The Beat Generation in San Francisco

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In San Francisco, the heart of the Beat Generation exists on both sides of a narrow alley.  The brick walls are painted with bright colors, the sidewalks are engraved with golden quotes, and an unavoidable sense of creativity fills the air.  This is Jack Kerouac Alley, named after the beatnik who started it all.

The murals, like the one below, artfully layer the otherwise typical buildings with words and designs painted by local artists.  Etched into the concrete are quotes from John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, and, of course, a famous line from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

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The quote from the mural comes from the Vesuvio Cafe sign located to the left of Jack Kerouac Alley.  It’s said to be the birth place of beat poetry and a center for jazz, writing, and art since 1948.  Ever since Neal Cassady, the real-life Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On The Road, stopped by while on the way to a poetry reading, this cafe became a regular hang out for beat poets.

On the other side of Jack Kerouac Alley is City Lights Bookstore.  Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, this charming bookstore-publisher combination has been a “Literary Landmark” for any book-lover visiting San Francisco.  With vintage posters covering the walls, endless rows of books, and even a poetry room hidden upstairs, Ferlinghetti was right when he said, “it is as if the public were being invited, in person and in books, to participate in that great conversation between authors of all ages, ancient and modern.”  With its inviting ambiance, it’s tempting not to pick up a book, grab a seat, and relax while listening to a medley of distant city traffic, laughter, and street musicians trickle in through the windows.

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Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg is one of the most well-known publications through City Lights. After its debut in 1956, it became so controversial that Ferlinghetti was arrested and persecuted in an obscenity trial for its publication.  Since this, the bookstore has been renowned as a center for free thinkers with its motto, “Open Books, Open Mind, Open Heart.”

If you’re a huge fan of Beat literature, want to learn more, or just love really cute bookstores with hidden poetry rooms, then this is a must-see the next time you’re in San Francisco!

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The first floor out of three in City Lights Bookstore.

Neal Cassady & Jack Kerouac, San Francisco 1952.

Neal Cassady & Jack Kerouac, San Francisco 1952.


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