his journey starts and ends at the most obvious location: City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, a North Beach landmark and literary meeting place since 1953.
That’s where I got off the Muni bus, inbound toward Fisherman’s Wharf, at Columbus Avenue and Broadway. My hair was whipped around every which way by the persistently nagging San Francisco winds, although that didn’t obstruct my view of City Lights. Its design is by no means aesthetically loud, but it remains one of the most conspicuous buildings on the street. Its noticeability is rooted in its history, evidenced by the rather large storefront signage and the troves of people seen walking in and out at any given moment.
City Lights was founded by poets Peter D. Martin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the latter once claiming that “the Beat Generation was just Allen Ginsberg’s friends.” Those who are best-known for having been literary beatniks in the 1950s jump-started their careers here. Among the wayward writers who romped around the streets of San Francisco in search of poetic inspiration, it is Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac whom the tide of history has remembered most distinctly — and the same is true for North Beach.
But the shelves of City Lights tell a different story. Everyone is represented here: Books about social justice written by people of all backgrounds are stacked and scattered throughout the two floors that make up the store. I lost myself on the second floor — known simply as “Poetry Room,” and dedicated exclusively to verse collections — for a while before remembering what I was in North Beach to do, stumbling back out of City Lights to see the rest of what these streets have to offer a Beat Gen fanatic.
This ragtag literary movement became a fundamental part of my life when I was 14. Before I was given a copy of “Howl and Other Poems” by my school’s book club adviser, poetry had rarely gotten through to me. I was only mildly entertained by the Frost and cummings poems that are standard inclusions in California English textbooks — they didn’t make me feel much, no matter how pretty they were.
But Ginsberg made me feel. Ginsberg, with his howls and wails and unorthodox style, made me feel like I could be a poet. He made me want to be a poet.
That is what I remembered fondly as I stepped back out onto Columbus Avenue. Right next to City Lights is Vesuvio Cafe, a bar that Kerouac, Ginsberg and their cohorts allegedly frequented. Being 19, I wasn’t able to pay it a visit myself.
But one of the less noticeable gems lies right in the gap that divides City Lights and Vesuvio: Jack Kerouac Alley, a mural-covered cove that pays tribute to not just Kerouac but also the broader literary history and spirit of San Francisco. The alley floor is adorned with time-worn squares of quotes from poems, including Ferlinghetti’s own work, as well as that of Maya Angelou and John Steinbeck, among others.
I decided to walk toward the Beat Museum — a later addition to North Beach — but was instead captivated by “Language of the Birds,” an art installation by Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn across the street from City Lights. The string of open books, meant to mimic a group of flying birds, is not a Beat-related landmark, although its theme adds to the all-around literary aura of North Beach.
Moved by its splendor, I then remembered another hidden gem of the Beat Generation’s North Beach that would be better to venture toward first.
It required a bit of a detour from the rest of the sites, this little coffee shop on Columbus and Vallejo: Caffe Trieste, where the beatniks allegedly used to sit, talk and sip espressos. It’s the kind of place that can interestingly be classified as both a “locals only” joint and a “tourist attraction,” accepting cash only while also boasting a little gift shop, where you can buy Caffe Trieste mugs and shirts.
Three years ago, I sat inside the cafe and ordered a shot of espresso, fancying myself following in Ginsberg’s footsteps. But having recently given up coffee, on this second visit I instead gazed longingly at the enticing menu before continuing on my way, back toward the direction of the Beat Museum.
On the route toward the Beat Museum lies another hidden gem, so narrow you’ll surely miss it if you’re not actively looking — The Marconi Hotel, also on Broadway. Ginsberg stayed there — kicked out of Neal and Carolyn Cassady’s home after Carolyn discovered the affair between the two men — for a reported two months.
I stood by it for a moment, wondering, contemplating. This is the street these writers walked on more than 50 years ago, and now I am walking on it. I am always impressed by this — no matter how many times I walk on these streets, I will always be enthralled by the feeling that I am somehow walking on history.
I had a mission, though, so I pressed onward. I found that the Beat Museum wasn’t how I last left it: It’s currently under construction for mandatory earthquake retrofitting with the possibility of being shut down for a few months. Our reunion was thus bittersweet, though I did smile at the familiar Kerouac poster that reads, “If you haven’t visited the Beat Museum…you don’t know Jack.”
Perhaps I spent more time there than I intended. The museum itself isn’t very large, but it’s easy to become entranced staring at the clothes, notes and books that once belonged to the figures from which I have drawn so much inspiration. Finding that I was, for a moment, the museum’s sole visitor, I sat down on one of the 1950s-era sofas provided on the second floor and jotted down notes, a few lines of poetry and sketches.
I rose only when a few tourists came in to browse, feeling that my time was up, and my visit had been rather prolonged anyway.
It was time to walk over to one of the lesser-known beatnik treasures in North Beach. Just up Columbus, farther out from the Beat Museum and up the hill to the left on Montgomery, is 1010 Montgomery St. — where Allen Ginsberg first started writing “Howl,” the poem that truly began the Beat Generation’s notoriety in earnest.
The apartment is no longer a residence. Instead, it houses an early start program for young children. I perched on the sidewalk across the street from the building for a few minutes and then returned in the same direction from which I had come.
There were fewer people out on Columbus Avenue when I made my way back to City Lights, it being later in the day than when I first arrived. But once you get past the occasionally quiet street and arrive at the convergence of Little Italy and Chinatown, it’s a commotion of activity, rushing feet and multiple languages melting into each other. I walked through Chinatown for a few minutes and eventually found my way back to Jack Kerouac Alley.
Does it matter that almost 70 years ago this same route was followed by the beatniks? I think the answer lies in how busy City Lights is and how the Beat Museum manages to survive against all odds — I think it does matter, because decades later, I am still finding my way here to find inspiration and remember what it means to be a writer.