Aptly named, the North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco actually used to be a beach after being filled in with a landfill around the late 19th century. The newly-established shoreline brought abundant fishing wharves and docks to the area. These docks provided access for the swarms of people headed to California for the 1849 Gold Rush, resulting in the southern half of the neighborhood becoming home to the infamous Barbary Coast.
In 1906, a massive earthquake struck the coast of Northern California, bringing devastating fires to the region that lasted for days. Reconstruction efforts began almost immediately, and not long after the storm, an influx of Italian immigrants moved to the neighborhood. These immigrants had, and maintain, a great influence on the neighborhood, giving it its reputation as the Little Italy of San Francisco.
Fast forward to the 1950s and North Beach’s bars and cafes became home to the Beat Generation. Many prominent writers and personalities of that generation, often dubbed “beatniks”, lived in the neighborhood, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady.
Unsurprisingly, the neighborhood's rich history and colorful culture resulted in many architectural gems that give North Beach much of its charm. For instance, the St. Francis of Assisi Church is a Gothic Revival gem and national shrine of the saint, constructed in 1857. However, the aforementioned fires from the 1906 earthquake destroyed nearly all of it aside from the walls and the two towers. In 1913, the church was rebuilt using the remaining bones of the construction and today it’s nearly identical to what it looked like in the 19th century.
The Sentinel, also called the Columbus Tower, is another architectural treasure in North Beach, constructed as a classic Beaux-Arts flatiron. Designed by Salfield and Kohlberg, construction for the building began before the 1906 earthquake and its framing remained miraculously intact post-disaster, with the building being completed in 1907. The building gets its green hue from the oxidization of its abundant copper cladding.
Complementing its historic architecture, North Beach is also home to some beautiful art installations. Topmost among them is the Language of the Birds installation created by Brian Goggins. The collection of flying books, located on the corner of Columbus Ave. and Broadway, pays homage to the previously-mentioned literary and spoken-word giants who called North Beach home. The books are filled with English, Italian, and Chinese words to represent the native people of the neighborhood. At night, the books are illuminated by LED lights, creating visual patterns that give them the appearance of living, breathing organisms akin to birds.