Michael Macrone
Articles & Essays

When North Beach Was a Beach

Over a decade before the Gold Rush transformed the drowsy Yerba Buena into capital Capital West—San Francisco—a third settlement (after the Presidio and Mission Dolores) was founded near the northeast shoreline, the north beach, of this sandy, curvaceous thumbnail of the peninsula. Today, North Beach, a neighborhood which runs along Columbus Avenue above Broadway and up to Telegraph Hill, is unequaled in its cultural diversity and nighttime splendor.

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Christopher Columbus at the foot of Coit Tower.

In 1838, before landfill projects landlocked Telegraph Hill and its arc of beach, Apolino Miranda and his wife Juanna Briones built their adobe house on a hundred-vara lot at what is now the northeast corner of Filbert and Powell streets, adjacent to the Saints Peter and Paul Church. Juanna’s lush vegetable garden has become Washington Square, across Filbert Street above Union. Sailors embarking on the beach would stop at Apolino and Miranda’s dairy ranch to buy leche (milk)—or aguardiente (brandy)—and perhaps hire horses for the long “drive” to the Mission. Horsehair lariats were another sideline at the ranch, and particularly treasured in those days when rattlesnakes infested the nearby hills.

When gold fever hit, a group of Germans fleeing Europe’s liberal revolutions of 1848 had settled near Telegraph Hill, soon followed by Irish escaping famine. The small immigrant community blossomed into a city center when, in the 1850s, New Yorker Harry Meiggs invested his fortunes (and the public’s) in cutting and grading streets in the district and in building the 2000-foot Meiggs’ Wharf. The wharf, site of the city’s premiere amusement park and saloon, ran into water at Powell and Francisco streets.

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Vibrancy and culture-vending at the annual Upper Grant Street Fair, pictured here near the corner of Grant Avenue and Filbert Street.

At the time, Telegraph Hill sported a Merchants’ (stock) Exchange station and observatory, to which signals were relayed from Point Lobos, off the west coast, whenever a vessel steamed into the bay. Industry soon dug in around the hill, and the community became more and more focal, accentuated by the brilliance of the new Italian settlement which dominated the neighborhood by the 1880s.

Italian is still the dominant ethnic culture in North Beach, and the community shines brightest during the yearly Columbus Day Celebration. But North Beach, less than a square mile in the most densely populated district in the city, is truly cosmopolitan. Even as one visitor sits nursing a cappuccino amid a variety of Italian dialects, another marvels at the Basque, Filipino, French, Yugoslavian, Palestinian, Korean, American Indian, Spanish and Turkish culture and enterprise laced among the cafes and pasta shops.

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“Christopher Columbus” lands on Columbus Avenue above Filbert in the Columbus Day recreation of his landing aboard the Santa Maria.
Simultaneously, more daring (or simply more curious) folk will be found on Broadway, the southern border of North Beach. Broadway and Pacific Avenue bound what was once the Barbary Coast, a lone gone “nest of vice” that was in the 19th century the most perilous path through iniquity west of Asia. Today, Broadway retains its risqué heritage in more muted (and safer) forms. Its carnival atmosphere, topless bars, music clubs, restaurants and famous international cafes make Broadway at once anomalous and intensely emblematic of San Francisco’s ethos.

The Bohemian community that once made Broadway its home, most decisively during the “Beat” movement of the 1950s, has migrated up Grant Avenue, leaving only the City Lights bookstore and a few watering holes to mark its former place. On Grant above Columbus, where the sidewalks roll out in summertime for the annual Upper Grant Street Fair, is a panoply of boutiques, cafes and culture-vendors. It is while strolling Upper Grant Avenue that one recalls Greenwich Village, and it is throughout North Beach that one recognizes the tremendous cultural diversity that has made San Francisco a visitors’ mecca.

—Michael Macrone

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First published in Key: This Week in San Francisco (fall, 1984)

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