Northside SF
North Beach Beat
Mongoose and cobra to tie knot
The nuptials are set: On New Year’s day, the North Beach Chamber of Commerce and North Beach Merchants Association will, as the Simon and Garfunkel song goes, marry their fortunes together, emerging as the singular North Beach Business Association (NBBA).

It’s as unlikely a marriage as this neighborhood has seen, and that’s saying something. The merchants group, after all, was born out of the anger and frustration of dealing with the chamber, when Marsha Garland ran the organization as if it were her personal fiefdom.

A palace coup dislodged Garland a while back, however, and the two groups have been engaged in a tentative mating dance ever since. Although the chamber’s current president, Brandy Marts, concedes that even with the merger a true reconciliation will take time, she sounds hopeful. She’s pinning those hopes on the idea that both groups are committed to the same goal: a healthy small-merchant class in North Beach.

One sign that this new association may have legs: Marts and merchants’ prexy Shell Thomas will share the NBBA leadership. If everybody plays nice, and no Stalin emerges to stick an ice pick into Trotsky, we may finally have a winner here.

Meanwhile the chamber announced that it has disbursed $45,000 from the net proceeds scooped up during the 57th North Beach Festival. The chief beneficiaries were the local schools (Garfield, Yick Wo, John Yehall Chin, and Francisco Middle School), the North Beach Citizens, Tel-Hi Neighborhood Center, and the Friends of Joe DiMaggio Playground.

Additionally there will be funds to string more lights along upper Grant Avenue, and a major chunk is going to fund ongoing sidewalk steam cleaning. Now, baby, that is money well spent.

Picture this: Pulcinella, the 17th century, mean-spirited mainstay of commedia dell’arte, was also the namesake of the Italian restaurant that withered and died recently on Vallejo Street.

In more hopeful times, the proprietor commissioned local muralist Vranas to honor the restaurant’s Neapolitan heritage with a wall-length representation of Naples and that lovably loathsome toad, Pulcinella.

When the place went under, the future of the mural, Song of Pulcinella, became problematic. Enter North Beacher John (Gianna) Mola, a passionate defender of the neighborhood’s Italian heritage, who struck up a friendship with Vranas a year earlier as the mural was taking shape. As soon as he learned that Pulcinella was closing, he sought permission to save Vranas’s work.

Permission would have been granted, too, except for one thing: It had been removed the day before with a circular saw. What Mola found when he rushed over there was the mural lying in two big pieces, with a bunch of little pieces chipped off the edges.

With some help he salvaged what he could. After some hunting around Mola found an art gallery – the new Emerald Tablet in Fresno Street alley – willing to store Song of Pulcinella during a restoration attempt. The good news is the mural apparently can be restored. Local artist-handyman Sean O’Donnell will have a hand in that project.

You can read a fuller account of this saga on Mola’s blog, Gianni’s North Beach (

Mola’s long-term plan is to see Song of Pulcinella on permanent display somewhere in the neighborhood. So if you have a spare wall kicking around someplace...

Remembering Shig: It was Lawrence Ferlinghetti who emerged as the hero of the landmark Howl trial for having published the poem that ignited one of the most important free-speech trials in American history. Often forgotten however – as it was surely forgotten by the makers of the recent film Howl – is that Ferlinghetti wasn’t sitting alone in the dock.

Shig Murao happened to be behind the counter at City Lights Pocket Book Shop that day in 1957 when a couple of plainclothes cops dropped in to buy a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s tome. Shig rang them up for the cover price of 75 cents, and they rang him up, along with his boss, Ferlinghetti, on obscenity charges. The ensuing trial was a national sensation that earned Ferlinghetti celebrity status. Shig played second banana – after all, he only sold the book to the coppers; it was Ferlinghetti who had published the filthy little thing in the first place – and if he was momentarily in the spotlight, it soon turned away from him.

Nevertheless, Shig, who managed the bookstore for 22 years before an acrimonious split with Ferlinghetti, remains an integral figure in City Lights history as well as a beloved, even revered, North Beach character.

If you knew Shig or have heard of him, or simply have an interest in San Francisco’s bohemian culture of the mid-century, you’ll want to check out the website by Richard Reynolds, who befriended Shig when he started hanging out at Caffe Trieste in the mid-seventies.

At this intelligently designed, easily navigable, and well-written site you’ll find a comprehensive, contextually rich look at Shigeyoshi Murao’s life and times. It was some life. Those were some times.

Wish I’d been there.

The big picture: In a neighborhood alive with galleries, where scarcely a week goes by without the chance to eyeball one art show or another, the annual PanOpticon remains a splendid opportunity to appreciate the depth and breadth of the local art scene.

The 2011 edition of The PanOpticon, organized as always by local artists Rebecca Peters and Ronald Sauer, will take over Live Worms Gallery (1345 Grant Avenue) on Dec. 9–10. And I wouldn’t think it possible, but Peters and Sauer will apparently find a way to shoehorn in the work of 70, count ’em 70, artists. Just for fun, I tried coming up with the names of 70 North Beach artists, including a few who rarely, if ever, show in the neighborhood. I failed miserably. So it will be interesting to see who’s work is hanging in Live Worms on that Friday and Saturday following Pearl Harbor Day.
Tony Long Here’s a tip for you: Don’t quit your day job. Now send me a tip at

March 2012
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