The genius loci of San Francisco’s Little Italy: food at the heart of it

Colombo Market Arch;  Produce markets; San Francisco FoodSan Francisco’s genius loci might be called “tolerance, innovation, and testing the limits”, the product of a unique combination of conditions from the early days of the city’s lightning fast growth in connection with the Gold Rush. These include San Francisco’s remoteness from the rest of the world at the time of its initial development, the city’s settlement by young, fortune-seeking, unaccompanied men from everyplace, and the unfamiliar challenges and opportunities they faced with limited resources, all of which made for a remarkable degree of license and inventiveness.  It is this genius loci that has given the world Silicon Valley, the gay civil rights movement, the publication of controversial poems like Howl, and the nation’s first topless bars.

For San Francisco’s historic Italian community, the particular genius loci is of a different sort.  It derives from food — not in the image that may come immediately to mind, of the restaurants and cafes that today line  Columbus Avenue, although these are in keeping with that spirit. But rather in a broader and deeper sense, where the cultivation, distribution, processing, and planning of food production formed the basis of the local Italian-American economy and the innovations it brought to the larger community.

By the 1860s, the earliest Italian settlers in San Francisco were growing vegetables and fruits along Mission Road and in the Bayview, and later would expand their gardens to the Hayes Valley and Civic Center areas. The first wave of Italian immigrants to San Francisco came from the north of Italy; these early ortolani gardeners were mostly from rural Liguria. They found that with the addition of a little manure and irrigation, San Francisco’s sandy soils were extremely fertile.  They grew eggplant, peppers, favas, broccoli, and fennel  — all new additions to the American diet of the time.

While their rural brethren did the farming, Italians from Genoa proper were in charge of the wholesale marketing of the produce of these early truck farms.  The first wholesale market was located on the 500 block of Sansome street.  By 1876, these Genovese had organized Colombo market, a covered produce exchange nearby.  Colombo Market took up an entire city block bounded by Front, Davis, Jackson, and Pacific. Today the only visible trace of Colombo market is the brick arch on Front Street, which now serves as an entry to Sydney Walton Park. But here, in this unassuming place, was the beginning of an Italian-American rise to prominence not only in the city’s wholesale produce market, but also its scavenger services (garbage collecting), canning industry, and eventually its banking industry.  It all started with the food!

Early Horse Drawn Scavenger Wagon; San Francisco; Columbus Day