Francis Ford Coppola talks about homelessness, life, friendship, neighborhood history, and his ideas about the future as he tells the remarkable story of North Beach Citizens, the volunteer organization he spearheaded twenty years ago to help grapple with the lives and needs of homeless and unhoused people living in his neighborhood in San Francisco.
This month marks the 20th Anniversary of North Beach Citizens. Normally at this time of year some 400 people gather in the church basement of Saints Peter & Paul near Washington Square Park for an epic community dinner that raises the funds to keep NBC’s vital series of services available. Like everywhere, the pandemic has been hard on the unhoused and raised their numbers by some 64% in North Beach alone. The need is great.
As a frontline service provider, NBC is distributing nearly 3 times more food to the community than this time last year through daily meals “to-go,” and Wednesday Community Food Pantry. As a beacon of support for the neighborhood, they ensure that people who are living close to the margins know that they are part of a caring community and connected to support that meets their individual needs.
Our story takes us deep into the North Beach community with interviews with North Beach Citizens, volunteers, staff, clients—food writer and long time North Beach resident Peggy Knickerbocker, poetry and stories of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the supporter and Guardian Angel of North Beach Citizens, and more.“Every neighborhood would benefit from a community group addressing homelessness”
— Francis Ford Coppola, Founder of North Beach Citizens
MUSIC: Theme from The Conversation
VO – DAVIA INTRO: Think about Francis Ford Coppola and his many movies: The Godfathers, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart, The Rain People, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, Dracula. Add to that his wine making, and the six hotels he’s created around the world, and this month marks the 20th anniversary of North Beach Citizens, the organization Francis spearheaded in his neighborhood in San Francisco to grapple with the lives and needs of homeless people–the unhoused of the community.
Normally at this time of year some 400 people gather in the basement of Saints Peter and Paul church near Washington Square Park for an epic community dinner that raises the funds to keep their vital services open. The pandemic has been hard on the unhoused and low-income elderly in this neighborhood, raising the number of people coming for assistance by some 68 percent in North Beach alone. The need is great.
Today, the Kitchen Sisters present “Francis Coppola and North Beach Citizens–A Neighborhood Vision.”
MUSIC: David Shire – The Conversation
FRANCIS COPPOLA: I used to walk to the Sentinel building in North Beach, coming down from Broadway and Columbus. I would see a lot of panhandlers and homeless people and of course, feeling it was my neighborhood, really be concerned that, you know, that they were just treated like refuse. And I would think in my mind as I walked past them, I mean there is no such thing as human refuse. What an outrageous thought.
These are just people who for one reason or other have been down on their luck or they have mental problems or addiction problems or alcohol problems or just personal problems that they haven’t been able to navigate their way out of it for a million different reasons.
This is Francis Coppola.
MUSIC: fades out
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD: That’s why we were hatched. North Beach Citizens. Francis Ford Coppola and Eleanor were living up on Telegraph Hill and he would come down, he was writing his script at Caffe Trieste, and he would go down to the Sentinel building and check in at work.
The people that were in this neighborhood he would see every day, so he started checking in with them and seeing how they’re doing and getting to know their names and he just felt like they were ours. Part of our community.
I’m Kristie Fairchild, executive director of North Beach Citizens. For 20 years, we’ve served as the only homeless provider in the Northeast district of San Francisco. So Barbary Coast, the Wharf, Aquatic Park, around the Embarcadero, over to Market, financial district up, Russian Hill, Chinatown, North Beach.
ARCHIVAL: Trailer from the film San Francisco with Clark Gable, Director Woody Van Dyke, 1936
FRANCIS COPPOLA: North Beach was for years an entertainment area and sort of a bohemian tradition grew up around what was really the shore because the water was much closer when they referred to North Beach, it was a beach. It was where boats came and seamen looking for a good time.
The famous era of the Clark Gable movies in San Francisco when it was on Pacific avenue and there were those incredible honky tonk clubs. Then moved to North Beach and mingled with many forces. The new beat generation was showing up.
ARCHIVAL – Lawrence Ferlinghetti
I have eaten hot dogs in ballparks. I have heard the Gettysburg address and the Ginsburg address. I like it here and I won’t go back where I came from.
I too have ridden boxcars, boxcars, boxcars…
FRANCIS COPPOLA: There were all kinds of wonderful clubs. So it’s always been an entertainment area and as it would have crowds and tourists, it naturally attracted panhandlers and ultimately evolved into the modern homeless period.
