Category Archives: Histories


By CaptBrando, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

By CaptBrando, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

So, I’ve never really cared that much about football. Was I excited when Joe Montana visited my high school? Yes. But in that “Oh-a-famous-person-is-here-and-I-go-to-boarding-school-and-nothing-new-happens-ever” kind of way. It was way cooler when Tommie Smith came. (Interestingly, I am noticing on Wikipedia, he was a running back in the AFL.)

Was I also briefly into football when I was embroiled in “Friday Night Lights?” Also yes. But that was mostly Tim-Riggins-related. And for Coach and Tammy, the best couple on television (as my friend Max once said; he’s also bestowed this honor upon Jane and Brad from “Happy Endings.” I agree, by the way).

My feelings about football can be summed up by George Carlin’s monologue from the first-ever episode of “SNL.” (Sidenote: George Carlin in 1975 looked like a cross between Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson today.)

When I was in Ann Arbor a few weekends ago, my friends hunched around a web streaming version of the Ravens-49ers game. I was busy cooking dinner with another friend, Mel (not Gibson), and I had no idea that the outcome would lead the Niners to the Super Bowl. I was mildly excited when it did. I was more excited about the lasagna and chunky lola cookies.

Fast-forward to me returning to SF. Niners pride is on the rise. No one can stop talking about the team–not even hipstery/nerdy/non-athletic types (and websites). Everyone’s cracked out their red and gold gear. It’s hard not to get caught up in all of it, even though I have some concerns about the levels of domestic and gender-based violence, major head trauma, and other issues the NFL faces. To put it mildly.

All the same, a few days ago, I fell briefly in love with the Niners when I read The Rumpus‘ annual “A Superbowl Preview for People Who Don’t Know Football.” A team that made an “It Gets Better” video and an outspoken pro-marriage-equality professional athlete? An underdog backup quarterback (against another unconventional quarterback)? An artist and philanthropist tight end? Hey, this sounded pretty good.

Then, the Niners’ cornerback Chris Culliver made some anti-gay remarks. Then, two other players denied having been in a video supporting LGBT youth. Dan Savage, who started the “It Gets Better” project, was understandably displeased (I look forward to what he has to say on his podcast next week) and pulled the video.

If that wasn’t enough, I subsequently discovered that the Niners would be moving next year from Candlestick Park, located in a struggling neighborhood in SF, 40 miles away to Santa Clara. To be fair, apparently Niners games weren’t bringing the city or the surrounding neighborhoods much revenue. But a new stadium within the city–have you seen how much unused space we have on the drive to and from SFO?–would have been a welcome addition, much as the Giants’ stadium revitalized (some of) the SoMa area. Slate has a pretty good breakdown of that whole mess. Thanks, Gavin Newsom! 

And now, we come down to the final point. For some reason, like all humans, we like to riot when we win things. See: Muni bus fire after the Giants win. Despite The Rumpus‘ excellent guide for rioting, SF-style (“We riot in a manner inclusive of people with disabilities”), I don’t particularly understand how a city as laid back as SF finds the rage to do this kind of thing–maybe it’s all pent-up frustration from the hell that is riding Muni every day. And because we have to be so nice all the time. The mayor has asked bars to go easy on the hard liquor (don’t hold your breath, Ed!).

Will I watch on Sunday? Yes. Will I continue to have very mixed feelings about the Niners franchise, the NFL, and professional sports in general? Always. And I’m going to take The Bold Italic’s riot alternatives to heart. I’m opting for interpretive dance, personally. And a well-crafted tweet.

*I’m realizing now that “footieball” was a term used by Dustan Hoffman in “Meet the Fockers.” This, as a whole, makes me sad for Dustan Hoffman, Barbara Streisand, America, and myself. But not for Robert DeNiro. He’s had enough chances.


On the Ebb


Much of San Francisco is about transience and waves of newcomers and about what happened to previous populations, often once newcomers themselves, when the next people came. These people left indelible marks on the city, even as they were erased themselves.

In the early Second Great Migration years of World War II, African Americans moved into the Western Addition, filling spaces recently emptied of Japanese people forced into internment camps. Much of the black population was in turn driven out and across the Bay. Today, I live in the Western Addition.

My coworker told me that the last Irish bar in the Mission closed while he lived there in the early 90s (when the Mission was the “real” Mission—whatever that means). Now, mostly white young people are shifting the neighborhood’s Latino predominance.

Where did the Italians go, when North Beach was overrun? What happened to the Beatniks who took over—apart from the gnarled few who still rant outside Caffe Trieste? The hippie-looking types on Haight are no flower children.

Our city has boomed with tech and busted flat and is booming up again, much to the chagrin of many. Rents are sky-high, gentrification screeches forward, as tech types are shuttled out and away from the city every morning and shuttled back to eat in restaurants I can’t even afford as, uncomfortable as it is to admit, some kind of nonprofit yuppie. I’m also a part of that gentrification. And it’s not always a bad thing to renew and revitalize blighted neighborhoods, but it’s certainly rarely done right.

Take Valencia Street in the Mission. There are parts of it that I love, and only true curmudgeons would argue that it’s not fun to wander there on a Saturday (I’ve been down there for three separate trips in the past two weekends). But there are more wildly expensive restaurants than anything else, and no hardware store, no big grocery store. It’s not an intentional neighborhood but rather a place held hostage by trend. And it will bust out too. Or transform into another tourist enclave, like North Beach, maybe giving that tired old neighborhood the chance to transform again, as the waves move back out.

For these ebbs, San Francisco can be a difficult place to live. Most of us are not locals (though many are native Californians). We come and go with jobs—I’ve said goodbye to a number of friends and co-workers, and I’ve been here for eighteen months. Perhaps the city is too small to fit all of us (unlike New York, which seems to expand indefinitely to swallow everyone), and once the heat and pressure hit a certain level, the loose ones escape.

As I try to keep my writing here more regular (it’s hard with a full-time job, y’all), I’d like to explore the stories—historical and contemporary—of the people who have lived here and then adapted or faded away. And I wonder, and maybe will start to see, how I’ll have to adapt to stay here. Because I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

Header photo is of a mural in Clarion Alley. The cutout figure depicts that very locale.

Hunky Jesus + the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

“The lightness of everything, in addition to the whiteface and the nun’s habits, are a mechanism to reach out to people. When we’re dressed up like that, kind of like sacred clowns, it allows people to interact with us.”

