In Food, Literature, Travel on
May 16, 2017

A Bohemian Guide to North Beach

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” ~Alan Ginsberg: HOWL

The above quote from the poem Howl concisely sums up the angst of most Bohemians. This poem was a howl against the pillars of capitalism, corporations, and lemming living. With his words, Alan Ginsberg inspired a new generation of poets, and came to be recognized as one of the icons of the beat movement, and one of the more famous residents of the North Beach neighborhood. When you are seeking inspiration and good food in San Francisco, there really is only one place to go: North Beach. This post is a guide to the North Beach Area through the eyes of its bohemian residents. We’re starting right on the street where Ginsberg lived: Montgomery Street.

Stop 1: 1001 Montgomery Street

This is our first stop because it is barely in North Beach. Some might challenge that it really is North Beach at all. But, it is certainly significant. This is the place where Alan Ginsberg penned his famous poem: Howl. If you look down the street across Broadway you can see the Transamerica Pyramid and the “cement and aluminum” skull bashing structures that make up the financial district.

Though many of the skyscrapers had not been constructed when Ginsberg wrote the poem, the concept of fascistic conformity to corporations and consumerism was alive and well. This is what his poem was howling about. It was met with fear and criticism on the one hand, and acclaim and praise on the other in an age when poetry truly mattered and had the power to shape society.

Readers in the ’50s found the poem exciting, even frightening, because they were already anxious about Beats, hoodlums, communists, and delinquent youths. They discovered the poem in the first place, though, because they were in the habit of reading—and reviewing—new poems. A young man’s first book from a small West Coast press (Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights), Howl nonetheless won lengthy praise in the New York Times Book Review from the established poet Richard Eberhart.” http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2006/04/the_paradox_of_howl.html

You can listen to Alan Ginsberg himself read Howl in its entirety here:

Stop 2: City Lights Bookstore & Jack Kerouac Alley

Howl was first published here at City Lights books by fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti who had opened the establishment with his friend Peter Martin in 1953. Poor Ferlinghetti didn’t know what he got himself into when he published Ginsberg’s work.

On March 25, 1957, over 500 copies of the book were seized by customs officials due to “obscenity” when the books arrived on American shores after being imported from the printer in London. The seizure of goods did not stop City Lights from publishing and selling the work.

Just over two months later, on June 3, Shig Murao, the bookstore manager, was arrested and jailed for selling Howl and Other Poems to an undercover San Francisco police officer. City Lights Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was subsequently arrested for publishing the book. Nine literary experts testified on the poem’s behalf at the obscenity trial. Supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, and with the help of defense attorney Jake Ehrlich, Ferlinghetti won the case when California State Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn decided that the poem was of “redeeming social importance”. You can learn more about the trial by watching the 2010 film Howl. James Franco stars as the young Allen Ginsberg and Andrew Rogers portrays Ferlinghetti.

As the saying goes, “No publicity is bad publicity”, thankfully City Lights Bookstore remained open through the trial, and it along with Ginsberg’s book were better off for it. People came pouring in, and books flew off the shelves.

Speaking of flying books, if you look up across the street at the corner of Columbus and Broadway you will see a flock of books flying high above the street corner. This was part of the installation Language of the Birds by Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn. The books light up at night and illuminate words and phrases from famous works of literature.

Passing under the flock, pedestrians notice words and phrases embedded in the plaza floor that appear to have fallen from the pages. On closer inspection the fallen words are in English, Italian and Chinese and were selected from the neighborhood’s rich literary history, ranging from the Beats, to SF Renaissance poets and Chinese writers, over 90 authors are represented including Armistead Maupin, Gary Snyder,William T. Vollman, and Jade Snow Wong.” http://www.metaphorm.org/works/language-of-the-birds/

This bookstore was the first “all-paperback” selling bookstore in the country. Its goal was to bring literature to the proletariat. It accomplished this by publishing books in house and selling them too.

