Our own piazza

Photograph of The Italian Homemade, at 1919 Union, by Sheila Pierce

By SHEILA PIERCE

La piazza: It’s one of the things I miss most about Italy.

Because la piazza preserves the traditions and habits of the past, which modern life is swallowing.

Because la piazza offers a newspaper stand instead of an app, interaction with people instead of technology and an outdoor space to breathe in where the world goes by in person rather than on a screen.

Because la piazza becomes a canvas of local flora and fauna, the central hub of a neighborhood, where kids migrate in the afternoon to kick a soccer ball and grandparents perch on benches to watch the next generation whiz by — where life slows down.

In the year and half I’ve lived in San Francisco, I’ve watched una piazza take shape, and by no coincidence it’s thanks to a group of Italians. This piazza is not where you might think it would be: in the North Beach-Little Italy area of the city, which is an admirable community of shops, pizzerie and restaurants run by extraordinary Italian-Americans still operating their ancestors’ businesses. And it’s not oval, square or rectangular, like most piazzas.

Instead, it’s linear, and it takes up two blocks on Union Street, between Laguna and Webster Streets. Here, my kids feel at home, as if back in Italy. In these places, my kids can speak Italian, enjoy homemade Italian cooking and gelato, feel the bond of neighborhood friends, reminisce about the Italian culture they miss and see how the tradition of family-run businesses transcends from Italy to America.

Read more: “A San Francisco Piazza

Set at sea, but born on Fillmore

BOOKS | ANNE GROSS

When I graduated from high school, my mother gave me a mermaid pendant on a silver chain, told me I’d always be a fish out of water, and sent me out into the world. I’d never been much of a swimmer, but somehow that made the totem even more apt.

Anne Gross

Continuing in that same stream, six years ago my husband and I decided to leave our large home in a remote Colorado mountain town and move into a miniscule apartment in a massive building in the Fillmore neighborhood. The move, although exciting for my husband, who was joining a flood of engineers entering the city, left me gasping for breath. I’d decided to leave my nursing career and start writing, but hadn’t anticipated how isolated that choice would leave me in a new city. For months, fear and insecurity circled like sharks, and were my only companions.

The new apartment quickly became oppressive as I pounded on my keyboard, so I took to pounding the sidewalk on and around Fillmore Street. I explored narrow Orben, Perine and Wilmot alleys with plot twists and quirky characters whirling in my brain. I became that annoying person in the back pew of St. Dom’s who came in from the fog just to eat candy bought at Mollie Stone’s. I watched the dogs wrestle in Alta Plaza, tongues lolling happily, while distant sailboats on the bay drifted between the mansions. My hope was to find the best library chair, the perfect cafe, the softest tuft of grass in the park where I could comfortably write. Instead I became Elkin’s flaneuse, aimlessly wandering.

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How a coffee shop saved my life

James DeKoven at Peet’s on Fillmore in 2007.

FIRST PERSON | JAMES DeKOVEN

On February 4, 2000, I arrived in the Fillmore under dire circumstances. Six months earlier, my fiancee had given the ring back — a devastating blow that occurred weeks after I gave up a well-paying job to write fulltime. Broken-hearted, half-mad and facing an uncertain financial picture, I fled from Santa Barbara to San Francisco.

At the time, it was more of an escape than any sort of plan for the future. For better or worse, I’ve never had many long-term goals. I just needed to get my head together. Once healthy, I could have clarity about the next step. But as I found out, sometimes destiny provides the relief. Who needs a personal coach, Jungian therapy, psychedelic journey, or self-help book when there’s Peet’s Coffee at Sacramento and Fillmore?

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My electric journey

By KATHY JOSEPH BALISTRERI

It all started during lunch at La Mediterranee last year. I had written the rough draft of a novel about the crazy, particular, sometimes heroic and sometimes downright despicable people who discovered electricity, but I was stumped on what to do next. Should I try to get a publisher? Start a blog? Hire an editor?

Luckily, I was having lunch with my friend Kim Nalley. Kim has been the headliner at the Fillmore Jazz Festival almost every year for the last 15 years, so she knows about entertaining. I was lucky enough to meet her through parenting. Our older kids went to the Sherith Israel’s preschool on California Street, and now our younger kids go there together.

Kim immediately knew what to do: “Kathy, you like to talk. Start a vlog, a video series.”

That started a quest to transform my ideas onto the screen, albeit a small one. Luckily, my book is composed of a series of vignettes about one remarkable person or idea, each leading to the next. So I learned how to edit video and started recording in my house on Washington Street. Kim helped me out by recording an original version of “Electricity” from a “Schoolhouse Rock” video for my theme song.

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Empowering youth to get involved

BOOKS | SABRINA MOYLE

When I was a teen I loved being creative, but I didn’t think creativity could change the world. We were told that the arts were frivolous. I didn’t think my voice mattered and, as a result, I didn’t speak up.

Fast forward to today: We’re riding a rising wave of youth activism. In Parkland, Florida, youth leadership has thrived on strong school arts programs in theater, music, journalism and debate. Like so many others, I am inspired by these youth, and now more convinced than ever that creativity can empower positive social change.

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‘I will not be seen in polka dots!’

The ever-fashionable fashion designer Mary Kuei Boyer.

By BARBARA KATE REPA

I met Mary Kuei Boyer a decade ago at an art exhibition at the Sequoias, the high-rise senior community on Geary near Gough.

“I think you would like to get to know me,” she said, and she was right. We shared many long lunches and talks. She provided the entertainment, with her fast-paced stories that sped along ever faster as she became more and more excited. I was there to receive her wisdom and marvel at her ability to clean her plate.

This wisp of a woman with an outsized appetite was an enigma in many ways. She was impish but thoughtful, modest but proud, outgoing but intensely private. She had a lot to teach about being alive.