Sister Irma Geddon

There are three things in which San Francisco does not lack: drag shows, activism, and people partying in Dolores Park.  Most neighborhoods, any imaginable cause, all year long.  But only once a year do we combine all three, when the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence hold their Easter weekend birthday bash in Dolores Park.  The event features an egg hunt, live music, and an Easter bonnet competition, but its crown jewel is the Hunky Jesus contest.  This year, I ventured out on a chilly, windy Holy Sunday, the grass sodden from torrential rains, to check out the Sisters’ 33rd birthday, which was themed “Pumps and Circumstance.”  Although I ended up unable to hop-scotch to a good vantage point through the scrum at the park, I saw enough to know that I’ll be going early next year for a prime seat.

The Sisters call themselves “a leading-edge Order of queer nuns” whose mission is “to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt” (1).  They are a non-profit activist group that addresses conformity and shame, LGBT issues, HIV/AIDS, safe sex, and other local causes, employing a combination of drag, camp, fundraising, and street theater to serve their communities.  The Sisters are best known for their work around anti-homophobia, gay rights, and HIV/AIDS activism.

 The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have been around since 1979, when three future nuns rebelled against the conformity of the “Castro Clone” (2).  Donning authentic, retired habits used for a production of The Sound of Music, the trio marched through the Castro and over to “the” nude beach (I’m not sure which one).  The Sisters’ “Sistory” claims: “One even carried a machine gun (for protection).  They were met with shock and amazement, but captured everyone’s interest.”  Appearances in the coming months cemented the Sisters’ place in San Francisco culture (3).

Early Sisters in original habits. Photo via FoundSF. CC BY NC-SA 3.0.

The Sisters were founded by Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch (PHB), Reverend Mother, Sister Missionary Position, and Sister Hysterectoria-Agnes.  Early activism and events included an anti-nuclear protest following the Three Mile Island accident, the world’s first AIDS benefit, anti-homophobia in San Francisco, and STI/HIV education through sex-positive pamphlets.  Sister Boom Boom ran for City Supervisor in 1983 on the “Nun of the Above” ticket.  The Pope visited in 1987 and (allegedly) placed the Sisters on a Papal Heretics List when they performed an exorcism on (or near) His Holiness (3).  Many more activities and actions have followed, with orders of Sisters springing up around the globe, from Arizona and Florida to Colombia and France (4).

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at Rapture Cafe in New York 2

New York City Sisters. Photo by David Shankbone. Via Wikimedia Commons. GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0.

 Mostly (though not entirely) gay men, the Sisters dress in elaborate, habit-like costumes and wear white face paint and bright makeup. Sister Hysterectoria-Agnes designed new habits in 1980, based on the clothing of 14th-century Flemish ladies-in-waiting and a French-style wimple, or “ear brassieres” (3).  For a present-day and equally unique take on this look, see here.  The Sisters are garish and striking, unmistakable when you find them for the first time.

Dolores Park was as full as I’ve ever seen it, with everyone from children and dogs to preppy girls and thick-rimmed, bearded, skinny boys.  A large percentage of the population, as you may expect, was from the gay community or from niche groups: I saw more than one leather daddy, for example.  And clearly a lot of people who go to Burning Man.  Strollers were almost as ubiquitous as the day drinking and pot smoking.  Everyone was having a lovely, San Franciscan kind of time.  The Hunky Jesus competition was almost an afterthought, a diversion in a relaxed afternoon where it seemed as if everyone in the Bay Area who wasn’t in church decided to hang out together.

The Hunky Jesus of 2012 is center, in aviators. He played an upside-down cross guitar.

It was positive, pleasant, and joyful and completely accepting of difference: the kind of event that makes you want to raise your kids, if you have any, in San Francisco.  Although you’d have a lot of explaining to do.  It illustrated how much influence the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have had in their fight against conformity and guilt: they have not changed who they are or how they express themselves but rather have successfully encouraged straight-laced, vanilla San Franciscans to join in on the fun.

There are tons more (and better) photos here, here, and here.  The last link has a video of the Hunky Jesus of 2012 playing his cross guitar pre-contest.  I also rode the bus with the second Jesus on the last link (in the red sarong).  He caused quite a (welcoming) stir on Muni.

(1) The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Homepage.  Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence website. Web. 9 April 2012.  Note for photo of Novice and Black Veil sisters: over a one-year process, a person who wishes to take vows can move from an Aspirant to a Postulant to a Novice Sister before  she can be voted in as a fully-professed Black Veil Sister.  More here.

(2) Castro Clones, who originated in the 1970s, dress(ed) in a particular uniform: Levi’s, a plaid snap-front, and a tight t-shirt.  An article on the costumes for Milk discusses the Castro Clone’s meticulous attention to detail, including the immaculately sanded-down knees and crotch on a pair of button-fly 501s.  The article points out that the look hasn’t changed much–I can attest to this and will postulate one further that it’s become ubiquitous to every one: male, female, gay, straight, hipster, yuppie.

(3) The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. “Sistory.”  Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence website. Web. 9 April 2012. By the way, Sister Boom Boom’s unsuccessful bid in city politics inspired the “Boom Boom law,” which required Californians seeking public office to run under their birth names.  During the Pope’s visit, Sister Vicious PHB posted demands on the front of St. Mary’s Cathedral with Lee Press-On Nails.  The Sisters also performed an exorcism on Dr. Laura, among other homophobic bigots.  They are participants at Burning Man and have provided a Communion of tequila and “medicinal brownies” to Burners in the desert.

(4) The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. “World Orders.”  Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence website. Web. 9 April 2012.

Coit Tower: Part II

Striking miners, one of the most controversial elements of the murals. From John Langley Howard’s “California Industrial Scenes.” Fresco, Coit Tower, 1934.


 “I ain’t a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life.”

-Woody Guthrie, as quoted by Pete Seeger

When I first moved to San Francisco, I would pick a neighborhood and just wander.  Sometimes, I’d make a list of interesting places beforehand and see if I could spot them.  Other times, I’d just go.  The first time I went to North Beach, that’s exactly what happened.  I did a little shopping, paused at plaques and ostensible landmarks, and took note of strange signs and darkened windows.  Inevitably, I found myself puffing uphill to Coit Tower.  It’s unavoidable, really.

I completely missed the official entrance, with its phoenix and bundled branches signifying unity carved over the doorway, and jimmied a side door that opened on Ralph Stackpole’s Industries of California, a mural depicting women canning and filling sugar bags in factories, men stoking furnaces in a steel mill and mixing chemicals.

