Anyone looking for a unique way to visit the San Francisco area might want to try touring the places where Allen Ginsberg wrote, revised and publicly read his landmark 1955 poem, "Howl." The Howl (self-guided) tour provides a fresh view of Beat-era San Francisco while also serving as a terrific excuse to visit some of the more obscure neighborhoods in the Bay Area.
"Howl," which turns the ripe middle age of 45 this year, is one of the seminal poems of 20th-century American literature, a defining work of the Beat generation and the subject of a historic obscenity trial. Ginsberg, who grew up in New Jersey and lived for many years in Manhattan, wrote the poem after living in San Francisco for a year. (He ultimately stayed in the area for nearly two years.) He and novelist Jack "On the Road" Kerouac, who would later join Ginsberg in Berkeley, were the most important of the Beat writers (along with William S. "Naked Lunch" Burroughs).
Written wholly in the Bay Area, "Howl" was started on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, was finished in North Berkeley, was partly inspired by a building on Powell Street, was first publicly read in Pacific Heights and was published (in '56) on Columbus Avenue in North Beach.
So where exactly did it all happen? Here's the tour, with then-and-now impressions to guide the way.
1. Marconi Hotel, 554 Broadway, in San Francisco's North Beach.
When he arrived in San Francisco in August 1954, Ginsberg rented a room here and stayed for nearly two months, according to journal entries compiled in the book "Allen Ginsberg: Journals Mid-Fifties." His rent was $6 a week. On one of his first nights here, he wrote in his journal: "Back alone in a Hotel and once again the great battle for survival."
TODAY: The Marconi still stands across an intersection from the City Lights bookstore. The hotel, identified only by a small sign on its front door, is located next to two sex clubs. The weekly rate ranges from $165 to $220.
2. Ginsberg's apartment, 1010 Montgomery St., San Francisco.
The 29-year-old Ginsberg wrote most of "Howl" here, two blocks east of the Marconi, after moving from rooms at 755 Pine, 1403 Gough and the Wentley Hotel. Living on unemployment insurance, Ginsberg settled in a first-floor furnished apartment, with a view of Montgomery Street, in February 1955 with his lover, Peter Orlovsky, according to his journal. "I sat idly at my desk . . . only a few blocks from City Lights literary paperback bookstore. I had a secondhand typewriter, some cheap scratch paper. I began typing, not with the idea of writing a formal poem, but stating my imaginative sympathies," Ginsberg said of the poem's genesis.
TODAY: The three-story apartment building is on the northeast corner of Montgomery and Broadway (at the point where Montgomery begins a steep incline). Walk up the street toward the north for a marvelous view of the city's east side.
3. Ginsberg's apartment, 1624 Milvia St., in North Berkeley
Ginsberg revised all three parts of "Howl" and its footnote here, moving to Milvia Street in September 1955 from his Montgomery Street place. He paid $35 a month for a cottage in the back, according to journal entries. "I have a house here . . . [with] a backyard cottage & private backyard, quite big, filled with vegetables & flowers," he wrote in a letter that is quoted in the book, "Kerouac: A Biography" by Ann Charters. (Ginsberg even wrote a poem about his new home called "A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley," included in his pocket book, "Reality Sandwiches.") Other Beat luminaries lived in the neighborhood at the time, including Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Robert Duncan. He left the cottage--and the Bay Area--in June 1956.
TODAY: It's a three-story apartment house over a garage (a "dingbat," in California slang), several blocks from the University of California at Berkeley in a somewhat faded part of town. A "poetry garden" honoring Ginsberg was recently dedicated on the grounds of an elementary school across the street, according to the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper.
4. Six Gallery, 3119 Fillmore St., in the Pacific Heights-Cow Hollow area of San Francisco.
The Six Gallery, an art gallery and performance space founded in 1954, was where Ginsberg first publicly read "Howl," on Oct. 13, 1955, a pivotal moment in Beat history. The event was described in Michael Schumacher's biography "Dharma Lion": "Jack Kerouac, sitting at the edge of the platform, pounded in accompaniment on a wine jug, shouting 'GO!' at the end of each long line. The crowd quickly joined him in punctuating Allen's lines. . . . By the time he had concluded, [Ginsberg] was in tears."
TODAY: The Gallery is long gone, but the neighborhood at Fillmore and Union is thriving and commercially active, if excessively tony, with many shops selling coffee, cigars, pastries and real estate. The Gallery was just north of the intersection of Fillmore and Union.
5.Mediterraneum Caffe, 2475 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley.
Ginsberg is said to have written and revised his poetry at this Beat hangout near the UC Berkeley campus.
