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Reading Poetry from L.A. to the Bay

For all the talk of rivalry and disdain between San Francisco and Los Angeles the two cities have far more in common than they do differences. This is especially evident in architecture and neighborhood history. Stories of the gentrification in the Fillmore District are reminiscent of Boyle Heights and Chavez Ravine. On the weekend of August 17th and 18th I did two poetry performances in the Bay Area.


Oakland & Berkeley

On Friday August 17, 2012 I performed at Awaken Café on Broadway in Downtown Oakland. Perched on the eastern edge of Frank Ogawa Square, high ceilings and large windows emphasize the feng shui of the warm space. Featuring an espresso bar, organic restaurant, performance and event space, and an art gallery, it's easy to see why Awaken is a popular destination in the East Bay to hear singer-songwriters, storytellers and poets. A coalition of local artists, including Cortt Dunlap and Oliver Greenlaw, own the space. They serve local micro-brews and intend to bring people together and launch movements. Their mission is working.

The large plaza Frank Ogawa Square is just west of Awaken. The building towering over the block is Oakland's colossal Beaux Arts-style City Hall, adorned in white granite and terra-cotta. Built in 1911, the decorative tower has been called a rectangular wedding cake. Leaving Awaken after a great night, the spotlight on Oakland's City Hall looked magical in the night sky and every bit as epic as City Hall in Los Angeles. Downtown Oakland has a great collection of historic buildings. It reminds me of Spring or Main Street in L.A.'s Historic Core. The built environment consists of Beaux Arts, Art Deco, Spanish Baroque, Modernism and Post Modernism. Adjacent to Downtown Oakland is Lake Merritt, comparable to L.A.'s MacArthur Park, a great urban park surrounded by decadent Jazz Age apartment towers. There's also a Chinatown in Downtown Oakland. Not as big as SF's Chinatown, but it still has an authentic streetscape and ambiance.

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A block north of Awaken and City Hall is where Telegraph Avenue ends in Downtown Oakland. Long known for its association with the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, Telegraph Avenue is a historic street connecting Berkeley to Oakland. Whenever I'm on Telegraph, I go to Moe's Books. Moe's holds four levels of books, both used and new. Their poetry section is one of the few I've ever seen that rivals City Lights in San Francisco. Moe's deep volume of great used books keeps people coming back, especially local college students. Their section of California history is excellent, and architecture books are well represented as well. I saw deals everywhere I looked. Moe's is a world class bookstore on par with any bookstore in America.

One of my favorite books ever written on a city is "Blues City" by Ishmael Reed. Published in 2003, Reed's multidisciplinary account combines literary history, ethnic history, political history, musical history, and his own personal stories from 35 years in Oakland. His stories on the indigenous tribes of Northern California, lost poets like Joaquin Miller, protest marches on Jack London Square, black cowboy marches and Gay Pride Concerts reveal the true soul of Oakland.

Reading Reed inspired me to read about Joaquin Miller. Joaquin Miller was the nom de plume for a 19th Century California poet originally named Cincinnatus Hiner Miller. Miller's verse mythologized the 1849 Gold Rush. Known as the "Poet of the Sierras," Joaquin Miller lived the last 37 years of his life in the Oakland Hills. His Oakland house still stands on Joaquin Miller Road a few miles north of Downtown Oakland off the 13 freeway. Miller considered the Bay Area, particularly the Berkeley and Oakland Hills, Utopia.

On Saturday night August 18th, I performed in Berkeley at Expressions Gallery on Ashby. Performing with me in the Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts series was a slew of talented poets like Steve Abee, Daniel Yaryan, Richard Modiano, A. Razor, Iris Berry, Amelie Frank, Doug Knott, Marc Olmsted, and others. After two great nights in the East Bay, I drove across the Bay Bridge to visit San Francisco. The new Bay Bridge is being constructed alongside the old one.

Oakland City Hall | Photo by jaydoubleyougee used under a Creative Commons license


City Lights Books

The first thing I usually do when I visit San Francisco is head to City Lights Books in North Beach. City Lights Books, particularly their third floor, is a sacred space with one of the most extensive collection of poetry titles anywhere. There's a wall of books featuring Beat poets and City Lights poets, as well as two large separate walls with thousands of poets: Latin American poets, avant-garde poets, language poets, street poets, academic poets, gay poets, City Lights has poetry books. There's a rocking chair marked "the poet's chair," sitting next to the books. When the chair is open I like to read a few lines or write some notes. City Lights is a monument to poetry and especially to the Beat Generation of poets.