Women cannery workers on the assembly line.  From Ralph Stackpole’s “Industries of California.” Fresco, Coit Tower, 1934.

Like many others I’ve talked to since, I had no idea that Coit Tower was filled with murals painted by 26 local artists in 1934, funded by the U.S. government under a New Deal program that was the precursor to the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  The artist George Biddle, a friend and former classmate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, encouraged the first term president to federally fund public art, citing the Mexican government program that funded public murals in the 1920s (1).  In 1933, Harry L. Hopkins,  who would later head the WPA, also argued for a public art program, observing, “Artists have got to eat, just like other people” (2).  And at the time, artists and other people were starving in equal measure.

Another controversial detail: Left-wing papers sold from an SF kiosk. From Victor Arnautoff’s “City Life.” Fresco, Coit Tower, 1934.

After the stock market crash of 1929, one-third of America’s workers found themselves unemployed.  In the 1920s, owners and managers had severely curtailed the labor movements that had seen a brief surge of activity in the ‘teens, leaving workers in the early part of the Great Depression era with few protections or safety nets.  President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which began in 1933, changed that.  By 1934, one-fifth of California’s workers were on public relief, and over the course of the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of Californians were hired for federally funded projects, including the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.   Unions were protected and empowered under Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the Wagner Act of 1935, which gave workers new rights to bargain collectively.  Union membership and organized labor activities blossomed.  In the history of the United States before or since, there has never been such strong federal support for workers’ rights (3).

The emblem for the National Recovery Act on a box of oranges. From Maxine Albro’s “California.” Fresco, Coit Tower, 1934.

Ray Strong, a Californian painter, recalled in 1993 that during the 1930s, “Any artist worth his salt or mental equipment became a recorder or an interpreter.”  As American life changed under the Great Depression, so too did artistic styles: Social Realism, which focused on straightforward depictions of people and places (as opposed to more abstract styles, such as Cubism), rose to prominence in American art (4).  Social Realism and/or the American Scene became the preferred artistic style for New Deal artwork, as designated by the first public art program director, Edward Bruce (5).  Diego Rivera, who made his name working for the Mexican mural project, was a key influence on the Social Realism movement and on California artists, many of whom assisted the Mexican artist and ardent Communist on his murals south and north of the border.  As historian Isabelle Lemon wrote, “All of the muralists working in San Francisco, and indeed throughout the country, were painting under the shadow of Diego Rivera” (6).

A woman gathers calla lilies, which is a clear reference to Diego Rivera, whose work often included the flower. From Maxine Albro’s “California.” Fresco, Coit Tower, 1934.

Founded in 1933, the San Francisco Artists and Writers Union included many of the Bay’s luminaries of the time, including Kenneth Rexroth, Maynard Dixon, Bernard Zakheim, and Victor Arnautoff.  The union successfully petitioned the U.S. government to fund a series of murals to adorn the interior of Coit Tower in 1934 (1).  These murals would become the center of a citywide controversy and an enduring artifact of the New Deal era.  Reminiscing thirty years later, Kenneth Rexroth wrote:

No better picture of California in the thirties exists anywhere.  True, there are masses of strikers and demonstrators and unemployed brandishing copies of the Western Worker, but they are inconspicuous really, alongside the harvest workers and factory hands and longshoremen and just plain people, all suffused with the most extraordinary buoyancy–joy, hope, faith in the future, once again the mood of San Francisco even in the very depths of the Depression (7).

Ruth Gottstein, daughter of Bernard Zakheim and immortalized in his Library mural, recalled recently that the 26 artists selected for the project worked together “harmoniously,” despite the cramped space, and that the smell of wet plaster permeated the air (8).  The artists included portraits of each other in their works.  For example, Ralph Stackpole may have been the model for Clifford Wight’s Farmer (9) and John Langley Howard appears as a worker reaching for a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in Zakheim’s Library (10).  The spirit of cooperation inside Coit Tower did not extend to the rest of the city, however, and controversy began to threaten the project after little more than a month.

In February of 1934, Rivera’s mural at Rockefeller Center in New York, which had included a portrait of Lenin, was demolished.  On top of the censorship that was plaguing European artists as Fascism gained ground, the destruction of Rivera’s mural, on the Rockefeller family’s orders, disturbed the muralists.  The San Francisco Artists and Writers Union met at Coit Tower and publicly condemned the act (10).  Furthermore, tensions grew along the San Francisco waterfront between longshoremen and the dockyard bosses, culminating in a massive maritime strike in July that shut down ports up and down the West Coast and inspired union-backed walkouts across the city (3).

John Langley Howard, as a worker, reaches for Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital.”  From Bernard Zakheim’s “Library.” Fresco, Coit Tower, 1934.

In this strained climate, journalists previewing the Coit Tower works published red-baiting accounts of pro-Communist imagery in the murals.  Four elements were selected for censure:

  • Victor Arnautoff’s Metropolitan Life, which included the depiction of a newspaper kiosk selling The Masses and The Daily Worker, two Left-wing publications
  • John Langley Howard’s Industrial Scenes, in which a man leading a group of striking miners carries a copy of The Western Worker, another Lefty paper
  • Bernard Zakheim’s Library, which, in addition to having a portrait of John Langley Howard reaching for Marx, showed shelves of books by other Left-leaning writers and readers perusing newspapers with headlines about the destruction of Rivera’s mural and the rise of Fascism in Europe (11)
  • The three panels between Clifford Wight’s Surveyor and Steelworker and above the doorway, which depicted political philosophies existing in the U.S.: on the right, a chain with the motto “In God We Trust;” in the middle, a bridge and the blue eagle of the National Recovery Act (NRA), the emblem of the New Deal; and on the left, a cable with a hammer and sickle and the motto “Workers of the World, Unite” (10)

Clifford Wight’s hammer and sickle and a part of Bernard Zakheim’s “Library,” as they were depicted in the press in 1934.  Masha Zakheim Jewett writes: “The doctored photo appeared with a caption reading, ‘Here is the painting in the Coit Memorial Tower that has caused a bitter dispute between artists and the Art Commission.’…The paper was later forced to print a retraction (which it buried in the back pages several weeks later), but the bad news had been syndicated in several hundred newspapers throughout the United States and Canada” (10). Photo by Don Beatty, via Found SF, CC BY NC-SA 3.0.

