An excerpt from the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Project’s Interview with Ines Belli, by Audrey Tomaselli
Ines’s father and uncle, circa 1912.
Photo courtesy Ines Bell
There was a time when hiring a moving truck at the corner of Union and Columbus was about as easy as hailing a cab is today — maybe easier. All around Washington Square, draymen parked horse and cart, looking to carry the next load. Around 1918, the mother of Ines Belli took advantage of this convenience when she decided her boys — who were later to become a judge and a lawyer — were being blamed in their Lombard Street neighborhood for vandalism they didn’t commit. “We’re moving,” said Rose Molinari. “What about my wine?” said Ines’s father, Giovanni.
“I don’t care about your wine,” said Rose. “We’re leaving tomorrow.“
So Rose went to the square and hired the movers who transported the family to 948 Union, a property that Ines’s father had built for income, and where Ines Belli has now lived for all but three of her 88 years.
Ines Belli told this story, and many others, as part of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers’ Oral History Project. Reading these interviews, one enters a North Beach time warp, where ATM machines and cellular-phone stores don’t exist; instead, there are the shops and businesses of a bustling turn-of-the-20th-century immigrant community.
You’re transported to a world where one purchases a funeral wreath at the Azzaro Flower Shop — site of the current day Caffé Roma. Or you cross the street to the Lippi Brothers, now La Boulangerie, to shop for dinner at the “most gorgeous vegetable store you ever saw. You’d go there and they’d wrap everything in a piece of newspaper. You’d get your carrots, your beans and anything that went into minestrone.”
Ines and the other contributors to this project are tangible links to North Beach’s past. They know, for example, that the word ANCHOR, spelled out in tiles at 515 Columbus (in front of the U.S. Restaurant), come from a drug store by that name that was once at that address. And they know the real use of the still existing “hanging roofs” — roofs with clotheslines on them, often surrounded by a picket fence — where “everyone would take a great basket of wet clothes and go up three flights. And you’d go hang everything — diapers — everything.”
As important as these accounts are for helping us preserve the memories of an earlier time, Ines and the other respondents also provide a glimpse into a generation of immigrants that feeds the diversity that is America.
Most everyone on the block where Ines lived came from the small towns around Chiavari, Italy, and none of them left much behind worth hanging onto. The Molinari family came from hill country. After all, Ines says, “What can you grow on a hill?” In 1929, the Molinaris, now prosperous, returned to Italy to examine the property still owned by the family. Ines’s oldest brother looked at the land and told her father, “Whatever you do, don’t leave it to me.”
“It was like that,” says Ines.
For the most part, the early arrivals were single men. “At first,” says Ines, they came to make money and go home, “but then, when my father’s generation came, their idea was to stay.”
Ines’s father went to work as a garbage man for the Torres company. He soon bought his own horse and wagon, and founded the Scavengers’ Protective Union. That eventually became the Sunset Scavenger Co. To this day, one of Ines’s sons remains involved with the company.
The Immigrant Ethic
Like many others from immigrant families, Ines has stories of honesty and hard work paying off. “There was a store on Geary called Nathan Dorman, and they had all beautiful crystal and dishes, and Papa had them as a customer. And one day Papa saw this big box outside, and he looked and saw what he thought was glass (he didn’t know anything about crystal). Papa told Mr. Dorman about it, and Mr. Dorman never forgot his honesty. Whenever Papa asked for a raise, he gave it to him without question.” Buried Treasure?
Frugality, as well, was part of the immigrant ethic. ”My father decided to put some money away in case another crash came. So he put — I think — $500 in a tin box in the basement. The trouble was he forgot about it for many years. When he opened the box up the money had turned to mush. All these Italians were great at hiding money away. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are boxes hidden out there in all those backyards we see from this window. And then they die and nobody knows it’s there.”
Over the years, this collection of immigrant families developed the traditions and institutions of a community. There was, of course, the church. Ines remembers the construction of SS Peter and Paul’s in the 1920s. She recalls her communion when only the basement was finished. “We used to go to the old church on Grant and Filbert for catechism. But my confirmation was held upstairs. They finished the new church between my communion and my confirmation.”
Ines belonged to the Handmaidens. It was, she says, “a Catholic thing… We had little white outfits and we marched in the Columbus Day Parade. I suppose we were ready to be sainted, but I doubt it.”
Feast Day Procession, Potrero Hill, 1937, another location of Catholic parading.
Video: Berelich family collection (via Potrero Hill Archives Project)
Then there were the social clubs. “Papa belonged to the Balilla Club. They would have dances and picnics — family affairs. We’d go to these picnics and everyone would bring their jug of wine in a doctor’s case. See, it was Prohibition.
“Balilla was some kind of Genovese hero, who killed someone with a slingshot. The men had their meetings down in Garibaldi Hall on Broadway between Columbus and Kearny. It was very exclusive. There were only 30 or so members. And new members only got in when someone died.”
Of course, there was the important community business of getting the young folks married to an Italian. Typically, a lot of these pairings were sparked at weddings. “That’s how you met people: at weddings.” Ines’ two oldest boys met their wives [who are sisters] at a wedding, and Ines met her future husband, Rino, the same way.
Originally published in the Telegraph Hill Dwellers quarterly publication "The Semaphore" #162, Winter 2003. The whole story of Ines Belli as well as other personal dramas collected by the Oral History Project are available at the San Francisco History Center at the Main Library.