In Here/Say's series "When the Lights Come Up in the City," we tour three neighborhoods in partnership with Broke-Ass Stuart to learn how businesses and community leaders pivoted to success during the pandemic. Last week we covered the Bayview. Next up: North Beach.
There’s a reason why North Beach is so popular with tourists: it’s the San Francisco they've been dreaming about. Small Italian restaurants crowd the neighborhood’s sidewalks alongside old school bars and hip cafes. Independent stores sell quirky wares, while artists and writers can still be found shuffling among the narrow streets and steep hills.
But it’s also a neighborhood full of locals who pride themselves on living in a tight-knit community where everyone knows each other and looks after one another. And never was this more true than during the pandemic.
While the rest of the world either shut down or had to figure out new ways to survive, North Beach did what it does best: it just continued on being North Beach. The restaurants and bars were some of the first in the city to master parklets, shops quickly figured out how to curate safe experiences for their customers and most importantly, people stepped up to make sure that live music never stopped.
Here’s a look at three North Beach businesses that persevered during the pandemic and gave all of us a little hope.
Al's Attire in North Beach is a vintage shop that offers shoe repair, clothing design and tailoring. It’s been open since 1986 and is owned by Al Ribaya.
Ribaya, originally from the Philippines, migrated to San Francisco in the 1970s and saw his fair share of ups and downs in the city. He reflected on pivotal San Francisco moments that ranged from the assassinations of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and Zodiac murders. "When you got through stuff like that in your formative years in San Francisco, you can get through a lot," Ribaya said.
Ribaya's creative spirit is one reason why Al's Attire didn't skip a beat when the pandemic hit the city. In a bizarre stroke of luck, Ribaya had already been making masks for his family in the Philippines who were dealing with the aftermath of a volcano. Using those designs, he continued to make masks for the San Francisco community.
Ribaya also created a new line of superhero jackets called "Fight the Virus,” embroidered with old fabrics that feature comic book heroes from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Columbus Cafe has been a North Beach mainstay serving the working class since 1936. Over the years, the bar has had several owners—most recently longtime staffers Beka Woods-Kennedy, Will DeVault and Ben Morrison—who banded together to buy the venue in January 2020. Weeks after the deal was sealed, the pandemic hit and shut much of the city down.
Woods-Kennedy, DeVault and Morrison took that as a challenge and a sign to get to work. They hosted safety meetings with neighboring businesses and worked together to build parklets as soon as the city gave permission. And as soon as San Francisco put out safety guidelines for bars and restaurants, Columbus Cafe reopened—safely.
"We just really felt like keeping everybody safe and doing the right thing was, in the long run, better for everyone," Woods-Kennedy said.
While not all of the bars in the neighborhood followed the rules as tightly as Columbus Cafe, a sense of togetherness allowed them to lean on each other and persevere.
"If people got mad at us, we'd say 'kick rocks,’” Woods-Kennedy added. "We want our seats filled by people who respect and care that we're trying to stay alive."
North Beach is home to numerous "hole in the wall" live music venues. But when the city's shelter-in-place mandate went into effect, it left numerous musicians with regular gigs without work. So, how do you keep the music alive when nobody is allowed indoors? You bring it outdoors! And that's just what the Bay Area Jazz Mobile did during the heart of the pandemic.
As the name suggests, The Bay Area Jazz Mobile is a traveling jazz venue that features a large van full of all the equipment required to groove outdoors.Spearheaded by founder Omar Aran, the van enables free jazz concerts in various parks around the city, including North Beach's Washington Square Park.
Aran said that his mission is to "not only to provide opportunities for local musicians … but also to promote empathy and help people regain a sense of community” through jazz.