The Beats on Broadway
Broadway in North Beach was ground zero for the emergence of the Beat Generation, the globally famous and influential literary and artistic American counterculture of the 1950s. The most famous authors of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs first met at Columbia University in New York city circa 1944. A close friend and fellow student named Hal Chase introduced them to a childhood friend of his named Neal Cassady, who would later become the main lightning rod of inspiration for the Beats.
In December of 1948, leaving his newlywed Carolyn and infant daughter in San Francisco, Neal Cassady embarked on a road trip with his ex-wife LuAnne Henderson to New York City in a brand new 1949 Hudson. Jack Kerouac joined them on their return trip to San Francisco the following month, the first of many trips that would later inspire his most famous novel, On The Road. In the following three years, Kerouac visited San Francisco regularly, staying with the Cassady family at 29 Russel Street on Russian Hill. During that time, the seed of the Beat Generation in North Beach was sown.
In the summer of 1953, 35 year old poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti partnered with Peter Martin who published a magazine called City Lights at the corner of Broadway and Columbus in North Beach, investing $500 into a new venture called City Lights Books. In 1954, Allen Ginsberg made his first pilgrimage to San Francisco and moved in with the Cassadys just as Kerouac did through the previous years. Fed up with Allen’s love-sickness for Neal, Carolyn Cassady booted Ginsberg to the street only two months into his stay. Ginsberg immediately took up residence at the Marconi Hotel at 554 Broadway, just across the street from City Lights Books.
In 1955, Peter Martin sold his share of City Lights Books to Ferlinghetti for $1000. Around the same time, Allen Ginsberg moved into a new apartment at 1010 Montgomery (at the corner of Broadway) with his lover Peter Orlovsky, deciding to leave behind the idea of a “normal life” and embrace his homosexuality and passion for writing poetry. It was at the Montgomery Street apartment that Ginsberg wrote a majority of his epic poem, Howl. Later in the year, Ginsberg performed Howl for the very first time at the 6 Gallery on Fillmore Street to an audience of 150 people, including Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, and numerous other members of the emerging Beat Generation. That initial reading of Howl sparked a collective epiphany among those present. Ginsberg’s brazen honesty and rich poetic imagery about American society gave birth to a newfound idea of what the Beat Generation stood to unearth through our culture.
In the fall of 1956, Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Howl, and Other Poems through City Lights Books. The book was an immediate success, and less than six months later a shipment of 520 copies of the book being imported from a printer in London was seized on grounds of obscenity, though customs later released the shipment when the Federal prosecutor declined to pursue the charges. The poem was littered with references to sex and drugs, and included language deemed immoral in 1950s culture. On June 3, 1957 an undercover San Francisco police officer arrested Shig Murao, the clerk at City Lights, for selling him a copy of the book. A warrant was immediately issued for Ferlinghetti stating that he willfully published and sold obscene content. The American Civil Liberties Union came to Ferlinghetti’s aid, providing him with pro-bono legal support and defense. The trial lasted for nearly a month in the fall of 1957, before Ferlinghetti was acquitted and the court accepted that the book had “redeeming social importance.” By the next year there were 20,000 copies of Howl in print. As of today there have been more than a million copies printed, and it is the top selling book of poetry in history.
Just off Broadway, on Columbus, ten feet from the doorway of City Lights Books, is Vesuvio Cafe. Since it was founded in 1948, Vesuvio has always been the bohemian bar of North Beach. It was the place to drink and write for many members of the Beat Generation, Kerouac and Cassady included. With it’s Victorian architecture coupled with walls filled to the ceiling with Beat relics and memorabilia, it looks almost the same as it did fifty years ago. In the early years, the names of those permanently banned from the bar would be etched into the sidewalk out front. The names of the famous Beat poets Gregory Corso and Bob Kauffman both made their way into the sidewalk, though the concrete slab was eventually dug up and moved into the bar where it can be seen today.
Enrico’s Sidewalk Cafe at 504 Broadway was another haunt for Beat writers. Enrico Banducci, the owner of the iconic Hungry I Club opened the cafe in 1958, just as the Beat Generation was becoming world renowned. Richard Brautigan once said that Enrico’s was his favorite place to sit and think other than the Geary Street bus. Enrico’s closed in 2006, but the space is now a popular restaurant and bar called Naked Lunch, after William S. Burroughs’ most famous novel.
El Matador was a jazz club and lounge at 492 Broadway. In 1959, a film written by Jack Kerouac titled Pull My Daisy premiered at El Matador. Kerouac was turned away at the door for being drunk and disorderly, as the doorman did not believe he was the guest of honor. Just down the block at 534 Broadway was the Swiss American Hotel, where a number of local Beat authors stayed regularly, most famously the poet Bob Kaufman. Today the building houses The Beat Museum and Giftshop along with the largest collection of Beat relics and memorabilia on permanent public display in the world. The museum also sells rare, signed, and first edition books by numerous Beat and post-Beat authors.
Broadway has a rich and extensive history in the world of literature. To this day, surviving members of the Beat Generation can be found drinking, writing, and laughing in the bars, bookstores, and cafes of North Beach.
Written by Niko Van Dyke, with the Beat Museum
Want a Beat-inspired walking tour of North Beach? Stop by the Beat Museum at 534 Broadway