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article imageOp-Ed: Touristy, yes, but San Francisco's North Beach still has the beat Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Apr 25, 2011 in Lifestyle
The North Beach section of San Francisco for the most part caters to tourists; complete with tour buses, souvenirs and inflated prices.
Yet despite the dusty narrow streets, heavy with traffic and often litter-strewn, North Beach still has a beat, if it can be said that way.
"Beat" referring to its "Beatnik" past. At least for this reporter, North Beach still has a kind of rhythm that still makes it a special spot to gather.
Sit outside one of the many cafes and restaurants and watch scores of people transit by. From all walks of life from every part of the nation, the world, people flock to North Beach. Since the 1950's it has been a place for artist's - San Francisco's "Left Bank;" as it were, like the Montparnasse area of Paris.
This past Saturday the day before Easter, there was an art show in Washington Square. Dozens of works lined the walkway facing Union Street with the steps and steeples of Saints Peter and Paul Church in the background.
Among them was art by Feng Jin. What looked like outlined silhouette paintings on canvas - to this reporter, actually turned out to be delicate sculpture made of strips of metal. Up close strips of metal at various lengths entangled with one another, but stand back and a complete eye-catching feminine form emerges, an exquisite lady.
A graduate of the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, Jin is a metal arts sculptor. "Most of my work is in stainless steel," said Jin. "But I also work in steel, brass and copper," he said.
"My metal sculpture includes both non-representational and representational sculptures: figures, curved lines & shapes, and abstract forms are common themes." Jin said. He is inspired by the work of American metal sculptor David Smith.
"I am influenced by David Smith, even at a very early age, when I was still an art student in China," said Jin. "While not many Western metal sculptors were introduced to China during the early 1980's, Smith's strong compositions from steel and "found" scrap material have made significant impressions on me," Jin said.
Some art historians classify Smith as an abstract expressionist. Some speculate that Smith was influenced by Picasso. Perhaps this is what appeals to Jin?
For over 15 years Jin has lived and worked in San Francisco making Alameda, an island across the bay 40 minutes East from San Francisco his home. Working full-time as a sculptor his works were shown at the Alameda Museum this past March.
Often inspired by calligraphy, blending East with West he finds the lines and cursive shapes of such in the Chinese & Japanese characters aesthetically pleasing. Next month Jin will be exhibiting his works at the Atrium Gallery in San Francisco.
Even though it is spring time, the weather in San Francisco is chilly and yes fog appears at any time of year, regardless of the season. As clouds began to sprinkle some misty rain, Jin and the others started to put things away, and wrap up for the day.
While North Beach now is simply a tourist destination, remnants of a neighborhood, still echo. Built by immigrants from many places, a significant number were Mexican. That is why Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was built. But mostly Italian are recorded.
According to Travel an online travel guide, when it was an actual beach (on the north side of the City, hence the name "North Beach,") - it was home to fishing wharves and boat docks that drew in Italian American immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century." This is how North Beach got to be referred to as the "little Italy" area of the City.
Generations of Italian-Americans in San Francisco made North Beach their home, celebrating festivals and holidays like Columbus Day with parades and fairs.
The steeples of Saints Peter & Paul Church at Washington Square give witness to those faded remnants of what was a very close-knit community.
Over time as America after World War II expanded its suburbs in the economic prosperity of those days, many of the immigrant families left the City for new homes built along the San Francisco Peninsula or across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County and beyond.
Yet it is that old neighborhood charm that seems to attract people to North Beach. Specialty shops, bistros, cafes and art galleries like Arata Fine Art Gallery along Columbus Ave prominently feature those storied remnants, like snapshots of a lifetime of memories.
Over 30 artists display their works at Arata's. All of the finest quality, ensured and fostered by the gallery owners Geraldine and John Arata. The couple who are natives to San Francisco, opened the gallery and art studio in 2009.
"Since my wife Geraldine is an artist, I always wanted to open a studio and have a little gallery for her," said John. A San Francisco Giants fan, John is often attired in the official NBA orange and black jersey. He used to work for PG & E. Yet after a co-worker lost his wife to cancer, the co-worker said to him, "if there is any dream you have or something you want to do in life, don't wait for retirement to do it."
John decided right then to heed the man's advice and decided take his retirement early. After a bit of traveling, John and Geraldine opened their gallery and studio on Columbus Ave which is the main thoroughfare of North Beach.
"We look for local emerging and established artists who hold themselves to the highest standards of classical representational art," said Geraldine. She is a graduate of The Academy of Art University of San Francisco.
Both she and her husband John of 35 years seek the highest quality and dedication to craft and skill. "These artists we have featured are dedicated to the continuing pursuit of expanding their talents and skills either through academic training or their own quest," said Geraldine. "
"Our gallery houses graduates from the prestigious Academy of Art, California Art Institute, University of San Francisco, and of course, the largest school in the world; life itself," she said.
