images of Vesuvio Cafe and City Lights Books

The Beatnik Era took hold in the North Beach area of San Francisco for many reasons. The district already owned a reputation for permissiveness by looking the other way when it came to the speakeasies during Prohibition and the sex-entertainment industry of the 1940’s. North Beach’s vibrant bar and café scene, physical isolation and low rents were big selling points as well. In addition, the postwar growth of the California School of Fine Arts on nearby Russian Hill plus the influx of writers propelled a beat movement, which began in 1953. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road drew national attention.   When the police tried to suppress Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl”, the resulting media frenzy backfired.   Young people flocked to North Beach in an attempt to escape the drab routine of the nine-to-five, gray-flannel syndrome.

Beatnik Era:

North Beach had more of a European atmosphere instilling a bohemian culture where first-generation Italians have always welcomed the idea of writers in their midst. Being an artist was considered a legitimate occupation—the same as being a fisherman. Vesuvio Café on Columbus Avenue opened to accommodate these new residents. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Pocket Book Shop next door. The Cellar hosted poetry readings and jazz in its subterranean café and bar.

But not all was as it first appeared. The Co-Existence Bagel Shop transformed the corner of Grant Avenue and Green Street into the epicenter of the neighborhood’s burgeoning beat scene. But the owner did not care for the element and persuaded the police to park a paddy wagon nearby. In an act of protest, an unknown party blew up the plumbing in the restroom.  This was the beginning of the end.  Next time we’ll discuss the continued downfall of the beatnik scene in North Beach. Until then, be careful out there. Cheers!

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