MUSIC: The Conversation (fades in)
FRANCIS COPPOLA: And I would see these people and I imagined that there was like a pyramid of troubled people and at the tip of the pyramid there were a few who were really not so far gone, that they were still present and in control of their faculties and, who knows, maybe it was 2 or 3 at the tip of the pyramid. And then under them was, say, another 20 or 30 who were less together, but under them there was 200 people who had serious problems.
If you could work and focus on that tip at the top, then you could employ them to tackle the next level of people. And then as they became redeemed, you could have them be involved in redeeming the next level of more troubled people, and that because they had come from those same maladies, they would be more understanding and able to be more helpful. I came up with North Beach Citizens because to call them “citizens” implied that they were part of the community, which I felt they were.
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD – FOOD PANTRY: Oh my gosh, hi! So this is Ray, this is Chris. Our street cleaners are coming in for our program in the afternoon and both of them were formerly homeless and they’re part of our core clientele.
RAY: I’m here for my volunteer job. Satisfies my GA–general assistance. North Beach beautification. Beautifying North Beach. They give you a street you sweep and the trash, you just bag it up, and then you make sure that nobody steps on glass or anything, you know what I mean?
I think of the mothers, you know? The mothers and the kids, you know. They’re walking down the street or the sidewalk, you know, and I look at the sidewalk and I’m like, you know what? I’m gonna get the sidewalk perfect.
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD – FOOD PANTRY: Ray’s a veteran so his access point for housing was because he was a veteran. And Chris was because he was so long on the streets, chronically homeless. And then both of them are housed now, which is awesome. And we got them in and they trusted us with their, their lives, I would say. You know, they didn’t have to.
RAY: They helped me when my dentures got stolen and uh, all kinds of things.
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD – FOOD PANTRY: Yeah, we started with their IDs–they’ve never had an ID in California–we got them a birth certificate, you know, health and medical benefits, food stamps, medical. And on a daily basis having them come in, serving food inside, getting them nutritional support every day.
Hi, how are you? Good morning. She’s picking up someone for the food pantry…
ANDRES SALERNO – FOOD PANTRY: I’m Andres Salerno with North Beach Citizens and I am the street beautification supervisor. There’s probably about like 20 people on the roll. They have like an hour and a half shift, they’re going out to certain areas in the community. Store-owners, homeowners can call in areas that they think are messy, we’ll send someone there, and then it helps them because they’re able to receive hours for their GA benefits and also we give them a Safeway gift card so they can buy groceries and we always make them lunch and make sure they’re well taken care of and fed. And then it lets people connect with their neighbors even if they are not housed.
You know, I’m a recent college grad, graduated into COVID, it was pretty terrible. I was looking around for work that would be meaningful for me. I had opportunities at some like marketing firms but I really wanted to be a part of the community, which is kind of why I moved to San Francisco, and when this job opened up it was just a great fit and it’s kind of very much a family environment. A lot of the client’s volunteers are all friends with each other, so if someone’s not showing up, they always help each other out, they’ll make sure they come in.
I just think this is an amazing model that would really help. You know, I’m from Texas, in terms of like homelessness support programs native to my state, not a lot, you know, we don’t really treat our communities with this amount of compassion. I just think there’s a lot to be learned from the work that we do.
SOUND: wind chimes, piano, The Conversation soundtrack
RAY: I just did the daily routine of being homeless and then you get discouraged and uh, well, the hopelessness of being homeless can be overwhelming and you just want to sit there and wait. And people bring you food, money and that’s helpful but it can kind of be debilitating too cause it’s not really what you need the most.
Sometimes you gotta be able to walk away from the handouts and get some real help. Someone who’s plugged in who can refer you to exactly what you might need. It’s hard to know what you need when you’re cold and your hands hurt and you gotta go to the bathroom or you pooped your pants or something. Real things.
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD: Going from survival to thriving.
RAY: Yeah. Came here and Kristie–and I had like 3 college interns. These girls, the main thing they did was, like secretaries, they remind me of my appointments and they took me to my appointments. That was a big, that was biggie. The love and care. For real. We’re not being sarcastic, it’s like for real. This place has helped me out a lot. Once you come in it’s hard to say no.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: There was a divided feeling about it. Half the merchants of North Beach were solidly against it. There was the more conservative, crusty old attitude: “Well, if you’re nice to the homeless or if you do things good for them, then they’ll stay and their friends will come and you’ll get more.”
And then there was the other attitude that was more what I felt, was “Hey, these are our fellow human beings, our fellow citizens. They live in North Beach, they don’t have a house, but they live in North Beach.” And maybe we can fill them with some, you know, admiration for our neighborhood and we could find ways for them to do useful things that they would enjoy and then they don’t have to be at this low level.