Coit Tower was closed, and a flurry of telegrams between San Francisco and Washington began, with the local office claiming that the Leftist elements of the murals had not been a part of the original sketches for the project.  The S.F. Art Commission condemned the works, a group of anti-Communist artists threatened to chisel off the offending parts of the murals, and the Artists and Writers Union set up a picket line around Coit Tower to protect the art.  Police barred access to Coit Tower, explaining that labor sympathizers might signal down to the longshoremen, who were in the midst of organizing the general strike that shut down the city in mid-July.  After much deliberation and argument, Wight’s three panels were removed (or painted over) by an unknown person, while the pieces by Arnautoff, Zakheim, and Howard remained untouched.  The murals were officially unveiled to a calmer public in October of 1934 (10).

Impoverished prospectors and wealthy tourists. From John Langley Howard’s “California Industrial Scenes.” Fresco, Coit Tower, 1934.

Upon my first visit, I was struck by the politics in the murals, which I think would still be the subject of controversy if the works had been publicly funded today.  Howard’s striking miners and starving prospectors, Zakheim’s inclusion of Marx, Fred Olmsted Jr.’s raised fist in flames above the exit: these may be realistic expressions of the era in which they were painted, but they are no less radical for having been timely.  Poverty, unemployment, anger, and inequality are hard to ignore in any era.  During the Great Depression, however, it must have been impossible to shut them out.

Pickers cut up apricots to dry in the sun. From Maxine Albro’s “California.” Fresco, Coit Tower, 1934.

In many places, however, the murals gloss over elements that would have been controversial or uncomfortable, and they idealize the policies of the U.S. government.  As Stephen Geiber points out, there are many depictions of the good old American values of hard work (5) and that celebrate the New Deal, such as an NRA blue eagle on a box of oranges.  Many laborers go about their tasks in idyllic, ordered settings, strengthening the economy and working for the future of America.  Lush rural scenes celebrate California’s agricultural bounty, with boxes overflowing with fresh produce.  Dairy farmers care for their cows and butchers prepare pig carcasses to feed the hungry masses.  Capable hands move along factory assembly lines.  Women’s and men’s roles are traditional and clearly delineated: women can in factories, shop and cook, and pluck flowers in the fields, while men work with steel, butcher pigs, and pick fruit.  The faces, overwhelmingly, are white, although that was not the reality of life in the Bay Area or across California in the 1930s.

A man scalds the bristles from a pig carcass. From Ray Bertrand’s “Meat Industry.” Fresco, Coit Tower, 1934.

The murals of Coit Tower also depict the daily lives of Californians outside of work.  Strong athletes vie against one another.  Hunters and hikers take advantage of the outdoors.  Families frolic in streams, while others gather together at home.  San Francisco plays a prominent role.  The chaos of Powell Street curves up a stairway to the second floor, with a cameo by Eleanor Roosevelt.  Firemen (from Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s No. 5, no less) and paramedics respond to a car accident, while hardworking men lower themselves into man holes and San Franciscans go about their business, rushing around the Embarcadero.

A family sings, plays, and dances. From Jane Berlandia’s “Home Life.” Egg tempera, Coit Tower, 1934.

In almost every mural, however, there are details that obliquely point to the hardships of the era.  In a curved section on the second floor, people sit down to a picnic of empty plates.  Children play, but their faces are grim and unsmiling.  Downstairs, bankers record falling stocks.  Policemen with guns guard vaults of money, and headlines allude to John Dillinger.  A man robs another at gunpoint.  While rich women in furs tour a Hooverville tent city, a poor family scrounges for gold in a river below a hydroelectric dam, their skin-and-bones mutt contrasting with a plump purebred.  Strip mining and oil wells deface the landscape.  Throughout Coit Tower, artists chose to illustrate the multifaceted realities of the lives of Californians in the early 1930s, which could be difficult yet fulfilling, self-serving or altruistic, full of pain and still full of happiness.

A stick-up. From Victor Arnautoff’s “City Life.” Fresco, Coit Tower, 1934.

The murals, unfortunately, are not in the best of shape.  Moisture, fingers, and a few careless workmen (or women) have damaged the walls.  The lighting is poor, and paint peels from the ceiling.  There is a little information inside on Lillie Hitchcock Coit and the murals but not nearly enough.  A new controversy has been brewing around preservation of Coit Tower and murals, with a ballot measure in June that would restrict a portion of its annual revenue (from the charge to ride the elevator) to revamp and protect the murals and tower.  Of course, the city Recreation and Parks Department is facing funding shortfalls, which complicates matters. Both sides have compelling points (12), but it is clear that more must be done to protect the murals and preserve their legacy.  They are one of San Francisco’s greatest treasures.  Beyond their artistic value, the murals of Coit Tower are important historical records that capture the reality and the spirit of California the 1930s and beyond: the politics, the hardships, the joys, and everything in between.

Part I on Coit Tower discusses the strange history of the Coit Tower memorial and fires in San Francisco.  

With many thanks to tour guide Peter O’Driscoll and the incredible (and free!) San Francisco City Guides tours.  The Coit Tower Murals tour provides fascinating details about Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower, and the murals that adorn its interior.  The tour also gives you access to the murals in the stairwell and on the second floor, which are otherwise closed to the public.  Go check it out–Wednesdays and Saturdays at 11AM at the main entrance to Coit Tower.  The Hitchcock Walking Tour is also awesome.

(1) Johnson, Mark Dean.  “California’s Collective Art Culture.” At Work: The Art of California Labor.  Ed. Mark Dean Johnson.  San Francisco: California Historical Society Press, 2003.  47-73.  Print. Page 47.  Kenneth Rexroth, as you may recall, was a grandfather of the Beats.  Maynard Dixon was famous for his American Indian/Western paintings but focused on Social Realism in the 1930s.  He was also married to photographer Dorothea Lange.  Bernard Zakheim and Victor Arnautoff both painted murals in Coit Tower, were overt Communists, and studied with Diego Rivera.

(2) Since neither author had enough information, I’ve put this fact together from two sources: Geiber, Stephen.  “California’s Not So Radical New Deal Murals.” Excerpt via Found SF from “Working to Prosperity: California’s New Deal Murals.”  California History Magazine.  Summer 1979: Vol. LVIII, No. 2.  Web.  29 March 2012.’s_Not_So_Radical_New_Deal_Murals.  Lemon, Isabelle.  “The WPA – The Stimulus Package of Its Day.”  Panorama, January-March 2010: Vol. 22, No. 1.  Via Found SF.  Web.  27 March 2012.

