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The Rocks of San Francisco: Authenticity, Ethnic Neighborhoods, and Going Blog Crazy

The Rocks of San Francisco: Authenticity, Ethnic Neighborhoods, and Going Blog Crazy

Laura E. Ruberto (December 29, 2008)
Laura E. Ruberto
Nuova Porziuncola, North Beach neighborhood, San Francisco

Ethnic construction and sacred place, the replica of the Porziuncola Chapel in San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood.



In broad terms, this is the story of the granddaughter of a Sicilian immigrant who visits Italy, becomes inspired by the religious aura and art of a sacred place, and puts all of her energies into building a replica of that place in her hometown. That this woman is Angela Alioto—of the Italian American political family—that the sacred space is the Porziuncola Chapel, that the replica cost $2.9 million, and that the city is San Francisco (named, of course, after the humble friar), suggest that this is far from a simple bedtime tale.
The replica of the Porziuncola sits in San Francisco’s old Italian neighborhood, North Beach, housed inside a space adjacent to the St. Francis National Shrine. The St. Francis Church was originally built in 1849, rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, and closed in 1992. In 1998 it reopened as a National Shrine to St. Francis. The shrine is less widely recognized than the other neighborhood Catholic Church, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, which stands just a few blocks away on Washington Square (and made famous by Joe DiMaggio).
I first read about the Angela Alioto-led construction of the Porziuncola Chapel in the San Francisco Chronicle back in September, a few weeks before it opened to the public. I finally went to visit it on Saturday and realized it was constructed in the building that used to be the church’s thrift store. It is an exact—albeit three-quarter scale—replica of the original chapel, with materials and workers imported from Italy.
Angela Alioto, attorney, former San Francisco supervisor, and daughter of San Francisco mayor Joseph Alioto, devised the plan and led the fundraising and construction. The Alioto family continues to be a prominent San Francisco family.
Molinari and Alioto
(Posters of Joseph Alioto Jr's support of neighborhood commerce
speckle today's North Beach)
And for the Alioto family that public status has come with all kinds of gossip (like when Look Magazine alleged mob ties to the family in 1969). Just today, as I was in Genova Deli in Oakland, I started talking to an Italian American man who happened to play a prominent role in the reconstruction of the chapel (I’d tell you his name, but there’s no lamp post around) and even he started alluding to all kinds of dirt.
And speaking of dirt, Alioto brought 35,000 pounds of marble and 300 rocks from Assisi in order to render a more faithful recreation. The chapel was built to look as it does today—meaning, for instance, that the frescoes were copied in their now-imperfect, worn state. (Although I snapped a few photographs out front, I was kindly asked not to take any photographs inside and told that the shots of the exterior “were not allowed”.)  

Alioto and Newsom

(I found this snapshot of the interior on the web--Angela Alioto and Mayor Gavin Newsom at the official opening celebration.)



Francesco Rocks--North Beach

(Francesco Rocks, the gift shop associated with the Shrine, sits in a former hardware store 1/2 a block away, catty corner from another San Francisco Italian American institution, Caffe Trieste.)
inside Francesco Rocks
(In some kind of cross-over merchandising that I don't quite understand, Caffe Trieste coffee can also be bought inside the St. Francis gift shop.)
Authenticity is a curious term to throw out when talking about place-making. Toss in architecture, public art, religion, politics, and immigration, and things get downright messy. Immigrants and their children (Italian immigrants being no exception) again and again take everyday experiences and customs from home and turn them into a sometimes fascinating amalgam of their lived multicultural existence. As such, authenticity is in the eye of the beholder—and as portable as an embroidered handkerchief or a treasured family jewel. (I’m riffing quite liberally from various cultural critics here, Arjun Appadurai and Steven Hoelscher to name two.)
In the case of the chapel, it’s tough to imagine this particular replica of a sacred space as a kind of authentic ethnic construction of Italian American identity (as I and others have done on this very website in talking about the construction of folk art, for instance). In all seriousness, if I’d been walking about North Beach and come across some old Italian guy who’d carefully recreated in his backyard the Porziuncola Chapel out of discarded crab shells and broken tile, I’d be going blog crazy. Magari…

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