PEGGY KNICKERBOCKER: I think that Francis Coppola thought that it would be great to have a neighborhood organization because it was his neighborhood, number 1.
I’m Peggy Knickerbocker, a supporter of North Beach Citizens for almost 20 years. I was in the cooking world for a long time, I owned a couple of North Beach restaurants.
Francis got together some women, kind of political women, in the neighborhood that knew how to put a board together and knew how to do fundraisers. Jeannette Etheredge, Anne Halsted who just died, Eleanor Bertino, Jeanne Milligan, and others. They all got together and started a board.
I think he also had the idea that he could maybe teach them a trade, teach someone to be a cameraman or have some of the people help him if he was filming something, and figure out a career for some of these guys.
MUSIC: Theme from The Conversation
FRANCIS COPPOLA: In the early days, I would come and do sessions with the homeless. Teach them how to play theatre games and do improvisations and treat them like a cast. They were a cast of people who had been down on their luck and didn’t feel well about themselves and, you know, to take a homeless man and say, “I want you to make believe you’re a rich man walking down Broadway and you’ve got a pocket full of money and look, there’s a homeless person, what’s going on in your mind as you would give them a dollar or maybe $100,” and I’d have them to improvs like that. And do a lot of role reversal, stuff that I do with actors, and we learned a lot. I mean, after all, what do you do with actors? You get them all in a situation where they believe they are other people than they are. People like to do a workout, people like to rehearse, people feel good when they’ve touched parts of themselves that often don’t get touched.
ARCHIVAL: Apocalypse Now, opening scene, helicopters, The Doors
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD: I’m Kristie Fairchild, executive director of North Beach Citizens. When I interviewed with Francis, I was a potter by trade. I moved here from New York, my daughter was 10 months old and my son was 2.
During that interview it was so interesting because we mostly talked about–he’s like, ‘You know I’m a filmmaker’–and I was like, ‘Oh!’ And of course I knew but I was just really curious to hear his story and he really discussed his experience on Apocalypse Now.
His experience with Marty Sheen and his experience with Fets and Marlon Brando and it’s not known that there was a lot of drug use and addiction on that set. That was one of the struggles that he understood really well and he felt like there was a carry-over on the people that he saw on the streets.
MUSIC: fades out
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD: He felt that if you gave people a sense of place, provide them with dignity, respect, and integrity, that’s what we need. Especially when you are suffering and you’re kind of stuck in your own loop of self-doubt, self-hatred, fear.
FRANCIS COPPOLA: Kristie, I liked that she was an artist because artists, you know, are good collaborators. I wanted to deal with it as a creative problem and Kristie was willing to give it a try and didn’t have another rule book that she had taken from the last job she had.
MUSIC: David Shire – The Conversation
FRANCIS COPPOLA: As we began to function, the whole idea started to come alive and even the community began to see there was improvement in the neighborhood. There was a sort of a protective notion that was starting to happen. The North Beach Citizens tended to be the eyes on the street, especially around the park where children are there and to keep the more negative type of person away by owning it a little bit.
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD – FOOD PANTRY: Do you want anything else? Bread, anything else you want me to look for? Do you want me to see if we have a warmer jacket?
MAN – FOOD PANTRY: I’ll have some socks, please.
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD – FOOD PANTRY: Socks, got it. Do you want a warmer thing underneath? Yeah, you look a little cold. Let me go look for that.
TYLER SHANLEY – FOOD PANTRY: Today is the food pantry and all this food is from the SF Food Bank. We all bring it in, organize it on these tables, and then make the bags. We make about 100 bags every Wednesday.
My name’s Tyler Shanley. So this week we have lots of vegetables, we have some yogurt, milk, protein bars…
CASEY WILSON – FOOD PANTRY: Every Wednesday they can get a whole grocery bag and then all the other days of the week we give out lunches.
My name is Casey Wilson. My background is in hospitality and teaching, so I feel like this is like a good mix. I’ve been missing people in quarantine so this has been a good opportunity to check in on my community. I just think there’s a lot of turning our heads on people that are unhoused. I think I was not impervious to that before working here–seeing a homeless or unhoused person and walking by them and not even paying any attention. And this has really, like, humanized it for me.
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD – FOOD PANTRY: Since COVID, it’s a much more of a Chinese community that we’re serving. They live in these local SROs and I never tapped in them before because I was never really aware of them. But also there wasn’t a need because they were able to go to the older adult social programs that were running out of Chinatown, but because of COVID they couldn’t collect there and they were very isolated.