(3) Paddison, Joshua.  “The Great California Labor Art Movement.”  At Work: The Art of California Labor.  Ed. Mark Dean Johnson.  San Francisco: California Historical Society Press, 2003.  21-45.  Print.  Page 23.  The maritime strike will most certainly be the subject of another post–California labor is fascinating and has a long and influential history.

(4) Paddison, page 21.  Ray Strong’s quotation comes from a 1993 interview for the Smithsonian Oral History Archives.

(5) Geiber, Stephen.  “California’s Not So Radical New Deal Murals.” Excerpt via Found SF from “Working to Prosperity: California’s New Deal Murals.”  California History Magazine.  Summer 1979: Vol. LVIII, No. 2.  Web.  29 March 2012.’s_Not_So_Radical_New_Deal_Murals.  Geiber differentiates between Social Realism and the American Scene, writing that the former was primarily an urban, East Coast phenomenon, notably in New York City, and more political (read: pro-Communist).  The American Scene/Regionalism/ West Coast art of the time was focused on work and labor as a means to regain prosperity, not on politics, and that it was much more “provincial.”  Of course, the non-radicalism of Californian New Deal artworks is central to his entire thesis.  I don’t entirely buy it, though I think he does have some good points.

(6) Lemon, Isabelle.  “The WPA – The Stimulus Package of Its Day.”  Panorama, January-March 2010: Vol. 22, No. 1.  Via Found SF.  Web.  27 March 2012.

(7) Johnson, page 48.  The excerpt comes from a Rexroth article in the SF Examiner on 23 February 1964.

(8) Allday, Erin.  “Recalling the Creation of Coit Tower’s Murals.”  SF Gate: 5 March 2012.  Web.  20 March 2012.

(9) O’Driscoll, Peter.  ”Coit Tower Murals.”  San Francisco City Guides.  Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA.  21 March 2012.  Walking tour.

(10) Jewett, Masha Zakheim.  “Coit Tower Politics.”  Coit Tower: Its History and Art.  Via Found SF.  Web.  27 March 2012.  Ms. Jewett is the daughter of Bernard Zakheim.

(11) The description of Wight’s offending panels combined three sources.  Geiber, Stephen.  “Coit Tower.”  Excerpt via Found SF from “Working to Prosperity: California’s New Deal Murals.”  California History Magazine.  Summer 1979: Vol. LVIII, No. 2.  Web.  29 March 2012.  Jewett, Masha Zakheim.  “Coit Tower Politics.”  Coit Tower: Its History and Art.  Via Found SF.  Web.  27 March 2012.  O’Driscoll, Peter.  ”Coit Tower Murals.”  San Francisco City Guides.  Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA.  21 March 2012.  Walking tour.

(12)  It’s hard to know the right answer here.  Having worked for non-profits, I know the importance of having unrestricted funding so that you can put the money where it’s most needed.  On the other hand, the murals really should be protected, preserved, and, at the least, better lit (viewing is difficult and photography is almost impossible).  Some of the squawking reads like a bunch of wealthy, unreasonable neighbors (the Telegraph Hill Dwellers’ Association) wanting to save their parking spots.  Some of it sounds like the S.F. Recreation and Parks Department using Coit Tower as a cash cow without taking care of it.  If you’re interested, check out this PBS video and story and this L.A. Times article.  They’re the most level-headed.

Coit Tower: Part I

Early San Francisco was defined by its fires.  Although the 1906 earthquake and resulting inferno that destroyed the city is its most famous conflagration, San Francisco burned six times between Christmas Eve of 1849 and May 3, 1851.  We’ve been called a “city of fire freaks” (1), and the flag of the City of San Francisco depicts a phoenix rising from flames.

San Francisco Flag. Image by Makaristos, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Early stories of firefighting and fires in San Francisco take on the tinge of tall tales.  One 19th century firefighting group successfully married SF’s pyromania with its reputation for being the “Wettest of the West:” a  city that had one licensed bar for every 96 citizens in 1890, plus another 2,000 speakeasies operating under the radar (2).  The Social Company, as it was known, would carry cases of champagne to a blaze and chug the bubbly while aiming fire hoses (1).  One of my favorite accounts of firefighting efforts in SF comes from a New Deal-era Federal Writers Project guidebook to the city, which might be more than a little tinged with ethnic stereotyping:

When the fire of 1906 began to creep up the slopes of [Telegraph Hill], it was the Italians who saved it.  From their cellars they rolled out barrels of red wine and, forming a bucket brigade, protected their houses against the flames with blankets soaked in the wine.  The [North Beach] district has been theirs ever since… (3).

Truth or fiction, it’s an attractive visual, and one that is firmly within the San Franciscan fire-alcohol leitmotif.

It should come as no surprise, then, that one of SF’s most famous landmarks, Coit Tower, is a memorial to firefighters and was financed by one of our weirdest local eccentrics.  Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a socialite who married young to a much older man (4), was “literally, the patroness of all the firemen of her city,” as SF Fire Department Battalion Chief Frederick J. Bowlen remembered in 1939.  “Pretty and impulsive,” she won her way into the hearts of firefighters throughout the city when, at age fifteen, she helped pull the engine of the Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 up Telegraph Hill to combat a blaze.  Bowlen called it “the story of Jeanne d’Arc at Orleans, The Maid of Saragossa and Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary fame all over again.”  Made an honorary member of Knickerbocker in 1863, she wore her No. 5 badge with pride for the rest of her life (5).

Lillie Hitchcock Coit

Lillie Hitchcock Coit in 1862. Author unknown, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Coit reportedly monogrammed her underclothes with a “5,” signed her name “Lillie Hitchcock Coit 5,” and liked to take firemen out to dinners after they’d finished putting out the flames.  A well-loved member of high society (2), Coit would frequently dress as a man, gamble in North Beach, and smoke cigars (6).  When she died in 1929, she left a third of her estate to San Francisco, “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved” (5).  The top of Telegraph Hill was selected for a monument.


Lillie Hitchcock Coit's signature, c. 1890. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Before it became the site of Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill played an important role in the development of San Francisco.  It was a place to look out for incoming ships and housed a semaphore station, which used flags and wooden arms angled in different positions to signal the type of ship entering the port.  With the advent of the telegraph and the installation of a station in 1853, the hill earned its current name.  Wealthy citizens purchased the top of the hill and donated it to the city for the American Centennial in 1876, naming it Pioneer Park for the “first” settlers of the city (4).

