Angela Alioto (Creator of Piazza Italia in San Francisco)

Una Piazza Italiana a San Francisco

Aug 31, 2015 4080 ITA ENG

There's a family that runs its history through the decades serving the town of San Francisco: before Joseph, then his daughter Angela, now her son Joseph. There's a project called Porziuncola Nuova that connected San Francisco to Saint Francis' town, Assisi. There's a square in front of a church in the North Beach, San Francisco's Little Italy, that is about to become a true Italian Piazza.

All these stories have someone in common: a force of nature, Angela Alioto.

Angela, you come from a very important Italian American family: your father Joseph L. Alioto has been Mayor of San Francisco from 1968 to 1976, continuing a tradition of Italian Mayors that dates back to the glorious times of Angelo Rossi. You yourself were elected as President of the Board of Supervisors and you have even written a book about your experiences in San Francisco politics, called "Straight to the Heart". Now your son, Joseph Alioto Veronese serves as a San Francisco Police commissioner ... family, service, tradition, it is a typical Italian American story, right?

Yes, my father, Joseph Alioto, was mayor in San Francisco from 1968 to 1976. I have five brothers, no other sisters.

He was the son of a Sicilian fisherman, very poor. His father and his mother, Domenica Lazio, very focused on education, and they made sure that their three daughters and one son got educated. The determination of my grandmother Alioto was very important on my dad's side. He was definitely a mama's boy, and everything he did was focused on his roots. It is funny ... according to my father every great thing that has ever been done in history was done by an Italian!

My father ran for mayor in 1966. I was in school in Firenze, and I will never forget when he came and said: "We have to go home, I am going to run for the mayor elections in San Francisco". You know, I loved Florence ... but we went home and he ran for mayor and he won, and he had never held an elective office before: in '50s, he had been the President of the Board of Education, because he was catholic, and that was appointed by religion.

So, he was mayor for eight years: I didn't like politics that much because it took my father away from me. It is a very hard job, it's day and night, 24 hours a day, non-stop, and he's the best mayor San Francisco's ever had. He put his heart and his soul into it. I was not crazy about it, so I came to Italy and then bought my house in Fregene, near Rome, 40 years ago these days.

So, dad had eight years of politics, and after that I ran for the Board of Supervisors and I won in '88 and in '92, with the highest number of votes in the history of San Francisco. They were very exciting times, with a lot of activism. My father's time was incredible: his best talent in my opinion, as being mayor, was putting together coalitions, bringing together people of all thoughts, in the same room. I believe that stopped dividing.

My time was different: a calmer time with no killings of political leaders, a lot of activism, still: it was in the middle of the HIV outbreak, just discovering what HIV was, a lot of protest, a lot of pro-gay and anti-gay protest; a lot of anti-war protests because that's when we went to Kuwait, and I was running for mayor of San Francisco...

San Francisco to me is Italian American and Chinese: it has many different countries in it. When you ran for mayor of San Francisco, like my father always said, and I ran for mayor twice, it is very much like going around the world.

I am such an Italophile: for me San Francisco was built on the back of the Italians and of the Chinese, at that time and of course, the Latinos, but the Italians and the Chinese in San Francisco and in every major city have always had their areas next to each other. Chinatown and Little Italy in San Francisco, New York, Chicago: they are very similar. They both have tradition, family, values and respect for the elderly.

Please tell our readers something more about San Francisco's Little Italy, the North Beach

The North Beach has been and still is extremely important for the history of the city, for 150 years and more. Many Italians now have moved out, but the community wants to give back, to have an opportunity to put the Italian flag in the ground forever.

