SAN FRANCISCO — To many of his friends, Henrik Jorgensen was the quintessential North Beach man. Owner for 26 years of a Scandinavian furniture store at the corner of Grant and Columbus avenues, he came to symbolize the neighborhood and its people.
Customers often became house guests and Jorgensen seemed less interested in sales than in conviviality.
But in recent years familiar faces started disappearing from the neighborhood, and last year Jorgensen was confronted with a $1,200 rent increase, making his commercial survival impossible. After a struggle with his new landlord, a Hong Kong-based real estate company, he was evicted June 1 and died the same day. His sisters say it was of a broken heart.
"To Henrik, North Beach was like a strand of pearls that lost so many of its pearls that all that was left was a tiny bracelet," said Andrew Christie, a furniture repairman and one of Jorgensen's closest friends. "When the change came around his way it killed him."
To many North Beach residents who knew Jorgensen, his story sums up the dramatic changes that have taken place recently in one of San Francisco's most colorful neighborhoods. They say that old and new businesses are now attracting a younger, more affluent, professional crowd--a process that threatens to erode what has come to be seen as the North Beach way of life.
But to others the transition is a natural progression of "the Beach's" varied ethnic and cultural past. At the vortex of Chinatown, Broadway, the financial district and the waterfront, North Beach has seen changes come in waves, and the influx of new commercial blood is essential to the neighborhood's survival, they say.
Once the city's northern shore on the San Francisco Bay and an Italian enclave since the 1880s, North Beach was home to struggling Bohemian painters in the '40s, poets of the Beat Generation in the '50s and Flower Children and topless dancers in the '60s. In the 1970s, Chinatown spilled over Broadway, North Beach's imaginary border to the south, bringing an influx of Asian businesses.
Through the years most of the Italian coffee houses, restaurants, bakeries, butchers, ravioli factories and pizza parlors have survived, although many of their landlords, owners and customers are different--a change that troubles community activists.
"The older-generation landowners valued community customs," said Brad Paul of the Coalition to Save Small Businesses in North Beach. "Whenever a lease came up for renegotiation it was done over coffee or a glass of wine. The younger generation (many of whom live elsewhere in the Bay Area) discuss their property with their peers at suburban cocktail parties. They hear what others are getting for their real estate and they are under a lot of pressure to increase commercial rents."
Community and merchant groups this summer are banding together to create North Beach Corp., a nonprofit organization that will acquire property and lease it to neighborhood store owners and residents at subsidized rates. Within the next two years, the corporation hopes to offer 100 to 200 living units and 10 to 30 store fronts in the area, Paul said. Funding will be drawn from local and regional community foundations and small business loans.
Paul said the story of Jorgensen's furniture store is only one example of how skyrocketing rents are forcing older establishments out of business. Gloria's Sausage Factory, a North Beach delicatessen since the 1920s, closed after a monthly rent increase from $3,000 to $7,000. The Cuneo Bakery and the Malvina Caffe saw their rents go from $1,400 to $5,000.
Other casualties abound; 10% of the Beach's 350 store fronts are vacant, according to a report by San Francisco's Planning Department. A study by San Francisco State University predicts that 40% of present North Beach businesses will not be around by 1990.
Despite recent rent increases, however, the neighborhood still has some of the cheapest housing in San Francisco, because inexpensive residential hotels make up half the area's living spaces.
New businesses, many of them Chinese or second-generation Italian, are moving into the area. But some old-time North Beachers say they cater to a different crowd.
"I see a lot more yuppies and sharp-looking executives eyeing our real estate for the possible location of God knows what," said Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a celebrated poet of the Beat Generation who owns the well-known City Lights Bookstore at Columbus and Grant. Ferlinghetti wants to see the Beach turned into a national historic monument.
"Fewer and fewer artists can afford to live here and tourists crowd us out of the cafes," he said, pointing out that many artists still frequent the Beach, but they live elsewhere. "The political resistance from the left here was much stronger in the '50s. The TV brainwash has created general indifference."