Under pressure to develop the area, city officials (including John McLaren, who was the superintendent of Golden Gate Park for more than 50 years and had an immense influence on its development) allocated $118,000 from Lillie Coit’s benefaction to build a tower, which eventually cost $127,000 (4).  Designed by Arthur Brown Jr., the Art Deco-style Coit Tower is 210 feet tall (7) and consists of 3 nested concrete cylinders.  It was built in 1932-33 (8).  Although legend suggests that the tower was designed to look like the nozzle of a fire hose, several sources insist that this is untrue.

Coit Tower is an outstanding visual landmark in a city with few notable tall buildings (as friends have said while contemplating the cityscape, what would downtown SF be without Coit and the Transamerica Building?).  It’s an inescapable part of the city and has been immortalized in fiction, art, film, and pop culture.  In his 1958 poem “Dog,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti described the city from a dog’s perspective as he passed Coit Tower and then a Congressman from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  The dog found Coit Tower more frightening than the Congressman, “although what he hears is very discouraging / very depressing / very absurd / to a sad young dog like himself” (9).  In 2005, Bill O’Reilly infamously spotlit Coit Tower during a rant about an SF ballot measure that “urged” high schools and colleges to prohibit military campus recruiting in 2005. He said:

And if Al Qaeda comes in here and blows you up, we’re not going to do anything about it. We’re going to say, look, every other place in America is off limits to you, except San Francisco. You want to blow up the Coit Tower? Go ahead (10).

Coit Tower is also unavoidably phallic.  The Federal Writers Project description is one of the tamer ones: “And from the summit of the hill, banked in greenery, soars the gleaming white fluted shaft of Coit Tower” (3).  The Freudian imagery was not lost on Lucien Labaudt (he painted the gorgeous Powell Street murals in the Coit Tower stairway), who included a less-than-subtle depiction of Coit Tower architect Arthur Brown Jr. in his New-Deal-funded Beach Chalet murals at Golden Gate Park. While Labaudt’s sophomoric frescoes did not cause public outcry in the city, the earnest depictions of Depression-era California in the interior of Coit Tower did.  But more on that in an upcoming post.

Arthur Brown Jr. holds his plans for Coit Tower, with City Hall in the background. Portrait by Lucien Labaudt, from the Beach Chalet murals. Photo: Chris Carlsson, courtesy of Found SF. CC BY NC-SA 3.0.

In a city viewed by much of America, or perhaps just radio talk show hosts, as the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah and chock-full of unrepentant weirdos, I find it fitting that a defining piece of the cityscape brings the anatomical to mind.  It’s also more than a little germane that the tower could not have been built without the generosity of one of San Francisco’s greatest kooks, a woman embraced for her innumerable quirks by the city she loved.  Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill are reminders of the city’s strangeness, its dedication to public art and open space, and the difficult history that has shaped modern San Francisco.  Coit Tower is our Polaris, the point by which we measure our place and affix our eyes when caught in the back alleys of the city.


The next post on Coit Tower will discuss the murals in the interior of the building, which have a daunting history of their own.

With many thanks to tour guide Peter O’Driscoll and the incredible (and free!) San Francisco City Guides tours.  The Coit Tower Murals tour provides fascinating details about Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower, and the murals that adorn its interior.  The tour also gives you access to the murals in the stairwell and on the second floor, which are otherwise closed to the public.  Go check it out–Wednesdays and Saturdays at 11AM at the main entrance to Coit Tower.  The Hitchcock Walking Tour is also awesome.

(1) Dr. Weirde. “Lillie Coit’s Tribute to Pyromania.”  Via Found SF.  Web.  22 March 2012.’s_Tribute_to_Pyromania.

(2) Montanarelli, Lisa and Ann Harrison.  Strange But True San Francisco.  Guilford, CT: Insider’s Guide, 2005. Print.  Citations come from:  “The Wettest of the West” (page 112), “Gin-Soaked City” (page 41), and “Lillie Hitchcock Coit 5 and her Fire Fighting Fetish” (pages 149-151).

(3) Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration.  “Latin Quarter: Telegraph Hill and North Beach.”  San Francisco in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.  Print.  Citations from pages 238, 242.  The original guide was published in 1940.

(4) O’Driscoll, Peter.  “Coit Tower Murals.”  San Francisco City Guides.  Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA.  21 March 2012.  Walking tour.

(5) Bowlen, Frederick J.  “Elizabeth Wyche “Lillie” Hitchcock Coit.”  San Francisco Chronicle, 30 May 1939.  Via the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.  Web.  22 March 2012.  Although I assume most readers will be familiar with Joan of Arc/Jeanne d’Arc (if not: to Wikipedia with you!), I had to look up the other two women Bowlen mentioned.  The Maid of Saragossa was Agustina de Aragon, a Spanish resistance fighter who shot cannons and guns at the French during the Napoleonic siege of Zaragoza in 1808.  Molly Pitcher may have been Mary Ludwig Hays, who followed her husband onto the battlefield during the Revolutionary War, carrying water to the soldiers and taking over her husband’s cannon firing duties when he collapsed at the Battle of Monmouth.

(6) Snyder, John.  “Coit Memorial Tower.”  San Francisco Secrets.  San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999.  Print.

(7) King, John.  “Coit Tower: Slender, Steep, and Still Turning Heads.”  SF Gate, 18 March 2012.  Web.  22 March 2012.

(8) Peterson, Art.  “An Overdue Honor for Coit Tower.”  The Semaphore [San Francisco] Winter 2008: Issue 182.  Web PDF.  22 March 2012.  Page 14.

(9) Ferlinghetti, Lawrence.  “Dog.”  San Francisco Poems.  San Francisco: City Lights, 2001.  Print.  Pages 37-40.

(10) MMTV.  “O’Reilly to San Francisco: ‘[I]f Al Qaeda comes in here and blows you up, we’re not going to do anything about it. … You want to blow up the Coit Tower?  Go ahead.”  Media Matters, 10 November 2005.  Web.  24 March 2012.

Safeway Safeway

When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?

-Allen Ginsberg, America

I was driving around the northern end of town this week, buying groceries piecemeal (each supermarket holding the key to some, never all, of the random ingredients I may need on a weekly basis), and stressing, as always, about what to write.  I hadn’t done enough research on labor art in San Francisco to feel comfortable with a post, I was deeply immersed in the Beats but didn’t want to go double or nothing on that front, and Sir Francis Drake warranted, I thought, a trip out to the Marin Headlands for photos.  Around two o’clock, I wandered into the Marina Safeway for that last pesky item: a lemongrass stalk.  And I walked out with a story.

