The Park...The Square...Il Giardino.
The Italians called it the The Garden. Washington Square is many things. To some, it is the village green. To some, it’s the front lawn of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. To others, it is a sanctuary. Step out of the Post Office on Stockton Street, and look up. A massive tower of a tree rivals the spires of the church, in mass and height and nearness to heaven. Consider the ten giant pines on the corner of Filbert Street and Columbus Avenue. Their soft and vaulted canopy is a chapel, protecting the little playground.
The Semaphore, Telegraph Hill Dwellers
Founded in 1991, the Committee to Illuminate Washington Square adopted a broader agenda and in 1998 became Friends of Washington Square.
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
Friends of Washington Square
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