North Beach residents go to bat to raise funds for DiMaggio Playground renovation

It was a night when three generations of North Beach residents who may otherwise pass each other on the street instead gathered at an old neighborhood Italian spot to support a cause many of them hold close.

Paying $65 each, more than 500 people packed Bimbo's 365 Club on Columbus Avenue on Wednesday, nicely dressed and delighted to help the Friends of Joe DiMaggio Playground raise the $458,000 needed to fund renovation work that bond money could not cover.

A $6.3 million construction project for the playground at Mason and Lombard streets is expected to start as early as this week, and has been anticipated since two mothers founded the Friends group a decade and a half ago. The effort involves a complete reorganization of the play area, new facilities and more than 50 trees, but community members were tasked to fundraise for additional features such as climbing boulders, tinted concrete and a nonchain-link fence.

Kathie Stein, 53, granddaughter of Joe DiMaggio, the playground's legendary baseball namesake, was moved by the overwhelming community support.

“It's great how much progress the park has made — I think it's beyond what they thought,” she said of the fundraiser.

An attendee, Nick Colla, 30, whose family has been in North Beach since the early 1900s and grew up a close walk away from the playground, ran into parents of children he had not seen in years.

“They are kids I used to play with when I was 2 or 3,” he said Wednesday. “There's still a good sense of community here in North Beach that you don't see much in other parts of The City anymore.”

North Beach businesses and individuals gave generously. A native San Francisco artist donated a DiMaggio painting worth at least $2,500, Original Joe's provided meatballs, antipasto and garlic bread, and wholesaler Matagrano contributed hundreds of bottles of beer.

The fundraiser was the Friends' largest undertaking and yielded $100,000 in ticket sales and auction items, $20,000 more than the goal, new district Supervisor Julie Christensen said.

“I've been to a lot of park fundraisers over the last several years and I am amazed at how deep the community support is for this iconic piece of open space,” said Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the Recreation and Park Department.

Still, it was only one-fifth of the total needed to turn over to the department by early February. The Friends has also raised $126,000 from selling commemorative tiles for a wall around the playground and have hope for an angel donor. DiMaggio “would be thrilled,” his granddaughter said, to see the scale of the community effort around the playground, essential to neighborhood families because recreational activities are prohibited in Washington Square.

“It's a park that caters to kids in the neighborhood,” Stein said. “I think it's something he absolutely would be proud of.”

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