The Marina Safeway is known in San Francisco lore as “Singles Safeway” or “Dateway,” and it is, according to many, the best place for heterosexuals of a certain type to shop for both produce and a date.  Immortalized by Armistead Maupin (just read the books already; you’ll learn so much), Dateway is where the Marina set goes to get down.  When they’re not in the Triangle, of course.  In Tales of the City, Maupin sends a new-to-the-city and very reluctant Mary Ann Singleton  to the “Social Safeway” at the insistence of her heart-of-gold, good-time-having friend, Connie:

“Safeway, dink.  As in supermarket.”

“That’s what I thought you said.  You sure know how to show a girl a good time.”

“For your information, dink, Social Safeway just happens to be…well, it’s just the…big thing, that’s all.”

“For those who get off on groceries.”

“For those who get off on men, hon.  It’s a local tradition.  Every Wednesday night.  And you don’t even have to look like you’re on the make.” (1)

Maupin’s first installment of the serialized Tales of the City (in the Chronicle) was published in 1976, so Dateway has been around since the mid 70s at least.  The Marina Safeway was opened in 1959 and is the definitive design for the “Marina style” of Safeway supermarkets that were built over the next decade: an arched entrance, with full windows on the front (2).  The Marina style feels a bit mega-church-y, and given Americans’ relationship with food, I’d say that’s an apt sentiment.  The east side of the building features a beautiful four-panel mosaic by John Garth that depicts food cultivation and its transportation from around the world to the Marina Safeway.  It’s worth a look if you happen to be around Fort Mason (if we’re putting this in Michelin Green Guide speak, it’d be one star: interesting but not worth a diversion or a trip).

A favorite detail from Garth's mosaic: it encapsulates so much era-appropriate exoticism. And notice the Safeway logo on the bag? Details, my friends.

Many Bay Area publications have covered the Dateway scene, with young, mostly female writers going “undercover” to glean the truth about this mythical place.  Beth Spotswood from the SF Gate describes a supermarket full of good-looking young people in expensive workout clothes and a few old codgers focused on punishing express check-out rule breakers, of whom she was one (3).  That sounds about right.  Heather Smith of the SF Bay Guardian puts Dateway on a level with the city’s alternative cultures: “San Francisco has a reputation for bathhouses, orgies, people in latex flogging each other, and Safeway pickups […]” (4).  Given the Marina’s vanilla status (in comparison with the rest of SF), I consider that high praise.  After searching for dates at other local Safeways, Violet Blue theorizes:

Maybe the Marina Safeway was built over the site of an Ohlone sex cult or the former location of an exceedingly decadent Barbary Coast brothel, and the spirits of rowdy sailors, bawdy babes in breeches and corsets and hard-up fortune seeking prospectors fondle the cantaloupes and caress the canned peaches at midnight (5).

I can say from my own anthropological observations that most of this is true.  On the occasions when I’ve gone in the evening, I’ve watched more than a few pick-ups (never me; I don’t linger in the produce section or own any Lululemon).  It’s sort of unbelievable to hear that one of the prime date-getting spots in town is a grocery store–until you see it with your own eyes.  Sometimes I want to bring popcorn.  However, I do most of my grocery shopping in the late morning or early afternoon, which brings in a different demographic entirely: the much older Marina retiree holdouts, remnants of a different culture.  They’re octogenarians, mostly, and I stick out.  I help reach for things on shelves (this is beyond laughable; I’m 5’2) and nod politely during check-out conversations about how I must be the same age as a grandson–which, I’m thinking, brings the Dateway experience to a whole new level.

I love the sexualized milkmaid, the dog sledding, the Brawny Man double, and the suit approving the strawberries. I wonder whether this mural was a subtle pro-worker, pro-Third-World-ism statement or a true celebration of American capitalism and neo-colonialism.

It was one of those check-out line conversations, however, that inspired this post.  After drawing me into a mutual rant about those renegades who Break The Rules In The Express Line (I’m 80 years old at heart, get off my lawn, etc.), a very nice older gentleman launched into a few stories about the Marina Safeway and his experiences in the city.  A former Marina resident who now lives in “the Avenues” (the Western, residential expanse of the city), he ended up in San Francisco “by accident.”  After fighting in Korea, he landed in the city (along with a lot of other recent vets; I’ll write about the effect of returning soldiers on the city another time) and longed to stay for a few days.  Unfortunately, the government wouldn’t pay for his return ticket unless he left for home immediately, and so SF was put on hold.  Years later, he traveled to Los Angeles and rented a car to visit a relative in San Francisco.  Driving off the 280 into the city, he saw a cable car coming over the hill and “that was it” (6).

He also talked about Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s first visit to the United States in September 1959.  The visit was the result of a diplomatic snafu, and Eisenhower could not rescind his invitation once accepted (the visit was supposed to be contingent on a deal over West Berlin that never materialized, but that part of the invitation was omitted inadvertently).  San Francisco was among the places that Khrushchev selected to tour; his request to visit Disneyland, however, was denied.  At almost every turn, Khrushchev asserted: “We have it better in the Soviet Union,” apart from hot dogs and the baggage lockers at Union Station in Washington, DC (7).


Nikita Khrushchev pets a prize Holstein in Beltsville, MD, with Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, via USDAgov's Flickr page, CC BY 2.0.

My check-out line acquaintance, however, told me a bit more.  While in SF, Khrushchev was supposed to view the brand-new Marina Safeway–a paragon of American plenty, efficiency, and affluence.  The place was dusted, scrubbed, and arranged to put capitalism in its best light: my acquaintance went there to shop a few days later, and “everything was immaculate.”  Sensing a “put-up job, (and maybe it was),” Khrushchev scrapped the visit, making an unscheduled stop at an unprepared supermarket down on the Peninsula instead.  The mere sight of the car-filled parking lot was enough for Khrushchev to admit that “we were ahead” of the USSR (6).  True or not, when he returned to Soviet Russia a few weeks later, Khrushchev landed in Vladivostok and announced that the Eastern Russian city would be built up and developed, made into “our San Francisco” (8).  Something must’ve made an impression.

(1) Maupin, Armistead.  Tales of the City.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1978.  Print. Page 14.

