscothe good life of caf�s, shops, architecture, parks, and an interesting mix of people.
Like other American cities, you will find some of the same businesses cropping up in many neighborhoods. What makes San Francisco different is that the chain operations are not burger and fried chicken franchises but top-quality coffee and bagel shops. Food is the dominant religion of San Francisco, and because of the freshness and abundance of produce and the highly developed tastes of the consumers, there is much to worship here.
Believe it or not, San Francisco is a great walking town. One might assume that all those darn hills would get in the way, but no. It's easy to circumnavigate the hills, or at least to minimize them (unless, of course, you'd enjoy the heart-thumping athleticism of climbing halfway to the stars). Anyway, in high traffic areas, walking is the only way to go if you really want to see and experience things.
There are so many wonderful neighborhoods in San Francisco thatit's difficult to decide where to begin. We chose North Beach and Chinatown for several reasons: both illustrate the city's international flavor and are compact and easy to walk, lively, safe, and steeped in history. The list could go on. Suffice it to say that if you have only time to visit one or two places in the city, you have to make it North Beach and Chinatown.
North Beach is the quintessential San Francisco neighborhood. Locals, tourists, and newly arrived immigrants intermingle in one of the city's best climates to create an area full of life. Streets and sidewalks are busy, as are the caf�s and parks. Not only is there sunshinea valuable commodity in foggy San Franciscobut also surrounding hills, charming antique buildings, abundant good food, coffee, and conversation. Everyone here has some subtle understanding that this is a very special part of the world. North Beach is the most European-feeling area of San Francisco, with a long Italian tradition mixed with a growing Asian community. The main drag, Columbus Avenue, has both English and Italian street signs ("Corso Cristoforo Colombo"). Small streets, namely Via Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac Alley, and William Saroyan Place, bespeak the literary significance of the place; Turk Murphy Way acknowledges the jazz influence.
North Beach is an area to visit often, for an hour or for an entire day, making sure to enjoy the pleasure of a perfect cappuccino, people-watching, and perhaps a little shopping. It's easy to strike up a conversation or simply eavesdrop and watch the world go by.
One of the first things to consider on a visit to North Beach is where in the heck to park. There are metered spaces on many streets, and patience usually pays off on Columbus or Grant Avenues; however, your meter time might be limited to fifteen minutes to one hour, and your supply of quarters can be depleted quickly. Your best bet is to head immediately for the municipal parking garage next to the police station on Vallejo Street between Stockton and Powell near the border of Chinatown. The rates are as good as anywhere in town, and you will feel liberated from your car on the narrow, crowded streets. Or you can take one of the bus lines that serve the neighborhood, such as the 30 Stockton or 41 Union.
As you wander around this neighborhood crammed with hills, restaurants, coffeehouses, bakeries, nightclubs, shops, and apartment buildings, you may wonder why they call this area a beach. To find out, spend a half hour or so in the North Beach Museum. Few San Franciscans know it even exists, but there it is on the second floor of the Eureka Bank on Stockton Street, just a few steps from the back exit of the Vallejo Street parking garage. Simply walk into the bank's main entrance and up the stairs on the right. If it looks dark up there, don't worrythe lights go on automatically when someone climbs the stairs.
The museum offers a graphic introduction to San Francisco's favorite neighborhood. This is a very low-key but charming operation, consisting of two or three rooms of photos and artifacts that preserve the history of North Beach. Changing displays tell many stories, thanks to the donations from people who have lived in the neighborhood.
As you enter the bank lobby on the main floor and head up the stairs on your right to the museum, you'll see a picture of North Beach in 1851. It looks like a remote beach community, which, at the time, it was, before the bay was filled in from what is now Francisco Street. When North Beach was, indeed, a beach, there were sand dunes, a few frame homes, and the bay . . . period. Another memorable photo in the collection shows Washington Square, just a few blocks north of the museum, right after the 1906 earthquake, a scene of total devastation.
There are scores of other priceless photos and artifacts at the museum: early shots of Joe DiMaggio, Frankie Crosetti, and Tony Lazzeri, three young stars of the New York Yankees who are considered sons of North Beach; a handwritten manuscript of "The Old Italian's Dying," a poem by the beat writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti; photos of the infamous "Meigg's Wharf," built in 1852 by unscrupulous entrepreneur Harry Meigg for his own ships to unload lumber from the forests of Mendocino. You'll also be able to follow the story of the Italians who began arriving around the Civil War, and the history of the Chinese in neighboring Chinatown, whose first major wave of immigration began around ten years earlier.
1435 Stockton. Open Monday through Friday 9a.m. to 4 p.m. 391-6210. Free.
Italian Magazine and Gift Store
A nice place to soak up the current Italian flavor of the neighborhood is A. Cavalli, a charming Italian store that opened in 1880 and today caters to locals and visitors who want to keep in touch with the old country. Here you'll find the video La Bella Et La Besta (Disney's Beauty and the Beast) and the children's book Dov� Spot? (Where is Spot?) The shelves are stocked with Italian newspapers and magazines, pasta makers and espresso machines, greeting cards, maps, sweatshirts, CDs, and recordsall in Italian.
John Valentini runs the place and spends his day switching his conversation between English and Italian. His family took over the store in the 1920s from the Cavallis. He can tell you about the area and how it's changed over the years. You can even ask, "Dov� il gabinetto?" (Where is the bathroom?). John switches effortlessly from English to Italian on a moment's notice.
1441 Stockton (near Columbus). Open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. 421-4219.
If there is a community center of North Beach, it is Washington Square Park, which borders Columbus and Stockton, and Union and Filbert Streets. It's a gently sloping expanse of green lawn and trees, with some park benches and walkways. At Columbus there is also a small children's playground. At first glance it doesn't appear to be much. But if you just turn off your internal clock and relax, there is much to see and learn. Here's what I noticed at around five o'clock one sunny weekday afternoon.
From a bench near Stockton Street, I saw a curious cement marker that read, 1869: U.S. Coast Guard and Geodesic Service. The marker lists the latitude as 37�47'57" North and the longitude at 122�24'37" West. Nothing special, but I had been in the park at least twenty times in the last several years, and never noticed it. I also saw five dogs being walked, three of which became instant friends and romped unleashed through the park, entertaining the crowds with their antics. I saw runners with Walkmen, strollers wearing berets, lovers on blankets, tourists snapping pictures, a guitar duo on a bench singing "Hotel California," Italians arguing about women and politics with the flag of Italy on a building behind them on Union Street, Chinese men and women practicing tai chi chuan, mothers pushing baby strollers, a man sleeping under a grocery cart that appeared to carry all his belongings, three street people on a bench, each talking to himself. And in the background were the chimes of the impressive Sts. Peter and Paul's Cathedral (see next item), which overlooks the park.
Sitting on that bench, occasionally reading a newspaper, but most of the time just being there, I started to feel a part of North Beach, which is as much as I can ask from any place I visit.