San Francisco’s North Beach: A Walking Tour
San Francisco is known as the land of hippies, free-thinkers, pot smokers and psychedelic artists. However, Northern California’s most famous city is also home to another important movement, which preceded the heyday of Flower Power: the Beat Generation.
The Beat Generation was the subversive counter-culture of the Fifties, the product of young, post-World War II minds who desired to manifest their non-conformism and rejection of capitalism by means of spoken and written word. Jack Kerouac, the author of On the Road was the poster boy for the movement revolutionising the American literature along with its two other precursors: Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. They were the original ‘angelheaded’ hipsters as Ginsberg describes them in his poem Howl. Unlike the ones of the present day, they were proud of this label, for it denoted the rebellion against the mainstream culture and values of 50s American conformist society.
Even though the origins of the movement may be traced back to New York City in early 1940s, where its Founding Fathers met, it was San Francisco that saw the true glory days of the Beat era. The district that was at the very centre of the Beat bohemia was the Italian quarter known as North Beach. Located next to Chinatown and Russian Hill, it is a fascinating neighbourhood, where the spirit of the Fifties’ rebels is present to this day. One just needs to know where to look.
City Lights Bookstore is undoubtedly the most significant literary landmark of the neighbourhood. Located at the district’s main street, Columbus Avenue, it was founded in 1953 and has been a meeting place of San Francisco’s writers, poets and intellectuals, as well as an independent publishing house for 60 years. It is a Mecca for lit junkies. Here, one may casually stumble upon Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the bookstore’s founder known for being a part of the controversial trial for obscenity following the publishing of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, which was arguably one of the most influential works of the Beat period, along with Kerouac’s On the Road.
The store also hosts various poetry and prose readings to this day, often performed by the former members of the movement. The walls are filled with old posters announcing some of the more memorable events such as Allen Ginsberg’s book signing or Charles Bukowski’s reading. Yet the real magic is present at the bookstore’s top floor. It includes the section devoted entirely to Beat Literature with a collection of books that seems to offer every creation from the period. In the corner of the room stands the ‘Poet’s chair’, once occupied by the likes of Bob Dylan, where one may sit with a book and feel like one of the Beatniks who had been contemplating poetry in the store a few decades earlier.
City Lights is the incarnation of the Beat spirit, for it is a bookstore with a soul. Instead of being preoccupied with mere retail, it encourages the visitors to take their time, linger, and ‘sit down and read a book’ as one of their wall signs proclaims.
The building right next to City Lights instantly attracts one’s attention with colourful, eye-catching murals. It’s Vesuvio: the infamous bar where San Francisco’s best minds once discussed art, philosophy and literature, as well as indulge in debauchery. The two buildings are separated by a tiny Jack Kerouac Adler and the sidewalk is covered with various literary quotes taken from some of the most famous Californian writers.
The bar is filled with a characteristic scent that is a blend of mustiness, bourbon and cigarette smoke that instantly evokes the images of fascinating gatherings that took place inside. The walls are embellished with avant-garde paintings, posters, and old pictures of the famous habitués. Upstairs is filled with little tables located next to large windows that are perfect for people-watching, which in the city like San Francisco is undoubtedly an entertaining activity during the day. In the evening, it’s worth to keep an eye out for the interesting characters at the bar, while enjoying its signature drink named after Jack Kerouac.
Another stop on the literary tour of the neighbourhood is located across the street from City Lights: The Beat Museum. Despite being quite small, it has a lot to offer for the enthusiasts of the counter-culture. It is the treasury of Beat memorabilia. Created with a strong attention to detail, it constitutes a fine shrine of the Beatniks: from first-editions of Beat classics, old photos and typewriters to a shirt and jacket worn by Kerouac during his travels.
The museum is of a unique character, for it attempts to create the bohemian atmosphere within its walls. The top floor invites one to hang around, with the set of old, cozy armchairs covered with colourful blankets in the centre of the room. The museum is more than a mere exhibition. Instead of simply displaying the artifacts, it encourages the visitors to sit back, contemplate and absorb the Beat vibe.
A short walk uphill North of Columbus Avenue leads one to a charming little Caffé Trieste, founded in 1953 and famous for being the first espresso house on the West Coast, as well as the meeting place of San Francisco’s bohemia. Here one may not only enjoy the quality Italian coffee but also encounter the people who remember the times when the Beat culture was in bloom. Even Lawrence Ferlinghetti himself is said to still be the café’s regular.
The members of the Beat Generation were preoccupied with the desire of adventure and freedom and opposed the world’s materialism. In order to genuinely understand the significance of the neighbourhood, one has to look at it from their perspective. North Beach is not just about the physical. It is not simply about the monuments and landmarks, yet about the sentimental value they carry. It is the experience that counts, the capturing of the Beat spirit. So, while in North Beach, sit back, linger and relish the unique atmosphere with a drink and good novel in hand, rather than chasing another famous site.