TODAY: The eatery, across from Moe's Books on Telegraph Avenue in the heart of town, still features a sidewalk cafe and indoor restaurant that serves coffee and food at moderate prices (cappuccino: $1.50).
6. Sir Francis Drake Hotel, 450 Powell St., San Francisco.
The second part of "Howl" was inspired by and written at this hotel. Ginsberg once said the hotel looked like "the robot skullface of Moloch" and that he "wandered down Powell Street muttering 'Moloch Moloch' all night and wrote 'Howl II' nearly intact in cafeteria at foot [sic] of the Drake hotel," according to "Dharma Lion." The hotel, he wrote in his journals, "may be coming to eat me someday."
TODAY: The Drake is one of the city's best-known luxury hotels (its rooms and suites range from $179 to $259 a night). On the ground floor, at Powell and Sutter, is a coffee shop and outdoor cafe called Cafe Espresso that is apparently a later incarnation of the cafeteria in which Ginsberg wrote some of "Howl II." (Single espresso: $1.25.)
7. City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., in North Beach.
1"Howl" was first published in 1956 by City Lights Books, the publishing arm of the legendary City Lights Bookstore, co-founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It began as a paperbacks-only shop but eventually expanded to include hardcovers and a variety of titles. In 1957, Ferlinghetti and a store clerk were arrested for selling the supposedly obscene "Howl," and the subsequent trial, which decided for City Lights, made Ginsberg famous and turned his poem into a big hit.
TODAY: City Lights remains one of the best-regarded bookstores in the nation and is still owned by Ferlinghetti, now 79 or 80 (he's not sure of his birth date). City Lights Books still publishes on the top floor. A handwritten sign in the window describes it as "A Kind of Library Where Books Are Sold." Another sign offers this variation on Dante: "Abandon All Despair, Ye Who Enter Here."
8. Vesuvio Cafe, 255 Columbus Ave., in North Beach.
Ginsberg and other writers, including Dylan Thomas, frequently drank at this North Beach bar next to City Lights. Ginsberg wrote about Vesuvio in a 1954 journal poem called "In Vesuvio's Waiting for Sheila": "Here at last a moment/ in foreign Frisco . . . listening to the vague conversation . . . anticipating leaning on the bar."
TODAY: Still located on what is now called Jack Kerouac Alley, Vesuvio is a well-preserved Beat shrine. The cafe has a colorful outdoor mural on its north wall and an epigram painted over the entrance that reads, "We are itching to get away from Portland, Oregon," a reference to a supposed "flea epidemic" of 1915, according to a cafe flier. During a recent visit to the cafe at 8:50 on a Saturday morning, I found around a half-dozen patrons already at the bar, all watching--and poking fun at--a western movie from the '50s on the cafe's television.
9. Foster's Cafeteria, 235 Montgomery St. (the Russ Building), in the Financial District.
In January 1955, Ginsberg mentioned Foster's so frequently in his journal that one might think he worked there. He hung out at the cafeteria mostly with Neal Cassady, Orlovsky, Robert Lavigne and others in the itinerant weeks before he moved to Montgomery Street. Typical journal entries during this period include: "We go down to Foster's, I eat chili & french fries" and "We sight Neal [Cassady]'s car pulling up . . . in front of Foster's."
TODAY: Foster's no longer exists, but the 31-story Russ Building, built in 1927, remains a San Francisco landmark. Located in the financial district, the building is home to many companies and shops such as Lee's Deli and Noah's Bagels.
Paul Iorio is a writer in Los Angeles.
Allen Ginsberg on San Francisco
"With Fog rolling by down from Twin Peaks & South San Fran to the bridge and embarcadero . . . I came to the window and glanced out into the night space at the unreal city below in which I inhabit a building. . . . Came to the window to stare at the thousand eyed buildings in the smoke filled stone vale crowded with monstrous edifices shouldering each other rocking stolid on the streets, red lights below and haze purple sky light above as in Rembrandt . . . & noticed the vegetable horror of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel."
--Journal entry, October 1955
"S.F. in the Athens-like morning . . . pale morning moon over Twin Peaks, and two soldierly antennae towers . . . bright trees & white hills & glittering windows. The red & purple lobster of Market St. stretched to the yellow horizon."
--Journal entry, May 1955
Long nights in Gough Street . . .
The hills of Montgomery Street
Cablecars of California--Long walks on the
Embarcadero and B Minor Mass
We might have been
on the cliffs of Time
--stopped on the Pacific highways
--Untitled poem in
journal, April 1955