North Beach

Summary: North Beach is San Francisco’s playground. This section of the city is one of San Francisco’s most iconic neighborhoods and can be found as the setting for various romantic comedies. North Beach is considered SF’s red-light district because of its historic associations with crime and because of the large number of strip joints and peepshows along Broadway. Despite these associations, the neighborhood along Columbus is not only not run down, but is filled, in fact, with nice restaurants and boutique stores. North Beach is the favored nightspot for both tourists and locals looking for dining, bars, dancing or live music.

For many lovers of San Francisco, their perfect days and nights in the city are highlighted by North Beach and its immediate surroundings. Few places can you spend an entire day, from dawn to the wee hours of the morning, and have so much to do and see. On your average weekday, the clip-clop of designer shoes and modest heels start to fill Columbus Avenue as early as 6 a.m. If the representative resident of the Mission is a hipster, the everyman of North Beach is a young preppy professional, and it is exactly these types, who stream south to jobs in the financial district or to classes in the many Bay Area schools. Although some live in the upscale apartments that overlook the bay from Telegraph Hill (famous for Coit Tower), most trickle out from three story Victorians, the almost invariable architectural design of North Beach residences surrounding Columbus Avenue. Regardless of where they live, rents are high here in North Beach, one of the SF neighborhoods whose prices barely flinched during the financial meltdown.

A few drive—especially if they have jobs or classes outside of the city in places like Palo Alto, Berkeley, or Silicon Valley--but most of these young professionals walk, bicycle, or take a combination of MUNI and BART. Here as throughout the city, parking is in short supply and even if you have a North Beach parking permit, finding a space after noon can be challenging. Those who are lucky enough to have apartments with parking garages rent spaces for prices equivalent to those of a small apartment in the East Bay. In fact, many landlords run a lucrative side business renting high-priced parking spaces to bankers and entrepreneurs.

These hurried Yuppies are not the only pedestrians on the early morning streets of North Beach. Residents from neighboring Chinatown also make their way through the city to jobs and to Washington Park, just off the Columbus Avenue. It is in Washington Park that, under the watchful spires of Saint Peter’s and Paul’s Church, a cohort of elderly Chinese women congregates every morning to do their Tai Chi. Saint Peter’s and Paul’s is itself a symbol for the community’s Italian-American heritage, being the site of Yankee’s great Joe DiMaggio’s wedding to his first wife and where he and Marilyn Monroe took pictures after their city hall marriage (the Catholic Church did not recognize his divorce and would not allow Joe and Marilyn inside).

By nine a.m. most weekdays, North Beach is as quiet as it will get all day long, which simply means that it is not packed to the gills. This is a good time to stop by City Lights Books, get some reading material, and head over to one of the many North Beach coffee houses where you can enjoy the morning. Don’t bother trying to do so on a weekend, however, since open tables at Greco, Puccini’s, and Trieste on Sunday mornings are as hard to find as the parking spaces on Saturday nights. City Lights Books, with its adjacent Jack Kerouac alley, is yet another iconic San Francisco nexus. Opened by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the fifties, it was the gathering point for Allen Ginsburg and the Beatniks that put their artistic stamp on North Beach.

The heart of North Beach is Columbus Avenue and by 11 a.m., it is again coursing, first with the lunch crowd from the adjacent financial district and not long afterwards with tourists from Fisherman’s Wharf just to the north. They are drawn, especially on mild summer days, by the European style sidewalk dining of Italian restaurants like The Steps of Rome, the many pizzerias and Chinese restaurants that dot the North Beach landscape, or by San Francisco’s most famous restaurant, the garlicky Stinking Rose.

By afternoon, the main action for locals tends to be either at Washington Square where sunbathers gather, or on Grant Street, with its many clothing boutiques and secondhand stores. This time of day is also when the tourists start to arrive en mass. The already cluttered and chaotic Chinatown streets now become thronged with locals and visitors. The culture clash of East and West is on display in both the multilingual signs on stores and in the bumping hordes of pedestrians. The three-story Victorians that characterize North Beach give way to three to four story buildings whose bottom floors are usually open air stores or stands and whose fire escapes are often decorated with drying laundry. The other tourist destination is the sloping streets around Coit Tower with its view of the Wharf and the surrounding city. The spot light on these streets make them some of the most coveted apartments in the city and the rental prices reflect this demand.

Many of the same tourists linger in the area for dinner, but the evening draws a much less PG-rated crowd. Although North Beach definitely has a Disneyland feel, it is also the premier red light district in San Francisco. Broadway is home to a number of strip joints and peep shows from the Hustler Club and the Condor Club to the Lusty Lady, a cooperative where the strippers own shares. Several adult book and video stores also work as satellites to this adult industry. These establishments bring out a fair number of businessmen and frat boy types to the area and make the area increasingly unsavory for families or those with more conservative tastes. Columbus also has a number of places where one can see live jazz music and many bars, so not all the action is of the XXX variety. Many people meet here to have drinks and mingle and the streets remain full until close to the wee hours of the morning.

The police keep careful watch on the North Beach area since the mix of plentiful drinks and young men bring the predictable altercations. Arrests for assaults because of this mix are higher than for the rest of the city. North Beach also draws its share of criminal opportunists who prey on the unsuspecting tourists who wander often the beaten path. Robberies, muggings, and vehicle break-in rates are some of the highest in the city, especially on the less frequented residential streets. Murders, however, are relatively rare, averaging about one per year.

By three a.m. the fog and cold have crept in and helped to empty out the streets and North Beach takes a short catnap in preparation for yet another day of pleasing all of her visitors.