Magazine article Sunset

Beat San Francisco; Bookstores, Coffee Houses, and Other Reminders of the 1950s Scene

Magazine article Sunset

Beat San Francisco; Bookstores, Coffee Houses, and Other Reminders of the 1950s Scene

Article excerpt

On October 13, 1955, nearly a hundred people packed into the Six Gallery in San Francisco to hear six new poets read. Bottles of wine were passed. At about 11 that evening, the last reader, "a hornrimmed intellectual hepcat with wild black hair," stepped up to the front, and the crowd yelled "Go! Go! Go!" as he began chanting, his arms outstretched:

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night."

With his poem "Howl," Allen Ginsberg had just given voice to the Beat Generation-a movement associated with bearded, bereted, and sandaled Bohemians who fueled their literary fires in the bars and coffee houses of North Beach.

Why were they drawn to this then very Italian part of San Francisco? North Beach held the promise of a Mediterranean climate, a vivid presence of Old World culture, cheap and roomy living quarters (remember "pads"?), and, according to beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, it was the "only place in the country you could get decent wine cheap." There was an assortment of congenial places to sit, sip, scribble, and hang out most of them an easy stroll from City Lights, Ferlinghetti's bookstore publishing house.

Today, North Beach's influence is as Asian as it is Italian, and rents are no longer low. But you can browse at City Lights, which still attracts poets and their fans. And any time you like, you can still prowl many of the places that helped shape the movement unleashed that night in the Six Gallery.

If you want to take in the scene with a guide, you can join a free 2-hour tour led by City Guides; it starts every Saturday at 10, meeting at the steps of St. Peter and St. Paul Church, at 666 Filbert Street.

It began with the poets ...

Published by Ferlinghetti's Pocket Press and the subject of an obscenity trial, Howl and Other Poems sold 50,000 copies its first year in print. More than any other single work, it focused national and international attention on the North Beach haunts where writers like Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Kenneth Rexroth, and Gary Snyder represented what Kerouac called "the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance."

Two years later, Kerouac's tale of cross-country wanderings, On the Road, captured the public imagination and swept best-seller lists to become the bible of the beats-those who were "mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved."

Though the wild life style of the beats represented a protest against the values of the American bourgeoisie, it soon attracted the curiosity of middle-class tourists. Buses were rerouted through North Beach so they could view the beatniks," as a local columnist dubbed them. Some coffee shops and bars even hired "house" beats to chant crude verse and insult the squares. By the early 60s, the original beats had moved across town to the Haight, where they would help usher in a new decade-and another story.

Many of the old hangouts are gone or changed. The Coexistence Bagel is now a video store; the hungry i (for id) is a topless bar. But when you visit the places we list here, if you keep your eyes open and your imagination ready you'll soon find that you can almost picture the black berets and the grizzled, intense faces. And you may begin to hear echoes of the distant voices of those who wanted to "Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors from their jambs!"

Another change in this part of the city that out-of-towners should bear in mind is that street parking has become very difficult; consult our map for garage locations.

1. City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Avenue; (415) 362-8193. Take time to soak up the atmosphere in the nation's first all-paperback bookstore, which Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin opened to support the same-titled magazine they published upstairs. …

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