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Five Fun Facts About North Beach - July 11, 2018 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Five Fun Facts About North Beach

Green Street in North Beach. Photo by Eric Pratt

Columbus Avenue wasn’t always called that.

Until 1909, everyone’s favorite diagonal thoroughfare was known as Montgomery Avenue, creating a de facto intersection of “Montgomery and Montgomery” at the site that would go on to become the Transamerica Pyramid six decades later. That year, the city of San Francisco, in post-earthquake recovery and consolidation mode and with more than 400,000 residents, decided to clean up its streets. It wasn’t as though garbage pickup was implemented that year; instead, the city chose to eliminate the duplicate street names that had proliferated since the pre-Gold Rush Yerba Buena era.

The Commission on the Changing of Street Names took its duty quite seriously. The alterations were most dramatic in the Richmond and Sunset districts, where thousands of neighbors fiercely opposed the “Spaniardized” renaming of all the east-west streets in an alphabetical sequence from Anza to Wawona — with the surnames of a few American military figures, like Kirkham and Lawton, thrown in. But other streets got renamed, too, including DuPont Street (now Grant Avenue) and the Embarcadero, which had previously been known by the cumbersome designations “East Street North” and “East Street South,” separated by the Ferry Building.

Owing to North Beach’s Italian-American population, Columbus Avenue was chosen. Although Christopher Columbus’ star has dimmed in the years since, that rechristening might be the least fought-over remnant of the Street Renaming Controversy of 1909.

 

Bank of America Financial Center in North Beach

The Bank of America started there.

Founded as the Bank of Italy in 1904 by Amadeo Giannini to serve immigrants and other lower-income people the financial institutions of the era wouldn’t touch, it survived the 1906 earthquake and fire only because Giannani spirited the deposits out of harm’s way. Amid the rubble, Giannini reportedly laid planks over two barrels and set up shop, lending money to rebuild the city. In 1908, the bank moved into the eight-story Beaux-Arts building at 550 Montgomery St. — now landmarked as the Bank of Italy Building — and later merged with the Los Angeles firm that gave it its current name. Currently, Bank of America holds one-tenth of all the deposits in the United States, and a BofA building is the tallest structure in Charlotte, Atlanta, and Dallas, and the fourth-tallest in Houston and New York. Before decamping for Charlotte, it was headquartered at 555 California St., San Francisco’s third-tallest building, which held the No. 1 spot from its completion in 1969 until the nearby Transamerica Pyramid topped out in 1972.

Terrific Street really existed.

An artsy cafe and “eco-brothel” called Terrific Street opened on Grant Avenue in 2015, causing a few non-avians to squawk at its window display of “canned parrot.” It closed last summer, having served a lot more Stumptown Coffee than cherry-head birds from Telegraph Hill, but its forerunner lasted much longer. During the Barbary Coast era, the block of Pacific Street between Kearny and Montgomery streets was in fact known as Terrific Street, probably in an older sense of the word, closer to “terrifying” than “excellent.” The Old Hippodrome and the Bella Union Dance Hall were there, licentious places that moralizing scolds and other puritanical biddies frowned upon as cesspools of gambling, opium, petty crime, and exposed ankles. You could find exotic dancers known as the Three Lively Fleas, and a character named Black Bart, who robbed people using a gun with no bullets and left poetry as his calling card, signed “Black Bart the PO8.” Because of all the barely concealed ads for Terrific Street sex workers of the day, the San Francisco Examiner was sometimes known as The Whore’s Daily Guide and Handy Compendium.

A view of Alcatraz from Jack Early Park in North Beach. Photo by Eric Pratt

There’s a park you probably don’t know about.

If you find steps in San Francisco, take ’em. Few things about this city thrill a jaded, longtime resident like discovering a new vista does, and on Grant Avenue opposite Pfeiffer Street is a staircase that leads to a remarkable view of Fisherman’s Wharf and the water, with the Golden Gate, Richmond, and Bay bridges all easily visible. Jack Early Park, on the northwest slope of Telegraph Hill, has room for only three or four people and gets locked at night, and its namesake wanted to call it “Alcatraz Heights.” In the early 1960s, Early essentially built the park himself, using railroad ties as stairs, on a rugged lot that was poorly suited for much else. Climbing to the top, above the treetops (but not entirely above the nearby rooflines) reveals a beautiful spot you’ll want to come back to again and again. Jack Early, jack often!

 

Saints Peter and Paul Church. Photo by Brenna Daugherty

Let’s go to church.

The magnificent, dual-steepled SS Peter and Paul Church, opposite Washington Square Park, is known as the Italian Cathedral of the West. Completed in 1924, it’s somewhat unusual in that the altar faces south (not east, as many Catholic churches do) and its address is the rather ominous 666 Filbert St. There’s a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà, and the 40-ton altar is hewn from Carrara marble. Above it, inside the dome, is a specific depiction of Jesus known as a Christo Pantocrator (Christ All-Powerful), which you can recognize from the specific arrangements of letters, quasi-translated from Greek: IC (Jesus), XC (Christ), NK (Conquers). The church is readily visible in Dirty Harry, and it’s where Martinez native and longtime North Beach resident Joe DiMaggio married his first wife, actress Dorothy Arnold, in 1939. Because the Church doesn’t accept remarriage following a divorce, DiMaggio couldn’t wed Marilyn Monroe there in 1954, so they got hitched at City Hall — and divorced within the year. But DiMaggio’s small, private funeral was held there in 1999, and he’s buried in Colma.