Streetfilms: A Proposed Urban Park in Historic North Beach

"What destroys the poetry of a city? Automobiles destroy it, and they destroy more than the poetry."
–Lawrence Ferlinghetti

One of San Francisco’s cherished literary icons — poet, painter and City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti — is celebrating his 90th birthday today, and I thought it would be fitting to bring you his vision for transforming a small block of Vallejo Street in historic North Beach into what would be called the Piazza Saint Francis. 

Ferlinghetti founded the Piazza Saint Francis Foundation and is working with the Planning Department’s City Design Group, Caffe Trieste and many others, including attorney and former supervisor Angela Alioto and film director Francis Ford Coppola (who worked on "The Godfather" screenplay at Trieste), to create an Italian-style piazza, with inscriptions on the paving stones from up to 30 or 40 authors, mostly poets.

North Beach is an ideal place to do this, not just because of its Italian flare. The neighborhood consistently shows some of the highest pedestrian counts in the city, yet lacks a lot of usable public space. It does feature Grant Street, though, one of San Francisco’s most pedestrian-friendly streets, which runs through the heart of Chinatown, across Columbus, and into North Beach alongside Trieste, and Washington Square Park.

The biggest obstacle to realizing the project is the estimated $3.5 million price tag. The city can’t afford to do it, so private funds will need to be raised to make it happen. "We urgently need money to make it go forward," said Ferlinghetti.

The Mayor’s office is working with the foundation to identify traditional and non-traditional sources of funding. Because it’s not a city-funded project, though, there’s been more flexibility with the design. 

"This is a project that came from the community and has been led by the community," said Andres Power, an urban designer at the Planning Department.  "They had more liberty to think a little bit outside of the box and be more creative about how the space would be used, the materials that would be used."

Power noted the project has already gone through two rounds at DPW and the PUC so most of the "big picture issues have been resolved." Ferlinghetti described it as shovel-ready and said he hopes the city might consider diverting some stimulus funds their way.

The project does have its opponents, though, as a recent story in the SF Weekly noted:

Caffe Trieste has been one of the few constants in North Beach, and
its regular customers fiercely guard it as though it were an extension
of their own homes. Any mention of change, and they can experience
acute anxiety and begin to form opposition committees.

Some fear it will take away the character of Caffe Trieste, attracting more tourists, and creating a Disneyland-like atmosphere. However, Power said those concerns have been taken into account in the design. And Ferlinghetti said most of the regulars, and many in North Beach, support it.

"Some of the old Trieste inhabitants are afraid it’ll become too upscale. As long as Papa Gianni is alive, the original founder, it won’t change," said Ferlinghetti.

Power said a community meeting will be held soon and the design will likely undergo a few changes. In the meantime, the Mayor, who supports it, can take the lead on this if he wants to, and speed it forward, by helping to identify funds.

"It’s a simple conception and I thought it wouldn’t be so hard to realize but it’s been three years. Everything moves very slowly ," said Ferlinghetti.


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