Rich colors and passionate themes are what drew this reporter into Arata's gallery. Like Jin's metal work sculpture, the paintings catch the eye. Works by Geraldine Arata herself, such as "Madame La Rouge," "Columbina" and "Dottore Peste" all have a "carnival of Venice" theme to their composition. She explained, I painted these while on vacation to Italy."
"Yet, wait, let me back up," said Geraldine. "How I got into this carnival theme is unusual," she said. "My mother had gone to New Orleans for a visit, many years ago. And she sent me a post card saying that I should visit New Orleans," said Geraldine.
"Why my mother was inspired to go to New Orleans? I don't know," said Geraldine. "My parents, me and my siblings, we are all from here, born and raised in San Francisco," said she. "Our family goes back about three or four generations," said Geraldine.
Yet, there was something about her mother's post card that beckoned Geraldine to make the trip to New Orleans. " So, when John and I wanted to go away for our wedding anniversary, we went to New Orleans."
New Orleans with its carnival atmosphere and distant past appealed to Geraldine. Interestingly, San Francisco at the time of the Gold Rush in the 1800's was filled with Southerners.Some of the streets in San Francisco have prominent references to the Old South such as Vicksburg and so forth.
According to local historian Daniel Bacon Union Square was established to ensure San Francisco and California's establishment as part of the United States.
Bacon's walking tour of the Barbary Coast goes through North Beach along Columbus Ave to the Financial District.
Geraldine wondered what sort of psychic residue from a past life was left upon previous generations. Did someone in her family line venture to San Francisco from the old South? "Who can say? If you trace the heritage lines on either side of a family, back far enough you will find that people immigrate from just about everywhere," said John.
Regardless, whether or not there is some Southern blood in the past, Geraldine was inspired by the trip to New Orleans. She and John soon found themselves on a trip to Venice, Italy. "That trip opened up the door of inspiration to these carnival series of paintings," said Geraldine. "Maybe the carnival theme will lead us to Rio de Janeiro," said Geraldine.
John and Geraldine have made several return trips to Italy. "studying the classical sculptures while there is what has inspired the current show at our gallery," she said. Based upon the myths and legends of the Grecco-Roman world "invoking the Gods," features the deities in their symbolic attributes of power, majesty and mysterious destiny for human kind.
Each month or so, John and Geraldine discover not only a new theme to feature in their gallery but a new artists. "We are open to meeting with anyone who wants to show their work as well as meeting with art dealers," said John. "But we want to ensure that the work is of the highest quality and that it compliments the established themes and styles we feature," he said.
With art, there is also fashion. And since the Beat Generation days in the 1950's North Beach has expressed a unique sense of fashion. Many an artist, especially a musician enjoys wearing a hat from time to time.
On Stockton Street a few steps away from the square is Goorin Brothers hats. Classic fedoras along with contemporary designed caps fill the shop. All are made by Goorin Brothers who have been making hats as family business since 1895.
Goorin Brothers frequently reaches out to the artistic community with events like the presenting of its Spring 2011 release of the 1333 Minna Artist Collection.
When this reporter stepped in to check out the dozens and dozens of hats, wall to wall, many people - men and women were trying on the various styles and colors. All are excellently crafted and reasonably-priced.
As the 21st Century has made an impact on the way of life the ways of life that characterized North Beach have changed significantly. Cell phones, GPS and social networking, all have changed the pace of life. Despite the increase of the "touristy" elements North Beach remains a place to relax and unwind. On a warm sunny evening North Beach still is the best place to be when in San Francisco.
To escape the touristy element while in North Beach visit Golden Boy Pizza. This is a place to recapture some of the more down-to-earthiness of North Beach; as in the days when legendary Carol Doda was dancing at the Condor Club and then-unknowns like Barbra Streisand and Phyllis Diller were performing at the Hungry I and the Purple Onion.
As matter of fact, Doda is still around and frequents North Beach, appearing at Amante's Cocktail Lounge and Bar almost right next door to Golden Boy on Green Street.
This reporter has seen in person famed San Francisco journalist Warren Hinckle with his basset hound in North Beach making his way along Green Street. Hinckle, a legend himself was known for his "New Leftist" politics and its anti-Vietnam War sentiments of the 1960s and '70's.
If you are looking for more local atmosphere and feeling, Golden Boy Pizza has it.
Founded in 1978 by Peter Sodini, Golden Boy Pizza on Green Street remains unpretentious and yes, affordable. Generous square-sliced portions of pizza are baked fresh daily. For less than $7.00 you can enjoy a slice of pizza right out the oven with a can of all-natural sparkling lemon or orange soda. The soda has no added sugar, just the natural citrus flavor from orange and lemon juice concentrate.
Golden Boy takes cash only and it is a bit of a dive. Yet very clean and has lots of classic rock music playing on the stereo system.
Need more reasons to visit North Beach? See The San Francisco Chronicle's points of interest.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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