North Beach is the old San Francisco dream; the one tourists still come to see.
The light shines here as in a dream. You can sit at Caffe Greco and see Algerians, writers, drunken hairdressers, and New York ex-pats mingle and banter and deal with pain and beauty in a way that makes the city feel like the city that was: a melting pot of people who care, dream, and write.
In our rapidly changing times, this is a comforting thought. Today, San Franciscans complain about Google buses more than Muni buses. Brunch life seems to take precedence over civic life. The sidewalks are made with glitter, as the grit and gray and grime of the city are washed away. All this makes me wonder — where will all the dreamers go?
The city is molting its worn and textured skin. Underneath is a shiny white thing made of glass, a minimalist object with no hard edges. Some idyllic vision of San Francisco is fading, and we are watching it happen.
However, time will pass and our now will become The Way Things Are. Until then, North Beach is a reminder of The Way Things Were.
North Beach had been an elusive part of the City for me, and I decided to look for a sublet there. A friend put me in touch with Anisse Gross, who had a sublet available.
I went to meet her on a sunny day, biking from the Mission to her apartment on a corner of Washington Square Park. There was a sign on her door that said, “If you are a Dreamer, come in.” I walked up the forty-something stairs up to her flat, and each step had a stack of books on top of it. A writer lived here.
Anisse is a writer and embodies the spirit of old school San Francisco. She’s a rare breed who pokes her nose into situations because she’s curious, a modern-day historian that’s curious to discover little details and eccentricities about the City. When I met her, she told me she wanted to walk every street in San Francisco.
She was sitting at the dining room table — a bright yellow Formica table with matching chairs – in a kitchen framed by bay windows that faced Columbus Street. The sun bounced off the table and the tree outside the window, and gave everything a soft focus. I felt like I had stepped into 1994, when North Beach was still good and I was a writer in a spaghetti strap dress, bucket hat, and perm.
Anisse has been in the flat for 10 years. Her sister found it because she saw a “for lease” sign written in Chinese and kept calling and pestering the Chinese landlord until he relented to the “rich girls.”
"I feel like I’ve discovered something special," I said to her. "North Beach has a bad rap — but this is beautiful."
"North Beach is made up of tourists and seniors — my two favorite groups of people," Anisse said. "What’s not to like?"
When she gave me the tour, she took me up to the rooftop. She pointed at the wall she leans against as she drinks her morning coffee. It looks out to Alcatraz and Angel Island and on a clear day (in North Beach, this is most days) you can see icons of the San Francisco cityscape: Coit Tower, Transamerica Building, and the elderly Chinese exercising in Washington Square Park right by the big church.
We went downstairs again.
"I tried living in New York a few times," Anisse told me. "But it’s not a city for dreamers. You get crushed there.” The last time she was there was when the towers fell.
"I’m a dreamer," she said.
My heart leapt up. (Me too!)
San Francisco is a city where you can dream and write your own story. But it’s harder now. The stories are different, and so are the dreams.
Not for me and Anisse. Instead of talk of apps or VCs or Silicon Valley gossip, we talk about the calendar she made called “Hats of Chinatown.” She shared my excitement about Chinese exercise in the park, and asked how she could break into the scene. We gossiped about the Chinese tailor shop below us that was never open.
"I heard the landlord rents out the space for $100," she said of this Columbus Street storefront. "The tailor doesn’t really work; he just uses it to get away from his wife."
We all need our solitude, I suppose. His storefront gives of the facade of work — rolls of fabric and a banana plant that looks like it might get watered.
During my stay, Anisse told me plenty of stories and I gobbled them up. One night we were sitting in the living room, while the lights were flickering. I knew I shouldn’t have, but I asked if the house was haunted. She raised an eyebrow. “Do you really want to know?”
According to Anisse, the house is haunted by the ghost of a pigeon hoarder who pushed one of her old housemates down the stairs. The story terrified me. I had trouble getting to sleep for a few nights.
She also had stories about urban UFOs, dining with Francis Ford Coppola and the history behind the marquee on Turk & Larkin. She told me about the clubs: not dance, cannabis, or The Battery, but the Dolphin Club and the Mechanic’s Library, both of which she is a member of. (Although she does have an opinion on The Battery.)
She’s been here long enough and is invested in preserving San Francisco. The return: secret gems of people and stores that you won’t find on Yelp. She also told me about the cheapest place to get your clothes hemmed and tailored, a street-level shop on Stockton Street in Chinatown, which was actually open, unlike the little Chinese tailor shop underneath our flat.
The North Beach Flat was the best place I’ve ever lived. My room was half windows that let in sunlight from the Bay. It felt like a ship’s cabin. Anisse’s books lined the floors, so I also felt like I was in a writer’s cabin. If there were ever an earthquake, I would swing to and fro and go down with the books in a tsunami.
North Beach isn’t immune to change. There are people like Anisse and the Chinese tailor that will keep the neighborhood As It Was, but that too, will change over time. North Beach was the Mission before the Mission was what it is now and in 10 years it won’t be cool anymore and this will continue on and on. There’s no use in getting too upset.
There are a few third-wave coffee shops and fancy new restaurants. Tosca Cafe was taken over by New York restauranteurs and now the bar is filled to the point where I can’t get a seat. I’m happy to see it filled, though I miss the days where it would be no one else in the bar but me, the jukebox, and the bartender dressed in a white shirt and tie.
But there are still tourists and the locals, there’s still Trieste and the Saloon and the Chinese people that make North Beach an extension of Chinatown. And as long as Liguria Bakery is there for me to buy focaccia and enjoy it in the park, I’ll be okay.
The other day I met a woman who described historic North Beach haunts as “tidelines,” where movements of ideas and people push up against each other and leave a mark. You can see traces of the Beatnicks and the Barbary Coast and of the past. I saw them all at Caffe Greco and Trieste and in Anisse. I wonder what new tide lines will wash up against the neighborhood, and what old ones will be displaced.