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Preserving a Literary Landmark in a City on Fast Forward
Fair Use Statement

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 Bookstore

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 none).

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 being ''dot-conned.''

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 gentrification.

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 expire.

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 address.

''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 and surrealism.

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 the Web.

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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