American Times: NORTH BEACH, SAN FRANCISCO;Mighty dollar drives out artists and poets

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The Independent Online
WHEN JOE DI MAGGIO first started knocking about with a bat and baseball in San Francisco's North Beach back in the 1920s, the neighbourhood was a slightly fusty Little Italy filled with old men in faded felt hats and corner cafes serving the only decent coffee in town.

There was nothing fashionable about it, stuck as it was in a hollow between the grand homes on top of Russian Hill to the west and Telegraph Hill to the east. Fisherman's Wharf, just to the north, still lived up to its name back then, and the smell of rotting fish bones wafted over North Beach with the prevailing wind off the bay.

Hard to imagine, perhaps, that the area would now be among the trendiest and most sought-after in San Francisco, or that some of the older residents would be grieving for the authentic flavour of North Beach's glorious past. Then again, much can happen in the long lifespan of a Joe Di Maggio. These days, North Beach is best known as the spiritual home of the Beat poets, the place where Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the rest settled, stayed up late and experimented with drugs in the 1950s.

Pick your way around the neighbourhood selectively, and it still looks a bit like an artists' colony. The City Lights bookstore, the Mecca of the Beat Generation, is still there, as is its founder, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The area is still dotted with Italian cafes and restaurants, even if the faded felt hats, and the old men from Genoa and Trieste who wore them, are long gone. But North Beach, rather like the St Germain-des-Pres in Paris, has become a curious sort of shrine to its old self, precious to the point of self-parody, a magnet for tourists and new residents who fancy themselves to be treading hallowed turf, but who discover that in truth the ground has long since been desecrated. The dilapidated houses have been done up, and real estate prices have shot through the roof.

All the truly impoverished artists packed up and left years ago, as did the dockers of Fisherman's Wharf. The corner cafes have not so much disappeared as been subtly transformed. Their menus still bear Italian names - espresso, cappuccino and latte - but what gets served is the Americanised, Pacific Northwest version of Italian coffee, no more than an ersatz replica at twice the price.

And now, horror of horrors, the chain stores beckon. The Californian burger phenomenon Carl's Jr. has already arrived, as has the (admittedly upscale) ice-cream emporium Ben and Jerry's. Rite-Aid wants to open a giant drugstore in the Pagoda Palace, on the rim of Chinatown; 7-Eleven and Starbucks have been turned away for the moment, but are not easily deterred.

In any other American city, the arrival of such outlets would be no more than business as usual. But San Francisco has always prided itself on its rugged individuality, and their incursions come as a profound shock, especially in hip, bohemian North Beach.

"There is an old Indian myth that San Francisco was once an island, and that's how most of us saw it when we first arrived. It didn't seem to be part of the United States at all," reminisced Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who still lives in the area. "As it gentrifies, what made San Francisco special is disappearing fast. It's impossible for an artist or poet to live here any more."

The changes in North Beach have caused such upset that one of San Francisco's city supervisors, Mark Leno, has proposed a moratorium on all new businesses. "I'm just looking for time out, a breather, so we can come up with a more comprehensive plan to preserve the unique character of the neighbourhood," he said recently.

Perhaps Mr Leno protests a shade too much. After all, the "unique character" also includes old sex shops that nobody has ever much liked, and old dives that probably would have gone out of business sooner or later anyway.

One of the biggest changes in North Beach, and one that gets little mention, is the expansion of Chinatown, which has now absorbed as much as half of the old neighbourhood. Nobody could accuse the noisy Asian food shops selling live fish and thick clumps of ginger of being yuppyish; one can't help feeling there's a hint of racism amid the nostalgia.

One thing that remains unchanged, or almost, is the park where Joe Di Maggio used to practise. It was a stubby wedge of asphalt then, and it is a stubby wedge of asphalt now. Sure, a couple of children's swings have been added, and there is talk of naming the spot after San Francisco's recently deceased baseball genius.

But those aren't the sorts of changes to prompt complaints. Remember, the smell of rotting fish vanished years ago.

Andrew Gumbel