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Preserving a Literary Landmark in a City
on Fast Forward
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Source: International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, September 5, 2000
Preserving a Literary Landmark in a City
on Fast Forward
Where the Beat Goes On / San Francisco's City Lights
By Rene Sanchez Washington Post Service
SAN FRANCISCO - The old poet looks from the window of his
crammed bookstore and sees little of this city's feisty counterculture on the
streets anymore. ''It's getting to be the farthest thing from Bohemia,''
Lawrence Ferlinghetti reflects.
For nearly 50 years, his creaking corner shop, City Lights, has been an
ideal place to take San Francisco's peculiar pulse. It was a hub for Jack
Kerouac and the restless rebels called the Beats. It became a proving
ground for free speech by selling radical works. And it has always been a
refuge for leftists, anarchists, free spirits and literary outcasts, all howling
against the establishment.
But the soul of this city is changing.
So much, in fact, that preservationists struggling to protect a way of life as
much as a building are giving Mr. Ferlinghetti's bookstore a new distinction.
It will be among the first spots in San Francisco deemed an endangered
landmark purely for cultural value, not architectural merit (because it has
The campaign to help City Lights and other historic sites endure is one sign
of a growing backlash against the gold rush transforming San Francisco into
an expensive playground for Internet fortune-seekers settling here and in
nearby Silicon Valley.
There was a time when locals could take their rollicking culture and its
musty treasures for granted. Now many fear it won't be long before all that
is left of the city's character is fog and hills. Some say San Francisco is
This autumn, two measures will be on the city ballot to prevent dot-coms
and other businesses from swarming into neighborhoods and to preserve
space for arts and community groups. One law would even ban new offices
in a few working-class neighborhoods besieged by development and
A local paper has started a column called ''Surreal Estate,'' which exposes
and heckles lavish deals that Internet entrepreneurs are making for housing
and work space in the city. Last month, a troupe of dancers refused to
leave their studio in protest against the high cost of getting a new lease and
to denounce ''the clear-cutting of San Francisco community and culture.''
They were removed by police.
But the list of victims of the Internet invasion just gets longer.
Earlier this year, a local bar tried to embrace the new spirit taking hold in
San Francisco by offering discounted drinks to anyone working for a
dot-com company. The promotion sparked a fury: What about nurses,
teachers or police officers who make much less money? Alas, the debate
soon ended - because Internet entrepreneurs bought and closed the place.
In a few weeks, hundreds of local bands will be ousted from a warehouse
that a generation of musicians used as a ramshackle rehearsal studio. The
site was sold to an out-of-town development company. Dozens of
community groups already have fled to cheaper leases across the Bay in
Oakland, and dozens more are bracing for eviction next year when leases
All the clamor is prompting - or forcing - some technology firms to try to
assist those groups by setting aside space for them, offering rent discounts
or creating funds to keep them operating.
''The old San Francisco is under attack to the point where it's really
disappearing,'' said Nancy Peters, one of the owners of City Lights. ''Rents
everywhere are being tripled. It could have happened to us.''
After decades of paying rent, Mr. Ferlinghetti and Ms. Peters bought the
bookstore last year. Opened in 1953, it is squeezed into an oddly slanted,
triangular building built in 1907 in the bustling North Beach neighborhood.
The unanimous decision this summer by the city's Landmarks Preservation
Advisory Board to protect the store put it at less risk.
San Francisco's Board of Supervisors still must approve City Lights'
landmark status, but Tim Kelley, vice president of the board, said the vote
was a formality. ''This decision has broad appeal,'' he said. ''There's a lot of
anxiety in the city. People want us to help keep places like this around.''
AND Ferlinghetti, 81, is not about to quit. Still striking a rebel's pose in
jeans and wearing a tiny earring, he tends to the busy shop as much as ever.
A Beat icon, he is also San Francisco's first Poet Laureate.
It has been a long, strange trip. Mr. Ferlinghetti, a native New Yorker, was
studying in Paris after service in World War II when he came across a
Harper's magazine article describing San Francisco's new ''culture of sex
and anarchy.'' Soon he was back in the United States, crossing the country
by train, curious to spend time at San Francisco cafes in feverish debates
about morality and literature. He had no plans to stay, but he never left.
Mr. Ferlinghetti began selling books on a whim. He and a friend needed
cash to pay for a magazine they were creating.
The magazine lasted only a few issues, but the bookstore prospered.
At the time there were few others like it in the country. It sold only
paperbacks. It stayed open past midnight and encouraged customers to
linger by putting stools in the aisles. It celebrated works outside the
mainstream and staged readings. Drifters used the store as their mailing
''There were so many transients coming to San Francisco back then. It was
as if the whole country was tilting west,'' he said. ''Mothers would call us up
and say, 'Have you seen my son?'''
Mr. Kerouac and his gang made it a home from the start. Then, in 1957,
the bookstore won fame by selling a sexually graphic poem by Allen
Ginsburg to an undercover police officer. Mr. Ferlinghetti was vindicated in
a trial that set a precedent for protecting literary speech.
The bookstore's mission has not changed. Some of its walls are still lined
with sections devoted to works on imperialism, class warfare, muckraking
Although many customers revere the bookstore as a shrine, some concede
that its time as a defining emblem of the city is passing. After all, San
Francisco has not always been an eccentric liberal haven. Someday there
may be nostalgic cries for its Internet era as well.
Mr. Ferlinghetti finds no solace in the new mood. A culture that was once
high-minded and distinct, he says, is becoming shallow and homogenized.
Just up the block, sidewalk cafes crackle with the young breed of dreamers
who talk on cell phones about stock options and the limitless possibilities of
All the more reason to stay, Mr. Ferlinghetti says. Yes, and he makes the
vow in the words of a poet: ''This will be a rock in the tide.''
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