The park, the Square, Il Giardino. The Italians called it the The Garden.
-- Mary Nelson
The Semaphore, Telegraph Hill Dwellers
Washington Square Park, now the heart of North Beach, has been many things over the years. Juana Briones grew potatoes and raised cattle here, before Jasper O’Farrell laid out San Francisco’s street grid in 1847, and designated this block a city square. Later, neglected by the city, it was used as an unofficial dump bordering a cemetery. Improvements came slowly, but by the 1860s, it was used for Fourth of July celebrations, and later the square hosted Columbus Day celebrations and Italian festivals. When the earthquake and fire struck in 1906, the square sheltered some 600 refugees in tents and wooden shacks.
Originally, the park was a rectangle, but the construction of Columbus Avenue in the 1870s sliced off the corner that is now Marini Plaza, named after a prominent and civic-minded citizen of North Beach.
In the 1950s, a coalition of community groups, the Committee to Beautify Washington Square, spearheaded the effort to redesign the square, eliminating the paths that criss-crossed the park. Lawrence Halprin and Douglas Baylis put Lombardy poplars in the center of a grassy expanse encircled by paths lined with benches, the configuration we have today.
In 1958, the city tried to solve the parking problem by putting a parking garage under the square, a plan that was defeated then but resurfaced periodically until the park was granted landmark status in 2000.
Today, Washington Square is the heart of North Beach, as it has been for many years. Italian and Chinese residents mix with tourists and techies, aging Beats and hippies. It's truly our town square.
For a more detailed history of the square, see www.foundsf.org.
Photo credits, top to bottom:
San Francisco Public Library