Beats and Their Antecedents

In 1953, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin co-founded City Lights Bookstore at 261 Columbus Avenue (Landmark No. 228), the nation’s first all-paperback bookstore, which quickly became a gathering place for Bay Area writers, poets, artists and performers in neighborhood clubs, who would eventually be known as the Beats. Poets and writers associated with City Lights included Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Phillip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Bob Kaufman, and Phillip Whalen. The Landmark Designation Case Report for City Lights Booksellers and Publishers described the impact of the Beats on American literature and culture as follows: The City’s Beat writers, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, had a monumental effect on American literature and culture in their impassioned challenge of established styles and forms. One thinks of the Impressionists in Paris and their “Salon des Refuses,” or the public outcry against Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the context of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” The impact of the Beat movement went beyond the boundaries of literature and into a larger political and social arena. (Peters 2001: 7) “The term ‘Beat’ has an uncertain origin. It may have derived from the argot of black jazzmen, or from the blissful illumination of religious beatitude, or from a sense of wariness with the emerging military-industrial complex against which these young artists were rebelling.” (Peters 2001: 8) The Beats were first noticed by the public in 1958. (Myrick 2001: 125) Herb Caen was “the first to use [beatnik] in print,” perhaps from overhearing Bob Kaufman talking at Specs on Adler Place. (Morgan 2003: 80) Attracted by City Lights, writers and artists resided in North Beach for various periods of time and frequented its bars, cafes, and restaurants, especially on Columbus Avenue, Grant Avenue, and Broadway. Well-known bars frequented by the Beats were Vesuvio Cafe at 255 Columbus Avenue, Specs’ 12 Adler Place at 12 William Saroyan Place (formerly Adler Place), Gino and Carlo’s at 548 Green Street, and Tosca at 242 Columbus Avenue. They performed at The Cellar at 576 Green Street, the Coffee Gallery at 1353 Grant Avenue, The Place at 1546 Grant Avenue, Fugazi Hall at 678 Green Street (now Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard), Anxious Asp at 528 Green Street, as well as private homes. Restaurants included Hotel du Midi at 15 Romolo Place, the Pisa at 1268 Grant Avenue, the Old Spaghetti Factory at 478 Green Street (Landmark No. 127), the Iron Pot at 639 Montgomery Avenue (demolished), the Black Cat at 710 Montgomery Avenue, Enrico’s at 504 Broadway, and other North Beach family-style, all-you-can-eat places. They also hung out at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop at 1398 Grant Avenue, Caffe Trieste at 601 Vallejo Street, the Bread and Wine Mission at 501 Greenwich Street, Mike’s Pool Hall at 523 Broadway, and the Discovery Book Shop at 245 Columbus Avenue. Among musicians, Dave Brubeck, Lu Watters, and Turk Murphy “all made their reputations here.” (Benet 1963: 90) Among clubs for jazz and comedy were the hungry i at 599 Jackson Street, the Purple Onion at 140 Columbus Avenue, the Jazz Workshop at 471-73 Broadway, Keystone Korner at 750 Vallejo, and El Matador at 492 Broadway. Bill Morgan’s guide, The Beat Generation in San Francisco, documents not only the well-known clubs, bars, and public places of the Beat era, but also the flats, apartments, and hotel rooms where leading figures lived, such as 1010 Montgomery Street, where Allen Ginsberg lived while writing Howl. (Morgan 2003) The period of significance for Beats in North Beach begins about 1950. “Although opinions vary as to when the Beat era ended, most literary scholars set the date at around 1965, when many of the writers that had gathered regularly at the City Lights Bookstore and other bohemian haunts abandoned North Beach, which they saw as having become commercialized by trading on the ‘Beat/bohemian culture.’” (Peters 2001:8)



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