Two recent poetry titles published by City Lights are "Ring of Bone" by Lew Welch and "Inside/Out" by Marilyn Buck. "Ring of Bone" is a part of the City Lights/Grey Fox series. Grey Fox was Donald Allen's publishing company, selected titles from which are now published by City Lights so that they do not go out of print. Grey Fox published Beat, San Francisco renaissance, Black Mountain and New York School writers. Lew Welch was a San Francisco Beat poet and close friend of Gary Snyder. He disappeared in 1971 after performing and publishing widely in the 1960s. Snyder found his suicide note on his truck in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Besides many great poems, there's a concluding essay that makes the book excellent. "Language is Speech" is a 15-page essay on poetics and his theories on writing. He writes, "We are makers. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to handle the daily living business and still find time to learn ornate crafts become what the world calls artists."

Marilyn Buck is a political activist that was imprisoned for over thirty years because of her revolutionary activities. While in prison she took poetry workshops with the great San Francisco Renaissance poet David Meltzer. A month after she was released from prison, she died from cancer at 62 years old. City Lights culled her finest poems and are now publishing this posthumous collection two years after her death. Buck writes from the heart with a liberation-minded ethic. She wrote shortly before she passed, "I wasn't much of a poetry lover until I ran smack dab into Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan and Alice Walker in the 1960s." For Buck, they "made the poetic real: the spirit, the passion, the word." Buck's combination of conviction and humor make her poems laser sharp.

City Lights is doing important work keeping these two poets in print.

Poetry Room at City Lights Bookstore | Photo by Steel Wool used under a creative commons license

The Fillmore District

When I have the time in San Francisco I like to stop at Buena Vista Park or Alamo Square. These are two forested parks within the dense city. The union of man and nature occurs in a few places like these in the city. The hilly topography of San Francisco coupled with the plethora of parks provides ample spots to overlook painted lady Victorians, rolling clouds, large churches in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge and TransAmerica Pyramid. Meanwhile the cold wind whistles through the trees. When sitting at these hilly parks overlooking the city I know why Joaquin Miller loved the Bay Area so passionately.

On my way out of the city to come back to L.A. my old friend gave me a documentary to watch: "The Fillmore." Produced as a part of a series called, "Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco," this 84-minute documentary tells the story of the Fillmore district, one of San Francisco's most well-known streets and an important historical area. The story shares commonality with the history of L.A.'s Crenshaw District, Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights and Chavez Ravine.

Similar to L.A.'s Boyle Heights, the Fillmore was one of the only ethnically diverse areas in early 20th Century San Francisco. It was a Japanese and Jewish District until the Second World War. Similar to Little Tokyo in L.A., the Fillmore became a Black area during the Japanese internment period and war era. During the 1940s and early 1950s, the Fillmore became one of America's best known jazz districts, the Harlem of the Bay Area. Clubs like Bop City hosted Thelonious Monk and Billie Holiday. For many years the Japanese and Black populations coexisted harmoniously like the Crenshaw District. Later in the 1950s city planners began urban renewal displacing over 10,000 residents -- mostly Black. Similar to Bunker Hill in L.A., redevelopment lagged and parts of the once- storied street became blighted. The film also shows how most people knew the Fillmore area for the concerts of Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane, but the storied jazz history was a much longer period.

Fillmore Jazz Festival | Photo by Brandon Doran used under a Creative Commons license


Three-plus decades after redevelopment much of Fillmore is now trendy boutiques and San Francisco has become a very expensive city. There is a jazz preservation district with clubs like the Boom Boom Room and Yoshis. There is also a small Japantown on the original stretch of Fillmore near Geary. The film shows how the redevelopment around Geary created dividing lines in the city's grid separating the Fillmore from the wealthier Pacific Heights to the north. Overall, the stories of neighborhood unity, diversity and political struggle make "The Fillmore" a powerful documentary on one of San Francisco's most important neighborhoods.

Though 400-miles of coast separates Los Angeles from San Francisco, the neighborhood history, architecture and social factors are very similar. Perhaps Bay Area residents do not want to acknowledge this, but there are far more similarities in the two cities than differences. This edition of L.A. Letters is dedicated to Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco.



Top: City Lights Bookstore photo by abbey*christine used under a Creative Commons license

About the Author

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