Italian-American Life in the Excelsior

March 5th, 2020 No Comments »

View east to Excelsior District from roughly San Jose Avenue and Havelock Street, circa 1910. First Monroe School in distance at left. Cultivated fields, water towers, and horses where Mission Terrace neighborhood lies today. (OpenSFHistory / wnp4.1693.jpg)

In the 1860s, before the Excelsior District was created, before its capital- and county-named streets were mapped, well before any square-foot of pavement or street light was installed, farmers, dairymen, and hog ranchers occupied and worked the land. While some of these farm workers were of German and Swiss ancestry, it was primarily the Italian farmers who planted cultural seeds which bloomed into the Excelsior District.

Detail of farmer on “The San Francisco You Should Know Mural” (2009) by Precita Eyes on Santa Rosa Avenue at Mission Street.

Il Giardinieri (gardeners) from Liguria, Tuscany, and other parts of Italy, grew lettuce, cabbage, and artichokes in the area to sell at the Colombo produce market downtown. They attended mass at Corpus Christi, an Italian National Church founded in 1898 on the modern-day corner of Alemany Boulevard and Santa Rosa Avenue. Rows of houses and storefronts sprouted up in the Excelsior after the 1906 earthquake and fire and the Bank of Italy (later Bank of America) established its first branch bank on Mission Street in 1907 to serve the growing Italian-American population.

As late as 1910, 1,200 Italian truck farmers worked some 8,000 acres of agricultural land along the southern border of San Francisco, although the city had begun to curtail ranching because of its impacts on emerging neighborhoods. A restriction on hog ranches was introduced in 1896, and in 1910, after a two-cow-per-owner limit was imposed by law, one rancher was arrested at the bequest of the Excelsior Progressive Association for running thirty head of cattle in the vicinity of Mission Street and Silver Avenue.1

Italian owners dominated businesses up and down Mission Street and Geneva Avenue in the years between the world wars. Ferrera Hardware, founded by Alfonso and Antonio Ferrera in 1914, operated at 4540 Mission Street until 1992. Today the space is occupied by an auto parts store, but the family name is still emblazoned on the building’s entryway to the apartments above.

Calabria Brothers at 4763 Mission Street continues a tradition of Italian delicatessens in the neighborhood, taking over from vanished Zufi’s, Lucca, and Sorrento delis. Into the 2010s, the Granada Cafe Italian restaurant (4753 Mission) and the Royal Baking Company (4773 Mission), with its Italian bread, grissini, panettone, focaccia, and special Italians cookies, were known citywide. Few business types can be more Italian than macaroni and pasta factories, of which the Excelsior had a number into the mid-twentieth century.

Into the 1960s, Italian families remained the Excelsior’s dominant ethnic group, replenished by recent Italian immigrants (most visibly Calabresi). Italian culture was still strong at Corpus Christi and the newer Church of the Epiphany, and a special neighborhood procession was held annually on the Feast of the Madonna Della Guardia.

First Corpus Christi Church (built 1898) on Santa Rosa Avenue near Alemany Boulevard.

The Italian American Social Club at 25 Russia Avenue off Mission Street was created through a merger of three smaller organizations: the Aurora Club, Alfierei Club, and Fiorvanti Club. Created primarily for social activities by Italian-American men, its early days focused on game play, such as cards, pool, and bocce, before transitioning to hosting large family functions such as dinner parties and wedding banquets. The western headquarters of the Sons of Italy, a national fraternal organization opened at 5051 Mission Street in 1957.

Italian American Social Club at 25 Russia Avenue near Mission Street.

The smell of fermenting grapes from seasonal wine-making operations in backyards and in garages was a common neighborhood memory. One local historian recorded the mid-century community ties between “villagers,” a nickname for Italian-Americans of the neighborhood: “Excelsior villagers were dependent on each other for mutual aid and sharing. Almost every Italian household had a garden, and long experience showed that certain vegetables only grew well on one side of the street; thus neighbors exchanged vegetables as well as special dishes or desserts.”2

By the 1970s, Latinx and Filipino families were the majority populations of the Excelsior, but the Excelsior Merchants Association remained mostly Italian-American, and one resident, while acknowledging the demographic shifts, characterized the neighborhood as “still Italian.” In 1976, a historian and social researcher claimed that in San Francisco “next to North Beach, the Excelsior has probably maintained itself as an Italian district more than any other.”3

Forty-four years later, no visitor would identify the Excelsior as an Italian District. The two surviving social club buildings are almost the only visible evidence that it ever was one. Populations once seen as newcomers, such as the Filipino community, now have a significant heritage and record of contributions to the neighborhood many decades-long. But any history of the Excelsior District by name has to begin with Italian-American life.

1. “Hog Ranch Limits,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 28, 1896, 11; “Cattle Man Arrested in Excelsior,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 9, 1910, 9.

2. Phylis Martinelli, “The Excelsior Villagers: A study of an Italian American neighborhood in transition” in Paola Sensi Isolani & Phylis Cancilla Martinelli (Eds.), Struggle and Success: Italian Immigrants in California (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1993), 234.

3. Rose Doris Scherini, The Italian American Community of San Francisco (New York: Arno Press, 1980), 33-34.

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