One of my 2012 new year’s resolutions was to start taking advantage of the numerous walking tours offered by San Francisco City Guides. A few weekends ago I took the North Beach tour.
I love North Beach, mainly because North Beach combines two of my great loves: Italian cuisine and a rich literary history (being one of the famous stomping grounds for the Beat Generation).
On the tour I learned that it was during the Gold Rush that many Italians arrived to California with the hopes of striking it rich. With little success, many made their way to the San Francisco coast and found something else that they had better luck with – fishing. A community was formed near the northern beaches of SF (at the time North Beach was coined, the bay shore was only a few blocks from the neighborhood – dredging and landfill extended the city to what it is now) and Italian restaurants, coffee houses and markets were born in the neighborhood.
It was in the 1950s that the Beat poets found their way to North Beach. I am so accustom to the North Beach of today, with it’s sky-high housing prices, that it’s hard to believe that in the 50s rents in this neighborhood were actually very low (conducive to struggling poets!). It was a little bittersweet to see that the coffee houses and restaurants frequented by the Beats are no longer here, but some places are still alive and thriving, including some of the bars and the bookstore City Lights. If you have not been to this bookstore (founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti), visit the upstairs, a room devoted to poetry. I fell in love with Beat literature when I was in high school. This was probably the worst (or best!) time to read On the Road, as I was young and very impressionable and Jack Kerouac’s crazy, free spirited travels left me intoxicated with his work!