Heart of the City Archives

Former Mayor Willie Brown (right) and the girls of Sts. Peter and Paul watch as Mayor Gavin Newsom shoots and scores.

Just another day in paradise by the bay
by Hank Donat

On a recent Saturday, with the cloudless blue sky opening the day to endless possibilities, neighbors and city officials reopened the North Beach Swimming Pool and Joe DiMaggio Playground. The celebration was memorable for all the reasons that make extraordinary days typical in a city that knows how to appreciate them.

Mayor Gavin Newsom and former mayor Willie Brown arrived only moments apart. "A pleasure," said Brown, surveying the playground as a parade of kids made its way to the hoops.

With both mayors known for their style as much for their policies, it came as no surprise when Newsom took some time to admire Brown's shoes. Newsom was the picture of ease and sophistication, chatting with girls from Sts. Peter and Paul School and shooting baskets one-handed while holding a cup of Caffe Roma coffee in the other.

"This is a terrific place and a terrific neighborhood," Newsom said of the renovation that turned the playground's clubhouse, tiny and outdated, into a gleaming 2,200 square-foot multi-use community building. "I love it," said the mayor. Later, in his public remarks, Newsom said the renovated pool includes the first publicly funded dry sauna in the country.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin was the star of the day's Celebrity Swim event. Mal Sharpe and his Big Money Band kept the whole affair jumping.

With Coit Tower and the spires of Sts. Peter and Paul church looming approvingly from the east, Russian Hill and the crooked section of Lombard Street adding charm to spare from the west, it was a postcard of the San Francisco idyll when the lion dancers entered the playground. I don't know if they effectively scare bad spirits away, but it's not quite a house blessing, or even a clubhouse blessing, until the Chinese lions have arrived.

The $7.5 million renovation to the playground, pool, and clubhouse was created in partnership with the city and the community organization Friends of Joe DiMaggio Playground. In 2000, the North Beach Playground was renamed in honor of the baseball legend who grew up in the neighborhood.

Later, I wend my way through the neighborhood, catching North Beach in the act of being North Beach. At Caffe Roma, proprietor Tony Azzolini is wrangling his almost three-year old twins to join the fun down the hill. Here's a scooplet: Mayor Newsom is wisely considering Azzolini for an appointment to the Small Business Commission. If it goes through, you heard it here first.

Police Commissioner Joe Alioto enters as I'm leaving, as does North Beach adman and all-around character Edwin Heaven.

On the sidewalk outside, a couple of Chinese boys around ten years old are pushing and nudging, trying to get the better of the other. Suddenly, the taller child decides he's had enough, "I'll slap you," he declares. "Oh yeah," says the small fry, "I'll sue you." Who do you think won that argument?

At the St. Francis Shrine, a homeless couple sits on the concrete sharing a slice of used pizza. The scene reminds passers by that even on a beautiful spring morning, San Francisco can be far from paradise for some.

Further down Columbus, a cadre of black sedans and security agents are wedged into Kerouac Alley near the City Lights Bookstore. The detail draws more unwanted attention than it prevents. On this bright, shining day, a sovereign leader from the Dominican Republic could have shopped for paperbacks unnoticed except for all the pomp outside.

As I continue down Columbus, I look up at the glistening Bank of America Building. It's difficult not to remember the sniper from Dirty Harry who made a perfect hit from the BofA building to the rooftop swimming pool of the Holiday Inn on Kearney Street. Though the BofA will slip from second to fourth among the cities tallest buildings in the next decade, for now it's still a straight shot from the roof to the Holiday Inn.

Beside me, a tourist laden with backpack, map and compass, admires the ghoulish specters over the building at 580 California Street. I can't resist offering the 411 on these unique icons of the City. I explain that sculptor Muriel Castanis created the three ghostlike figures on each side of the building in the early 1980s using fabric, epoxy, and fiberglass. Castanis had developed her technique sometime earlier when she found that cleaning rags, when soaked with glue, could be a used as a sculpting medium. The figures are titled, "Three Models for 580 California."

Squinting in the bright light of the day, the tourist responds, "Who knew?" Who indeed

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Copyright 2005 Hank Donat
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