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Bringing life into the present tense

Kelly Johnson composed and performed the music on his new CD.

FIRST PERSON | KELLY JOHNSON

In the sunset years of my life, I sometimes realize that many of my friends don’t see me as I see myself. They see just an old guy on the corner outside Peet’s. But inside my head, I know I’ve had an interesting life — even if the interesting parts all seem to be in the past.

Recently I took on a new project that involved writing original music for ballet class, publishing a CD and developing a website. It was life changing.

And it turned out to be the glue that holds together all of the disparate parts of my life: as a child performer in vaudeville, later at the S.F. Dance Theater, which started on Fillmore Street; then as executive director of the Berkeley Symphony, followed by my years as a concert pianist and now my newest work as a composer.

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Our little village

Photograph by Barbara Wyeth

FIRST PERSON | THOMAS R. REYNOLDS

I’d run into Lois Tilles a couple of Saturday mornings ago at the Fillmore Farmers Market, near the bright orange persimmons and the deep red pomegranates glowing in the morning sun. She was sporting her usual warm smile. We’re both in a group that has been walking together for 25 years at Crissy Field early on Saturday mornings and has coffee together afterward. Lois’s husband Richard usually came down on his bike for coffee, then rode over for his weekly volunteer gig in the Presidio. Lois and I chatted for a minute at the market. I was buying fuyu persimmons. She asked: “What are those?” Then: “How do you eat them?”

When we got back home after a week away, there was a phone message from the guiding spirit of the walking group. Richard was suddenly very sick. So I got fuyus at the market to bring as a get well gift. But it was too late. Richard had died — on Saturday morning, about the time of our coffee hour.

I remembered local artist Barbara Wyeth’s fondness for photographing fuyus, so we stopped by Bloomers on Washington Street, where she works, to pick up one of her hand-crafted cards. It turns out she’d made two: of a single and a double. On Thanksgiving eve, a neighbor and I walked down to Richard and Lois’s flat near Union Street and left a bag of fuyus, with the card of a single, on the doorknob for Lois. On the way down Steiner, we dropped the card with the double through the mail slot of the couple who started the walking group, and who brought us all together.

This holiday season, I am thankful to live in this wonderful neighborhood, and for good friends, especially those who live and work nearby in our little village.

P.S. On Thanksgsiving morning I got an email from Lois: “Did you know? The farmers market now delivers! I got some beautiful persimmons delivered right to my front door.”

Photograph by Barbara Wyeth

Photographs by Barbara Wyeth

Fall in the Fillmore

leaf

Text & Photographs by BARBARA WYETH

My dear Aunt Fordy, who lived her life in Iowa, loved the fall, especially October. I happen to agree. It’s the best month of the year. She always called it “lovely blue October,” never just plain October. And there is a special color in the sky during the autumn months: clearer, richer and bluer than any other time of year.

Having now lived more than half my life in San Francisco, I am still amazed at how one season quickly morphs into another. In the fall, this yearly change seems especially sneaky because our seasons are not like the big, dramatic, showy displays of an autumnal east coast or midwest.

I’ve learned to love our blue October. True, it is much more subtle, but fall definitely makes its appearance. The air changes and our extraordinary light presents itself differently; dusk is more rosy, the clouds often the most dramatic of the entire year, sunsets frequently glorious.

This time of year, in neighborhood yards and pocket gardens, roses produce another round of blooms — never quite as lush as spring, but more precious perhaps because other things are going dormant. Showy dahlias may still be blooming their last hurrah. Hydrangeas turn red and freckle, their leaves taking on russets and gold like midwestern maples. The sycamores on California Street dry up and lose their leaves early on. The bright green leaves on the liquid amber trees on Washington Street turn red and drop, although they seem to do that year around.

In the yard behind my apartment building, the pear tree’s leaves turn gold. So do those on our beloved but straggly old lilac bush. The bougainvillea is still brilliant red, however, and in full bloom, and there is still lots of green everywhere. Our autumn is never dreary.

Maybe even more telling of the seasonal change in our neighborhood is the sudden appearance after Labor Day of Halloween at Walgreens: candy corn, harvest mix, miniature chocolate bars and bright orange plastic jack-o-lanterns. Pumpkin lattes show up in the coffee shops. Pumpkin cupcakes, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin spice everything appear at bakeries and cafes. The grocery stores and farmers markets fill with squash and gourds and pomegranates. Apples abound.

All along Fillmore Street, shop windows show snuggly sweaters and chunky boots and footwear, and in the early morning, the Hamlin girls in their maroon capes hurry to school, hand in hand with mom or dad.

It’s fall in the Fillmore.

IvyFall

A man on a Mission

Mission-cover

FIRST PERSON  |  DICK EVANS

On the front cover of my new documentary photography book, The Mission, a young Latino mother and her daughter are pictured walking in front of a striking black and white mural of Carlos Santana.

Santana — born in Jalisco, Mexico, but raised in the city’s Mission District — also has a strong connection to the Fillmore neighborhood. He got his first big break from Bill Graham at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1966. For a time his studio was on Fillmore next door to the Clay Theatre. Those early years in the Fillmore launched him to international fame and iconic status that merits his bigger-than-life portrait by muralist Mel Waters at 19th and Mission Streets, only four blocks from where Santana attended high school.

My own interest in San Francisco, and especially in photographing it, had a decidedly different history. I was born on a ranch in western Oregon. It did not take many winters of feeding cattle at 5 a.m. for me to decide to go to college. That led to engineering at Oregon State University and a 48-year career in the global aluminum industry, the final years as ceo of Alcan with 75,000 employees in 63 countries. Photography became an appealing medium to record my ceaseless travels.

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