It's where being Italian started, to me ... when I was a little girl, every Thursday my mother would drive all of us down there to pick up the tortellini and the ravioli from Florence Ravioli. There were several Italian shops: Genova, George's store, Caffé Trieste "the first cappuccino on the West Coast" ... you know, community stores, and a lot of them are gone. I was only 6 years old but you know, it was the beginning of the café scene in San Francisco and it was very Italian. You could always go there to listen to Italian music.
So now there are Caffè Trieste, Caffè Puccini, Caffè Roma, you can go there and listen to Italian music like we used to when I was a kid; and then there's Pantarelli, Colosseo, Melissa and a lot of new Italians who have opened in the North Beach. So it's still very Italian.

In 2005 you created the Porziuncola Nuova. What is it?

It started as an exact replica of the original in Assisi, where Saint Francis lived, where he created the Franciscan order, he consecrated Santa Chiara and he died there: but Porziuncola Nuova is not a replica anymore.

Porziuncola means "small portion of land" and refers to the Benedictine chapel Saint Francis restored when he was a young man. I have been a Franciscan since I was 15. In 2005, I went to Italy and I started measuring the original Porziuncola. I got all the stones, we got together several artisans and artists. A month before we opened, Pope Benedict did a decree to rename it "The Porziuncola Nuova" and he gave us the pardon of Saint Francis: we are the only chapel in the US with such a big pardon, there is only five in the world.

We opened on September 27, 2008. In the summer of 2008 I started the Knights of Saint Francis, which is a group of people to guard the Porziuncola, protect, maintain and take care of it. Their website is www.knightsofsaintfrancis.com: we're over 1215 now and we also visit and help the poor, we try to work on many different problems in the city.

What's the Piazza Saint Francis Project?

The "Piazza Saint Francis, The Poets Plaza" is envisioned as a simple piazza honoring Peacemakers and Poets, and the community of the North Beach. The piazza is going to be absolutely gorgeous. I just have come back from Forte dei Marmi, where the marble will come from: actually it's not marble, it's serpentine. It is an incredible green. This piazza is going to be the most gorgeous piazza in the United States. The website is www.piazzasf.org

The piazza will be green and white, green and white stripes. In the stripes, there will be quotes from about eighteen poets, in bronze. Then there will be a "circle of peace" in front of the church, one big piece of green serpentine that will make it look like the world. And around it there will be bronze representations of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and of course Saint Francis.

I am working on this with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and let me tell you, working with Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been incredible. It's not easy to work with someone who is a poet, 96 years old and every word, EVERY WORD he says means something. So it's been an amazing experience.

When the Piazza Saint Francis Project will be completed?

We are going to close the Piazza in September, so everybody gets used to it being closed to traffic. Then we have the festa for Saint Francis and the Knights of Saint Francis in October. And then the works for the permanent Piazza will begin on January 14th : all the water pipes, the electricity and the new foundations. I hope it will be finished by July or August. It would be wonderful if Pope Francis would come to the inauguration! We already know that the Dalai Lama will be there.

Are you fundraising among the Italian American community for this project?

I'm trying to, but it's not easy.

What about the church?

Not gonna happen. This is a three and a half million dollars Piazza, but the church is not going to participate in this. I raised two and a half million for the Porziuncola, so we will do it. There are many very wealthy Italians in San Francisco. We will definitely do it. The Knights of Saint Francis are willing to maintain and take care of Piazza San Francesco, so we will be raising money for a long time to make sure that the piazza stays beautiful, polished, you know, a place where everybody wants to be.

Why is the concept of "piazza" so important? Is it just an architectural or urbanistic thing, or there is something else there? Maybe a tribute to Italy, too?

It is a tribute to Italy, and it's a tribute to the concept of communication. Especially today, with all the telephones, the computers and tablets ... this is communication, one on one. Even Papa Francesco says, in the Enciclica Laudato Si, that the piazzas of this world are very important. I couldn't believe it when I read it, how amazing is such an important concept to bring people together. I remember the afternoons in Florence, in Piazza della Repubblica, all those people debating politics, exchanging ideas about the world, talking about every important topic. The Piazza, in Italy, is traditionally a place to communicate.

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