Ever since the gold rush, San Francisco has enticed writers. They couldn’t resist its intoxicating beauty, frequent liberties, and the fantasy of sudden fortune—a writer’s most cherished pipe dream— of the boom town on the bay.
Between the gold—and subsequent silver—booms and the tech boom, there were decades when all San Francisco had going for it was tourism. The only reason to come here was vacation. In those years, writers were seduced by the incredible beauty, cosmopolitan and international ambiance, great food, and cheap rent. They came here, in large numbers, from all over the country, to live in a piece of America that felt like another country. By the 1980s, every third person in Caffe Trieste was a writer. I had a flat on Telegraph Hill for $400 in those years.
When I was a child, my Sicilian poet father took me to the Trieste, where the Italians gathered by the windows, in suits and fedoras, and the Beats clustered by the jukebox in the southwest corner. One of the writers drawn to San Francisco in those years was Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
If San Francisco attracted writers with its own charms, Ferlinghetti made it irresistible. He not only sold books, he published them. His inexpensive paperback productions rattled the world, starting with Ginsberg’s Howl. He was willing to publish what the status quo would not, the prescient revelations of a corporate hellhole future, proven so true when the company shuttle buses clogged the city’s streets and made rents beyond affordable for writers not yet rich and famous.
For decades, Ferlinghetti and City Lights magnetized writers here and enabled many of them to actually live from their work. When they weren’t making enough from book sales, their publisher helped them in other ways. For example, one night on the terrace of the Savoy Tivoli, news broke instantly, traveling up Grant Avenue’s human telephone tree, that Gregory Corso had just broken the window at City Lights because he needed to get some money from the register. Ferlinghetti never pressed charges.
Ferlinghetti’s passing comes at another rite of passage in this boom and bust town. The pandemic altered the scenario, as work from home allowed employees to escape craven landlords and live elsewhere relatively cheaply. Rents are declining. Once again, it may be possible for writers to rent an apartment here, in the foreseeable future. I only wish Ferlinghetti would be here to welcome them when it happens.