With this bookstore-publisher combination, “it is as if,” says Ferlinghetti, “the public were being invited, in person and in books, to participate in that ‘great conversation’ between authors of all ages, ancient and modern.” City Lights has become world-famous, but it has retained an intimate, casual, anarchic charm. It’s a completely unique San Francisco experience, and a must for anyone who appreciates good books.” http://www.citylights.com/info/?fa=aboutus

I recommend purchasing a copy of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”. After you have had your fill of books, it’s time for a nice drink or a sweet treat, or both. Check out Jack Kerouac Alley, named after the famous beat author himself. Directly across the alley, behind City Lights Books, you will find Vesuvio Cafe serving up a drink bearing the same name.

The Jack Kerouac cocktail, just like the man himself, is larger than life. It is a combination of rum, tequila, cranberry juice and a splash of lime served up in a big glass. Cheers!

Stop 3: The Baked Bear

So, because the beats of North Beach were all about rebelling and questioning systems of authority, I suggest you do the same by having dessert first before your main meal. One block up from City Lights Books is a blue sign with a polar bear that you just can’t miss. This spot serves up ice cream sandwiches like you wouldn’t believe. If you have ever had a late night Pazookie at BJ’s be prepared to replace that old standby with this new decadent treat.

This isn’t a historical gem, or one of a kind. It’s a four year old company with lots of west coast locations. But, it’s just so damn delicious; I thought it was worth mentioning.

Stop 4: Molinari Delicatessen

Back to history, and back on track to more complex carbs, step right up to Molinari’s. This place has been around in San Francisco since 1895. It’s still in the family, and is currently run by Frank Giorgi, the great grandson of founder P.G. Molinari.

Upon entering, take a number and make your way to the bread bin back by the refrigerators. Choose your bread and make your sandwich selection. I recommend the North Beach Special. They roast the red peppers right there at the deli. The meat and cheese are incredible. You would be hard pressed to find a better sandwich anywhere else.

Pick up a nice Italian soda to wash down the sandwich and head out to Washington Park for a picnic.

Stop 5: Washington Square Park

This park was a favorite hangout for the beat bohemians. At the height of the movement there were many poetry readings, folk songs and gatherings that took place here.

One Sunday per month, local artists gather in the park to paint and sell their wares. You can see the schedule for the artists guild Washington Park art shows here: http://www.artistsguildsf.com/showSchedule.html.

Other interesting attractions in and near the park include sculpture and a historic church. There is a statue of Benjamin Franklin is located at the heart of the park. The monument was a gift from dentist and entrepreneur Henry Cogswell whose Gold Rush investments made him one of the city’s first millionaires. I don’t think many of the beats practiced the temperance Cogswell chose to erect a statue to. But, they were probably a fan of Franklin’s free love practice.

Another sculpture of note near Columbus Avenue honors the volunteer firefighters of the city. Lillie Hitchcock Coit, the namesake of the tower located on Telegraph Hill, sponsored the monument. It is a testament to the ephemeral nature of things–how quickly an entire city went up in smoke in 1906, and the courage and endurance of the human spirit to put out fires and move forward.

The adjacent Saints Peter and Paul Church served as a backdrop for a scene in the Clint Eastwood film Dirty Harry. It was also the setting for Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe wedding pictures. The famous baseball player and Hollywood star were actually married at City Hall. But, DiMaggio–a North Beach homeboy–wanted to have photos taken that made it look like they were married in his hometown church. Sadly, both of those stories (Dirty Harry and the Monroe and DiMaggio love story), as we all know, would end in tragedy.  Built in 1924, the Italianate style structure has a remarkable stained-glass rose window similar to the ones found at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

Stop 6: Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Café

When you visit Mario’s, you feel all the rich history of North Beach. Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store founded by Mario Crismani and his wife, Liliana has all the wonderful ambiance of North Beach packed into one little Cafe. No longer selling cigars, the focus of this joint is on good eats and coffee.

They make the best no-nonsense lattes around. It’s great coffee at an even better price. This is the place that I wish I lived above. I would have my coffee here every morning if I could. It’s the place that tempts me to leave my SOMA digs every time I visit North Beach.

Sit a while with your bohemian brew and read the book you bought at City Lights Bookstore. Forget about the soul crushing political and social cement and steel ceilings. Enjoy the moment, let your imagination run free, and as Jack Kerouac would say: “Be in love with your life–every minute of it.”

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