San Francisco means many different things to many different people. A global tech hub, flowers in your hair, a busy sea port, hippy counterculture, the gay capital of the world, liberal government, steeply sloping streets, postcard-perfect Victorian houses, ethnic diversity and incredible food to match, sky-high rents and exploding homelessness. All of these make up the Bay City.
For me, the most interesting thing about San Francisco is its prominent place in the Beat literature of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Jack Kerouac’s famous novel On The Road (as well as many of Kerouac’s other novels) is based on true events involving him and friends between New York and San Francisco. On The Road‘s charismatic protagonist Dean Moriarty is based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, who lived in San Francisco at the time and has gone down in Beat history as something of a legend. Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl was first read aloud in San Francisco’s Six Gallery in 1955 to an excited audience including a drunken Kerouac, who raucously cheered on the writers reading their work. Other Beat writers and their contemporaries spent much time living in and travelling to the city during these decades, and this helped to spark its reputation for alternative and counter-culture scenes.
City Lights Bookstore and publishing house is a culturally and historically significant part of San Francisco, founded in 1953 by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was present at the Six Gallery reading and published Ginsberg’s poetry afterwards. Ginsberg’s collection Howl and other poems became famous during the obscenity trial that followed when the authorities of the time got hold of it and banned its distribution. City Lights is also one of my favourite bookshops in the world, rivalled only by Kramerbooks in Washington DC. It sits in prominent position on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Broadway, right between San Francisco’s red light district and Chinatown, in the hilly North Beach area of the city, where the Beat writers lived and hung out. For the second time, on my second visit to the city, I found myself browsing City Lights’ stalls for over two hours and coming away with a stack of books and zines, including a graphic novel version of Howl, Marie Calloway’s What Purpose Did I Serve In Your Life, Barry Miles’ Hippie and Ferlinghetti’s Poetry As Insurgent Art.
Just a minute’s walk away, on the other side of Broadway, lies the Beat Museum, a fascinating collection of objects, photos, films and stories that tell the tale of the Beats in San Francisco. The bookstore at the front of the museum is equally as enthralling as, if somewhat smaller than, City Lights. A further 3 minute walk up the road, on the corner of Broadway and Montgomery Street, is the house where Ginsberg wrote Howl.
How perfect, then, that my home in San Francisco on both visits has been the Green Tortoise Hostel, which sits exactly a block from the Beat Museum. The Green Tortoise is an excellent hostel with comfortable, clean and cutely decorated rooms, strong WiFi, a sauna, huge breakfasts and free dinner 3 evenings a week, as well as an enormous common room that was once a ballroom, where meals are eaten and where bands play in the evening.
This second visit to San Francisco was a stop on my Western USA road trip with Amanda. Having visitied the city before, I had already seen the top tourist sights – Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. While Amanda ventured off to take the boat to Alcatraz Island for its excellent prison tour and to walk across the bridge, I took the bus (all of San Francisco’s buses are electric and run on overhead wires) to Haight-Ashbury, the residential district of the city famous for being the centre of the hippy counter-culture movement of the 1960s. Here I met Ezu, my guide for the Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour. Ezu was a hippy in her 60s, still wearing the orange tie-dyed leggings that probably originated 40 years before. She came from a New York Italian family, had moved into a commune in Haight-Ashbury at age 18, and hadn’t moved out of the area since. Along with a couple from Iowa and a woman from Melbourne, I followed Ezu and her little sausage dog Benny on a riveting 2 hour walk around the quiet residential streets, where she stopped to tell us stories outside various buildings.
We stopped at the Grateful Dead house, where the members of the Grateful Dead lived in in 1960s during their heyday as the house band at Ken Kesey’s “Acid Tests” – a series of parties centred around the use of LSD. Ezu told us stories of foolhardy fans (“Dead-heads”) who, even today, arrive to camp outside the house, and of the amazing level of tolerance shown to them by the good-natured current owners. Directly across the road sits the house that served as the Hell’s Angels San Francisco headquarters during the same time. It may have been precarious for a music group of hippies who, despite their involvement with drugs, were all about peace and love, to live directly opposite a motorcyle gang who were associated with violence and criminality, but by all accounts the two managed to get along for the most part.
Ezu also showed us houses where Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix had once lived, and told us her stories about the time she spent around them. We finished with a walk down colourful Haight Street, a sort of high street of the area, which is now filled with kitsch, pseudo-retro shops selling vintage and tie-dyed clothes, music and artefacts from the era. There is a sense here of commodification of a culture that has since been mainstreamed and gentrified.
At the Western end of Haight Street lies Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s answer to New York’s Central Park, only larger. At its eastern end is the Kezar Stadium, a sports ground that was used for concerts in the 1970s and hosted everyone from Bob Dylan to Led Zeppelin. I walked along the inside of the park toward its centre, passing Hippie Hill, the iconic spot where young people historically gathered to hang out, play musical instruments, smoke marijuana and drop acid. Coming closer to the centre of the park, I reached the Japanese Tea Garden, where I rejoined Amanda. This is the oldest public Japanese garden in the US, and here we sat with a cup of green tea each to enjoy the scenery.
Our next stop in San Francisco’s progressive history was the Castro, the city’s gay neighbourhood since the early 1970s. Here, the pedestrian crossings are rainbow-coloured, and we got off the subway at Harvey Milk Plaza, named after the Castro’s most famous resident who came to prominence in gay rights campaigning in 1973 and became America’s first openly gay elected politician in 1978. We visited the LGBT History Museum, whose interesting exhibits tell tales from early underground drag shows, Allen Ginsberg’s prominence in the counterculture movement of the 60s, through Milk’s political rise and assassination, right up to recent history, including the legalisation of same sex marriage in 2008.
Immediately to the East of the Castro lies the Mission, a district traditionally associated with immigrant populations including Irish American and Latino, which shifted toward the end of the 20th Century to become popular with the lesbian community. The Mission is known for its beautiful wall murals, one shining example of which is the Women’s Building, an arts and education community space that advocates for gender equality.
Here we wandered along busy 18th Street, admiring public artwork and stopping at the vintage clothes stores, which were less touristy than those on Haight Street.
Back at the Green Tortoise, Amanda and I took the opportunity to climb Telegraph Hill, only a few blocks behind us, for a wonderful view of the city and the bay. San Francisco is built on many steep hills, and this is one of the steepest of all. We climbed the steps in place of a footpath up sloping Kearny Street, and then trudged up the hill’s winding footpath to the Coit Tower, the memorial tower at its top that is dedicated to San Francisco’s firefighters. The tower itself is shaped like the nozzle of a firefighter’s hose. From all sides of it, we had excellent views of the city, and the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge stretching across the bay in different directions to Oakland and Sausalito.
Finally, we retreated back down the hill and settled in Cafe Vesuvio, a historic North Beach bar behind City Lights that was frequented by Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady and friends. The bar’s windows overlook the narrow Jack Kerouac Alley, with its colourful street paintings, which separates it from City Lights. This was the perfect place to finish up our three days in San Francisco before driving down the California coast. I looked out onto Jack Kerouac Alley, happy, having truly filled myself up with art, poetry and progressive lefty goodness. It seems that the old song rings true: If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure wear some flowers in your hair.
Western USA Road Trip!