When we continued with the food pantry, they started to realize that we were here. Most people are living below poverty level, even in these long-term rent controlled apartments that they’ve been in. We were happy to expand our services in conjunction with the food bank and food runners. Most of them are seniors.
SOUND: accordion, singing
DILLARD LOCKHART JR: I’m proud to say I’m Dillard Lockhart Jr. I’m a known accordion player. You know something–this place here–if it wasn’t for North Beach Citizen housing, man, I would probably be dead. People like Kristie and Tyler and others, they’d not only be concerned, but they’d get involved.
They’re the reason I got a place to stay, by the way. They knew of my circumstances. They’re helping me with food stamps, transportation. I got my clipper card. I came a long way. I was out here 20 years, believe it or not. I was sleeping with racoons for 20 years!
So a lot of my friends, they always told me, “Dillard, why don’t you stop at North Beach Citizen housing?” So that’s how I became connected to this place. Kristie, she got me inside 5 days after I first came here, so I tilt my hat to Kristie Fairchild. And they don’t put conditions on the people that come here.
SOUND: accordion swells
MUSIC: Mandolin music from North Beach Citizens promo
FRANCIS COPPOLA: We were financing North Beach Citizen in those first years. It was Francis cooks for North Beach, I would personally cook a dinner for 500 people.
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD: Yeah, his mother’s meatball recipe.
PEGGY KNICKERBOCKER: Francis Coppola, he’d come and we’d all make meatballs at St. Peter and Paul down in the basement, very formal old-fashioned church.
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD: Antipasti, rigatoni with meatballs, sausage, salad, dessert, wine…
PEGGY KNICKERBOCKER: They’d have all the Italian old ladies from the neighborhood, and he said, “Everybody bring a knife, a cutting board, and your favorite apron.”
FRANCIS COPPOLA: Those dinners were great. You know, I’m a good army chef. I used to be good at cooking for the whole movie crew, or as this case in North Beach Citizens, with the right backup and help which volunteers gave me, I could cook an 8 course Italian dinner and really fun, and then we had live music and dancing and the whole neighborhood understood what celebration is.
ARCHIVAL – BEACH BLANKET BABYLON: Without hesitation, I wanna introduce to you an event from Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon.
Singing: North Beach friends
Heard the call
That’s why we’re here at Saints Peter and Paul….
PEGGY KNICKERBOCKER: Everybody in the neighborhood came. Tony Degman and Ellie Coppola and George Lucas and Phil Kaufman.
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD: People like Jack Morton donating lighting and sound and expertise, and then we have __ that’s cooked in the past, the church donates the space.
“The way to a community’s heart is through its stomach. Coppola’s pasta and his homeless project goes straight to the heart of North Beach” –Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
ARCHIVAL – LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: I feel I have a lot of brothers out there sleeping on the streets and North Beach Citizens is doing something that no other part of the city is doing.
FRANCIS COPPOLA: Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a, how can I say, a spiritual benefactor of North Beach Citizens. He loved the idea of it, we could all come together and uplift people and reduce their pain and occasionally he would write a poem and he was always happy to lend his name to the work of North Beach Citizens. So he was sorta like a guardian angel of North Beach Citizens.
ARCHIVAL – LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: The world is a beautiful place to be born into if you don’t mind happiness not always being so very much fun. If you don’t mind a touch of hell now and then, just when everything is fine, because even in heaven they don’t sing all the time. The world is a beautiful place to be born into if you don’t mind some people dying all the time, or maybe only starving some of the time, which isn’t half so bad if it isn’t you. Oh, the world is a beautiful place to be born into if you don’t much mind a few dead minds in the higher places or a bomb or two now and then in your upturned faces…
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD: Lawrence was so devoted to the cause of the organization that he would drive up in his little red truck with the Balinese fire sticker on the back and he would come in and he would dump all his old clothing into the donation, over, when we were over on Columbus.
He was probably in his late 80s then and he was just so kind and I would tell the guys, you know, I was like, “This is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s shirt, man!” He’d come to the events and even to this day, like in December we called him and said, “Lawrence, will you be on the poster, be our co-host?” And he was like, “Sure, of course!” And, you know, he just passed away. I, um, really mourn the loss of him and for the neighborhood. It feels like an era’s kind of passing.
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD – FOOD PANTRY: Alright, you take care of yourself today. How ‘bout pants? How ‘bout pants or a belt? I should get you a mask too, hold on.
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD: This year is our 20th anniversary. It’s our virtual event. A celebration thanks to our supporters and also to show people what we’ve been doing in the last year with COVID and the increase of 74 percent more people coming to our doors asking for services.
