North Beach Pool
The pool was built in 1910 with money allocated for fire department cisterns after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Two, narrow, open air pools were built (one for girls, one for boys) where the current pools are located. This photo was taken from Lombard Street looking south towards Greenwich. Note the 2-story slide in the distance.
This photo of the west end of the playground was taken in 1956, after the pool was enclosed. The North Beach Library had not yet been added to the park. A gas station occupied the triangle where the new North Beach Library now stands.
The North Beach Joe DiMaggio Playground, evolved, in a pretty direct way, from the Settlement House movement in Boston and other major cities that sought to mitigate the pollution and filth, the cramped living quarters, the rampant tuberculosis that plagued urban workers and their children in the late 1800s. Elizabeth Ashe and Alice Griffith founded what would become the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center in 1880 to help fight illness, illiteracy and poor conditions in North Beach. They lobbied hard for better recreation opportunities for neighborhood children. So, when San Francisco finally empanelled its first Playground Commission 1907, North Beach was selected as one of the first two neighborhoods to get a playground. (The other park, at 7th and Harrison, no longer exists.)
Pre-earthquake San Francisco had parks. But most were adult “pleasure grounds” made for strolling or sitting, or parks that provided amusements for more affluent families. The idea of providing recreational activities for ordinary, even underprivileged kids was radical and new. The plans for the North Beach park even included a swimming pool, perhaps the first publicly-financed public pool in the city.
Tight funding spurred still another novelty: The City financed that pool by diverting funds from a fire department cistern planned for Powell and Lombard. The failure of the City’s water system during the great fire that followed the 1906 ‘quake had resulted in plans for a series of water storage tanks under city streets. (You can still see the telltale circle of bricks that mark their locations at some old intersections.) It was reasoned that, with the swimming pool, the water would still be there for fighting fires but the kids could enjoy it in the meantime. Perhaps it was the decorum of the age, or that the Hill’s boys had a reputation for being particularly rowdy, but two narrow, outdoor pools were constructed side-by-side, one for girls and one for boys. (Neighbors elected to keep that configuration when the pool was renovated in 2006.)
The retaining walls that circle the park appear to be part of the original 1910 construction. There was a giant 2 story slide early on and lots of big swings. Three of the nine DiMaggio kids that became professional baseball players, Dom, Joe and Vince, grew up playing there in the 1920s. Telegraph Hill Dweller Dorothy Erskine, who nearly single-handedly caused the adoption of the neighborhood’s 40 foot height limit and then went on to found the Greenbelt Alliance and to aid in the development of Save the Bay and the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, led the project that planted the sycamores around the park in the 1950s.
The last big changes to the park came in the 1950s. The pool was enclosed and the old wooden clubhouse was wrapped in a cocoon of 50s tile. Mayor George Christopher was convinced that $56,000 was too much to pay for the triangle lot at Columbus and Lombard and so the North Beach Library was squeezed in the southwest corner of the park, in an area where the Italian families used to have Saturday night group dinners, nestling from the wind against the 13’ high retaining walls. The park was named for Joe DiMaggio in 1981, but everyone forgot and fought to change it all over again years later, led by Mayor Gavin Newsom, a ballplayer.