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Poetry and the Ever Changing Landscape of San Francisco

On August 23 I arrived in San Francisco to read at a poetry event. Thanks to bad gridlock near the Bay Bridge I barely arrived on time, even though I'd left L.A. early. I had clear sailing for most of the I-5 drive, but once I got into the East Bay, the roads slowed down like I was in L.A. Cars were backed up from Downtown Oakland all the way to the Bay Bridge. Eventually I arrived in the Hayes Valley area of San Francisco, and found the site for the reading.

While I negotiated my way through the dense, bustling city I admired the picturesque local skyline of skyscrapers, hills and Victorians. Along the way, I couldn't help notice several cranes building high rise condos. This week L.A. Letters reflects on the ever changing landscape of San Francisco, some different perspectives by several authors, as well as a brief glance at the city's literary tradition and contemporary poetry scene.

San Francisco's colorful and turbulent history characterizes the California Dream, every bit as much as Southern California. The myth of the city predates the 1849 Gold Rush, when throngs of prospectors transformed a barren peninsula of rocky hills and sand dunes, dotted with lagoons and swamps, into one of the first modern metropolises on the West Coast. Early American writers like Mark Twain and Jack London wrote about the first days of the city. Dashiell Hammett's crime fiction novel, "Maltese Falcon," was set in San Francisco. The San Francisco Renaissance Poets and Beat Generation writers emerged during the Cold War. Long a haven of bohemian writers and musicians, well known popular histories of San Francisco include jazz in the Fillmore District and the Summer of Love Era in Haight-Ashbury. Like most big cities, dichotomies help define San Francisco.

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One of the most active current chroniclers of San Francisco is Rebecca Solnit. Two of her books in the last dozen years have charted the cultural and economic transformation of the city over the last 30 years. In 2000 Solnit wrote in her book, "Hollow City," that

the new future looks like San Francisco: a frenzy of financial speculation, covert coercions, overt erasures, a barrage of novelty-item restaurants, websites, technologies and trends, the despair of unemployment replaced by the numbness of incessant work hours and the anxiety of destabilized jobs, homes and neighborhoods.

Written during the peak of the dot com boom, Solnit is more correct than ever nearly 14 years later.

Many recent writers have noted that San Francisco is the second-most expensive city in America, behind only New York. Last year I wrote about the documentary film charting the change in the Fillmore District. Similar to Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo, the Fillmore has deep roots as a multicultural district with rich histories of the African-American, Japanese, and Jewish communities. Also similar has been the shifting landscape of the area, and the residential succession of groups coming and going. The high price of neighborhood real estate has made survival difficult for all who do not have a six-figure income.

Open since 1960 on Fillmore Street is Marcus Books, one of the oldest Black-owned bookstores in the country. Due to financial pressure they have been in the news lately, with several fundraising readings and events. Similar to Eso Won Books in Leimert Park, they are doing their best to hang on and keep the doors open in spite of the economy. No word on their long term plans yet, but hopefully they can hang on because they are a San Francisco institution. Many cynics have said that, with these economic conditions, there may not even be any artists left in San Francisco in a few years.

This theme is also explored in Solnit's award-winning 2010 book, "Infinite City." In a short segment on the diversity of San Francisco neighborhoods, she writes,

Fillmore Street runs through San Francisco's wealthiest neighborhood, Pacific Heights; drops into the gritty, African-American Western Addition, known as the Fillmore District... and then continues onward through the lower Haight, to end not far from Market Street and the Castro. Pacific Heights is sometimes called Specific Whites, but the 22 Fillmore bus line that traverses the 2.5-mile street and then goes on to cut through the Mission on its way to the Bayview has been nicknamed the 22-to-Life.

San Francisco is loaded with examples of contradictions and urban irony. The Castro District has long been a groundbreaking social justice site for LGBT residents. Though in the same city where a courageous citizen like Harvey Milk came to rise, he also met his demise by a bullet. Solnit's "Infinite City" also debunks the myth that the Bay Area is a liberal region, with a chapter showing a map of several right-wing think tanks, military sites, and defense contractors throughout the Bay.

Map of the Fillmore District ''Promenading the Boulevard of Gone'' from ''Infinite City'' by Rebecca Solnit

The corporate culture of the Marina versus the more creative and Bohemian culture of the Mission is one of the key binaries currently occurring in San Francisco. The one constant, no matter the neighborhood, is that the price of rent continues to skyrocket.

In addition to Solnit, several other writers have addressed the changing landscape of San Francisco over the last generation. A recent City Lights book, "The End of San Francisco," focuses on one writers' experience in the LGBT community and how economic restructuring has made survival much harder for marginalized populations than it once was.

As early as 1998, City Lights was covering the city's shift with their anthology "Reclaiming San Francisco." One of the chapters, "The Miracle Mile: South of Market and Gay Male Leather 1962-1997," charted the transformation of the South of Market District from a gay male enclave, through the turmoil of the AIDS era, up to the Dot com boom and the infiltration and construction of high rise condos accompanied by the new baseball stadium. The author of the passage, Gayle Rubin, laments for the San Francisco days before inflation, new residents, and overdevelopment forever altered what had been a working-class gay haven.

City Lights is celebrating their 60th anniversary this year, and they continue to publish frequently. They recently published an insider's guidebook, "San Francisco Chinatown," by Bay Area native-son Phillip P. Choy. Choy is a celebrated architect, scholar, and writer that has appeared and consulted on several Chinatown publications, exhibits, and film documentaries. He taught the first college level course in Chinese American History at San Francisco State University.

