I’ve lived in the Bay Area for four years and I’ve never been to North Beach before this past weekend. The first time I heard about it I thought it was a cool place by the beach. It’s still a cool place, just not by the beach. It was only recently when I told my sister I was going to be spending most of my time in this neighborhood for the next four months that I found out it was nicknamed “Little Italy.”
I planned out the day so I’d have lunch out in North Beach and do some people watching. I got off at the Montgomery Street BART Station hoping to catch a bus. Instead, I ended up walking straight up Montgomery Street to get to my destination. I’ve never explored the city much so I didn’t know where I was going. All I knew was that I should be headed to Columbus Avenue. So, I just kept following the blue dot moving on the Google Maps app through the lovely, cracked screen of my mobile device toward my destination – Washington Square Park.
Finally, I looked up and noticed the green, white and red painted on the street poles. I knew I’d made it to Columbus Avenue and was really hungry. I was so focused on getting to where I wanted to be and eat that I didn’t realize how quiet the area was until I started hearing live music a block ahead. I reached the corner of Columbus Avenue and Broadway and found the source of the music – sitting in front of the New Sun Hong Kong Restaurant on the corner was a group of elderly Asians playing their instruments. A banner hanging above them read, “Chinese Instrumental Music – ABCT (A Better Chinatown Tomorrow).”
I was still surprised by how quiet it was, aside from the usual street noise, I had to double check and make sure I was in the right area because I was expecting there to be more tourists.
Continuing my trek up the street, I came across a line of restaurants, pizzerias and cafes one after another to my left and right but I was set on eating by the park. So I continued my journey and found a place – Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café – at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Union Street, right across the street from Washington Square Park.
“You can’t really go wrong if you’re looking for a place to eat around here,” said Barbara Cannella, a City Guides volunteer.
There was a real sense of community in North Beach. From inside Mario’s, people were going in and out and greeting each other by their first names. Across the street, I’ve never seen a more diverse group of people hanging out in a park. There were teens and adults in their mid-20s lounging on the grass and tossing Frisbees, a group of elderly Asians exercising in one corner of the park and mothers with their children at the corner playground. There just seemed like a place for everybody and everyone just let them do their own thing.
Across the street from the park you could see the beautiful architecture of Saints Peter and Paul Church. Its address, I later found out, 666 Filbert St.
I started to wonder what people could possibly complain about around here.
“People usually complain about what is going on that day,” Kathy Wizowski, a local on the Beat Museum tour, said.
I spoke to a San Francisco Police Department officer in Washington Square Park to get a feel of what the neighborhood was like from his point of view. I could’ve listen to him talk about the area all afternoon but he had more important things to worry about than a journalism student trying to get the 411 on North Beach.
“You have to look at it through different lenses. What is it you’re trying to get?” officer Noel Schwab said.
He spoke generally about viewing the neighborhood politically, economically and socially. He told me to put away my pencil and notepad and just walk around the neighborhood and soak it all in – to be a part of it.
I turned a block around the park, away from the larger restaurants on Columbus Avenue, and found boutiques, record shops and smaller places where people could grab a quick bite to eat and a few drinks.
I was walking back toward BART and remembered something officer Schwab had said.
“This is the heart of San Francisco.”