What I saw on the streets after shelter in place was people I’ve never met before who found us, and I said “Where you from?” “Oh, I’m from the Wharf.” I was like, “I’ve never met you and I go do outreach there all the time.” He’s like, “No, yeah, I’ve lived there for 15-20 years.” “Why coming to us now?” And they’re like “Because there’s no tourists. There’s no food in the garbages, there’s no food that they give to us leftover, we’re just desperate.”
That was really eye-opening. They were self-sufficient in their own way and with no what we call kind of “street angels” out there helping them. The people that were giving them money were people who were living paycheck to paycheck that were working at the restaurants and the hotels.
What then I started seeing was a level of desperation. People that could find and maintain themselves were able to separate themselves and keep themselves safe and what was left on the streets were people that were extremely mentally ill, that were not able to care for themselves, who were our most in need. That’s heartbreaking. Just the absolute forgotten living on the streets.
MUSIC: David Shire – The Conversation
FRANCIS COPPOLA: I believe that we have things opposite, that the most powerful governing body ought to be the neighborhood. And then as you go from neighborhood to village to city to state to federal to global, should be less and less powerful. To me, the neighborhood is the basic unit of government.
I worked out a whole new way that human beings can live on this earth. There’s no property and there’s no money, and there’s no institutions, there’s no school institution, there’s no court institution, there’s certainly no police–well there are police but they’re elderly and they wear white and they give the kids ice cream and they are in the neighborhood and they don’t have guns.
In my world, there’s isn’t a school you go to. School and learning ought to be ubiquitous in where you live, you can’t avoid learning, it’s everywhere. There shouldn’t be administrators and school principals and–there should be people who are more like the friendly concierge at a hotel who lets them know the key to the resources that are available.
I have similar ideas about how to raise children and marriage and sex and jealousy, all that stuff I have all figured out in my plan–one possible way that we can live together in a way that has only the joy of—we can have the Garden of Eden back again.
We can’t accept that there’s only one way that human life can be organized. That’s troubling. They don’t even wanna talk about the other ways.
But you know everything I’ve done is a matter of an idea that became a reality, even North Beach Citizens, what was it other than an idea that became realized. That’s what I do, I’m a–that’s why they call directors “réalisateurs.” Realizers.
DAVIA NELSON: On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of North Beach Citizens, what are you thinking and what do you want people to know?
FRANCIS COPPOLA: I want it to go on, I want it to do what it’s doing because it’s doing good work. My dream is that it continues into the future. If not, what will happen to people who just need that little bit of help? What a wonderful thing that it does.
You know, I’m glad that Kristie was young when I chose her. I hope that she’ll continue and that she’ll bring about someone who will continue her work because I’m so proud of it. Anyway, I think the whole world is gonna start taking care of each other. That’s what my film that I wanna make is about. Is about us becoming a culture and a civilization that’s friendly, intelligence and creativity and friendliness.
MUSIC: The Conversation, variation from the soundtrack
VO – DAVIA OUTRO: “Francis Coppola and North Beach Citizens–A Neighborhood Vision” was produced by The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, in collaboration with Brandi Howell and Nathan Dalton. Thanks to Kristie Fairchild, Lee Alcorn, Tyler Shanley, Theresa Andrews, Julie Doherty, Casey Wilson, Andres Salerno, Peggy Knickerbocker, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Anne Halsted, Jeanne Milligan, Jeannette Etheredge, and the dedicated Board of Directors who have helped steer North Beach Citizens across the decades. Special thanks to Francis Ford Coppola.
LEE ALCORN: I don’t know if Kristie told you, but we just came back from looking at this amazing housing for a senior to age in place. So that’s what I’m all crazy about right now. Crazy excited all in a good way, but that’s what we literally just came back from.
KRISTIE FAIRCHILD – FOOD PANTRY: Beautiful, brand new units, views of the Embarcadero–
LEE ALCORN: And the garden terrace with an elevator. You’ll be the first tenant in the unit, that’s how brand new the building is. He’s a senior, disabled, homeless at almost 70. It’s astounding, I said to Kristie, “I’m living vicariously through him,” I’m like so excited for him! Now he can age in place, watching the water and the bridge. I want him to have everything, I want him to be able to not have to think about it ever again.
My name is Lee Alcorn, North Beach Citizens. I’m one of their case managers.
VO – DAVIA OUTRO: You can support the visionary work of North Beach Citizens, their neighborhood food pantry, and battery of services at northbeachcitizens.org. The Kitchen Sisters Present is part of the Radiotopia podcast network, independent, story-driven podcasts that widen your world. There are hundreds more stories on our website, kitchensisters.org.