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Take a literary tour of San Francisco’s Beat Culture

Serious book lovers are no doubt aware of San Francisco’s central role in the Beat movement of the 1950s and early 1960s, a time that saw the city’s literary elite challenge tried forms and conventions through the power of their words. The spirit of those daring, rebellious times lives on today in several spots throughout the city.

We spoke with former San Francisco resident Julie Falconer from A Lady in London for her expert insight into the enduring influence of the Beat generation on the city today, and how you can retrace the steps of the trailblazers who sparked a revolution of ideals.


Themes and bookstores of the Beat generation

The Beat generation was born when post-World War II writers returned to America after stints of service, and began documenting the rapidly evolving nation as it unfurled before their eyes. Common themes include cultural sea change, periods of protest, the emergence of drug cultures and the rejection of material possessions.

While it can be argued those ideals have fallen by the wayside today, their impact has left an abiding impression on San Francisco’s streets. Many book shops active during the Beat movement are still trading today, and perhaps most famous of all is the City Lights Bookstore.

Julie explains its significance in bringing those challenging works to the people: “Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights imprint published some of the most important Beat writing during the period. His bookstore on Columbus Avenue was a meeting place for many of the Beat Generation writers, including Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg. The bookstore still survives today, and the City Lights imprint continues to be known for the risks it took on new talent in the publishing realm.”


Where words and concrete collide

So cherished was the movement by its followers that the most quintessential of Beat tomes – such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch – bled out of fiction and into the real world, resulting in various street art pieces and tropes that have survived decades. “Across the aptly named Jack Kerouac Alley, Vesuvio Cafe was another popular hangout for the leading members of the Beat Generation,” says Julie. “The alley itself is worth a visit for its bright mosaics and homage to one of the leading figures of the Beat movement. The cafe is also one of the most colourful and quirky in the city, with eclectic decor and a non-conformist feel fitting for a venue the Beat writers frequented.”

Julie also recommends exploring the Haight-Ashbury district – often known as ‘Woodstock West’. This neighbourhood was a central hub of the bohemians who lived in San Francisco during the Beat movement, and later became synonymous with the city’s hippie movement in the ’60s. The area demonstrates how profoundly the works of the Beat movement impacted San Francisco’s streets and culture.


The Beat legacy

San Francisco’s Beat Museum can be found just a few blocks away from Vesuvio, and stands to preserve the origins and lasting legacy of the movement. “The museum features memorabilia, original manuscripts and first editions, letters, personal effects, and cultural ephemera from the period,” says Julie.

“The museum also offers regular walking tours of North Beach, where visitors can follow in the footsteps of the most important members of the movement. One member, Allen Ginsberg, lived just around the corner from the museum at 1010 Montgomery Street. This is where he wrote “Howl”, one of his most famous poems, in 1955.”

You needn’t go far to discover San Francisco’s rich literary culture while on holiday in the city, but if you’re an avid reader, a trip to the heart of the Beat movement is simply essential.

Image credits: 

All imagery © 2010 Scott Chernis Photography San Francisco Travel Association