The City Lights anthology "Reclaiming San Francisco" has an outstanding essay, by California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, about the Chicano poets from the Mission District. Herrera spent a lot of years in the Mission District and knows the history intimately. Enthusiasts of Herrera's work should also check his City Lights book, "187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border." The book collects 36 years of Herrera's work, mixing the personal and political. Though he now teaches at UC Riverside, Herrera spent many years in the Bay Area and his distinguished career celebrates this.

City Lights also just published "Poems Retrieved" by Frank O'Hara as a part of their Grey Fox series. These 200 pages of poems were previously unpublished poems found by legendary editor Donald Allen after O'Hara died. The City Lights Spotlight Series features contemporary poets, and the last three editions have been the stellar female poets: Catherine Wagner, Lisa Jarnot, and San Fernando Valley native, now Bay Area resident, Alli Warren.

City Lights is going stronger than ever after 60 years.

Jack Hirschman, another City Lights author, was the San Francisco Poet Laureate and definitely an authority on the region's literary history. Hirschman told David Meltzer in an interview, "I see a Street Generation rather than the Beat Generation."

Street poets, for Hirschman, drew from everyday life and the commonplace. Hirschman arrived in San Francisco in 1973 after being a UCLA professor. Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of the Doors, along with Michael C. Ford, studied with Hirschman in 1965. Hirschman grew more radical every year. Ford recalls that Hirschman's conflict with the UCLA administration started when he told students to burn their draft card. After leaving L.A. because of these complications, the poetic confines of North Beach, San Francisco warmly received him. Hirschman, by his own volition, has never worked as a professor since. Hirschman's idea of the activist, street, poet is especially visible in the Bay Area's performance poetry scene.

Jack Hirschman at Book Bay Fort Mason | Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr/Creative Commons


I came up to San Francisco for the 5-year anniversary show of Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts. The multi-generational reading, started by Daniel Yaryan, has become a mecca for Bay Area poets. It's one of these readings that bring out the best in the presenters. Yaryan asked the poet-painter Cara Vida to host this edition. Vida is a charismatic poet who over the years has also created and sold over 2,000 paintings. After Vida got hooked on spoken word, her unique phrasing and skillful delivery quickly put her on stages, from San Francisco's Folsom Street Fair to CBGB's, galleries, underground theaters, and every dive and dump in between. Vida's poetic recordings are well loved, and her poem about 21st Century technology had the room laughing and thinking simultaneously.

Over 30 poets read at Beatnik Ghosts, including the free jazz and poetry ensemble COPUS, Marc Kockinos, and Ellyn Maybe. One notable writer on the bill was Q.R. Hand. Hand reads his poems with the clarity and animation that only a super-veteran can. This was my second time seeing him, and he's been very compelling each time. He's been known to perform his poetry with a jazz ensemble called the Wordwind Chorus. One of Hand's best friends for the last 40 years was the outstanding poet, Reginald Lockett.

Both Hand and Lockett have bridged the gap on both the page and the stage. They were both originally published in the 1968 Black Arts classic, "Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro American Writing," edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal. In 2000, Hand and Lockett recorded an album of jazz and poetry, titled "We Are Of The Saying," with Brian Auerbach and Lewis Jordan. Lockett died in 2008. I was lucky enough to meet him and buy his book from him in 2007. He's well-loved and remembered in the Bay Area poetry community.

Watching Hand and other Bay Area elder poets, like Clive Matson, JJ Rush, Gerald Nicosia, and Steve Arntson, made me realize how much younger poets need to salute and give it up to these writers. The craftsmanship and poetic veracity of the old masters is something a lot of young writers can learn from. The groundbreaking style of these pioneers definitely paved the way for younger poets, the Slam scene, and Spoken Word. Yaryan's intention with Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts is to spread the poetic legacy from the earlier greats. The show's three-plus hours of high octane poetry fulfilled this and then some.

COPUS performing at Beatnik Ghosts 5-year anniversary show in San Francisco | Photo: Sparring with Beatnik Ghosts Facebook


San Francisco has always been a literary epicenter. In the next few weeks festivals like the Zinefest and Litquake will bring hundreds of authors together in San Francisco to share their work. In the Haight District, the Oakland-born fiction writer Lloyd Francis has been receiving accolades for his new book "From Rum to Roots," a multigenerational tale that connects Jamaica to the Bay Area. I also recently read Kevin Starr's excellent short history book on the Golden Gate Bridge. There are countless other books on San Francisco.

Besides City Lights Publishing, other Bay Area publishers include Heyday Books, PM Press, Manic D Press, McSweeneys and the University of California Press. "Poetry Flash" is the region's poetry magazine. Interest in San Francisco History is growing quickly, and new titles appear all the time.

No question San Francisco is a beautiful city. The poets and artists have been singing its praises from the beginning. Meanwhile the cranes continue to build condos. The new Bay Bridge opens in early September (Juan Felipe Herrera is expected to read a poem at the opening). Rent continues to climb higher. Will landlords every stop raising the rates? How expensive can it get? There's no telling what will happen next, but with the long literary tradition and city's history of activism you can bet there will be a big discussion and lively dialogue. Salute to writers like Rebecca Solnit and Juan Felipe Herrera, and to all the Bay Area poets raising critical issues and asking important questions. These San Francisco literary giants are catalysts and game-changing titans in the firmament of California letters.

Top photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr/Creative Commons

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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