(2) Unfortunately, the most legitimate source I could find for this was Wikipedia’s entry on Safeway, Inc.; however, the “Marina-style” term appears to be in use in various places on the Internet.

(3) Spotswood, Beth.  “I Got in a Fight at the Marina Safeway.”  SF Gate, 7 March 2007.  Web.  16 February 2012.

(4) Smith, Heather.  “Strangers in the Night: Bars, Cheap Sex, and Boozy Anthropology.”  SF Bay Guardian, 16-22 June 2004: Vol. 38, No. 38.  Web.  16 February 2012.

(5) Blue, Violet.  “Shopping for Sex at the Supermarket.”  SF Gate 6 July 2007.  Web.  16 February 2012.

(6) Anonymous man at Safeway.  Personal interview, notes.  San Francisco: 15 February 2012.

(7) Stewart, Alison.  “‘K Blows Top:’ Reliving Khrushchev’s American Tour.”  Weekend Edition, NPR News, 21 June 2009.  Audio and Web.  More on Khrushchev’s displeasure at being barred from Disneyland here.  Bonus photo: Cosmonaut Gherman Titov at the Marina Safeway in 1962.

(8) Filatova, Irina.  “Vladivostok: Khrushchev’s San Francisco.”  The Moscow Times, date unknown.  Web.  16 February 2012.  Although I could not find the date for this piece, I assume, based on comments below the article and on the subject, that it was published in late 2011.

Beat It On Down the Line

“San Francisco has always been a breeding ground for bohemian countercultures; its cosmopolitan population, its tolerance of eccentricity, and its provincialism and distance from the centers of national culture and political power have long made it an ideal place for non-conformist writers, artists, and utopian dreamers” (1).

Writing about the Beats is a daunting task.  It’s been done so many times before, and the definition of Beat as a philosophy, poetic movement, lifestyle, what have you, is as mutable as the list of writers and thinkers who might fall under its banner.  But one cannot write about San Francisco and avoid the Beats.  Their fingerprints are everywhere: when you come to your senses, bleary-eyed and tired, over a brew in a dingy North Beach dive, and just as much in the breathless tourist traps in that same neighborhood.  The Haight would not exist without them, and neither, in some ways, would the Castro.  They are in San Franciscans’ love for the absurd, our antiauthoritarian streak, the earnest cries for a better society.  And they officially put down their mark, according to fact and fiction, at the Six Gallery Reading at 3119 Fillmore on Friday, October 7, 1955, when Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading of Howl.

The Six Gallery, c. 1957. Photo: C.R. Snyder, courtesy of Found SF, CC BY NC-SA 3.0.

I pass by what was once the Six Gallery on a weekly basis, and I’ve eaten at Tacko, which now occupies its space, more than a few times (delicious and inauthentic carnitas tacos).  There’s a plaque outside commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the reading.  In a 1974 interview, the artist Wally Hedrick discussed the importance of Six Gallery in the art scene: existing outside of the mainstream art school or gallery system, it allowed for self-teaching and experimentation with unaccepted techniques and forms.  Hedrick remembered that before it was Six, it was the King Ubu, where the city’s first jazz poems were read.  The gallery was a narrow, ramshackle place, Hedrick explained, “like a bowling alley” (2).  When I visited the site last week, I noticed the address 3119 no longer exists: I guess that whoever bought up 3119 snatched up a couple of other parcels as well, knocking down the wall and destroying the last vestiges of Six Gallery.  Such is city life.

Allen Ginsberg on the Six Gallery Reading Commemorative Plaque

The accounts of the Six Gallery Reading differ, and without photographs, film, or sound recordings, we can only sift through the stories of flaky, wine-drunk, pot-smoking, sometimes self-effacing and other times self-aggrandizing poets, writers, artists, and hangers-on.  The flyers (written by Allen Ginsberg) for the “charming event” list a “remarkable collection of angels on one stage:” Philip Lamantia (reading John Hoffman’s poems), Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and, of course, Allen Ginsberg.  Kenneth Rexroth emceed (3).  It was Michael McClure’s first public reading, and in his 1982 collection of essays and poems Scratching the Beat Surface, the scene is of “a hundred and fifty enthusiastic people” listening as Ginsberg read in a “small and intensely lucid voice,” with Jack Kerouac chanting “GO” and jugfuls of wine floating around the room.  McClure recollected the oppressive feeling of the Cold War mainstream culture and what Howl did to shatter it, for this group of poets:

In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before–we had gone beyond a point of no return–and we were ready for it, for a point of no return.  None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void–to the land without poetry–to the spiritual drabness.  We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it.  We wanted voice and we wanted vision (4).

In The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac’s semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical account of his life among the Beats on the West Coast, learning the ins and outs of Zen from Gary Snyder, he writes that he “followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at Gallery Six that night, which was, among other important things, the night of the birth of San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.”  He takes credit for the success of the evening:

It was a mad night.  And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience…and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o’clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem “Wail” drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling “Go! Go! Go!” (like a jam session)…

For Kerouac, the standout of the evening was not Alvah Goldbook/Allen Ginsberg but rather Gary Snyder (AKA Japhy Ryder), who made “them all howl with joy” (5) with A Berry Feast.  The 2010 film Howl depicts James Franco’s Allen Ginsberg preaching to a right-on, tittering and nodding crowd, passing wine jugs but refraining from jam session whoops.  The Beat literati look on, eyes shining (6).  A few months later, Ginsberg read Howl and America at the Town Hall Theatre in Berkeley, in March 1956.  A recording of America in the excellent In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry reveals a hooting and laughing crowd, clearly in on the joke, as Ginsberg spins out his much more irreverent (but still deadly serious) lines (7).

Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg

Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1959. Courtesy of orionpozo, CC BY 2.0

Regardless of what actually happened that night, the Six Gallery Reading and Howl captured the zeitgeist of a generation on the cusp.  Howl uses a language known to a select underground group, which would become the Beats or the Counterculture or whatever.  It pushes linguistic boundaries that remain in place today–to the point where I covered a page with my hand while reading the poem in a coffee shop (I was sitting next to an elderly woman).  It was, of course, the subject of an obscenity trial that catapulted City Lights, Ferlinghetti, and Ginsberg to national fame.  But I’ll write of that another day.

Howl’s power, its rawness, are still fresh.  There are difficult, almost inaccessible moments, repetitions that dull the poem on the page but that are much more effective when spoken aloud.  I used the term preach above to describe the way in which Franco read the poem intentionally: this is a sermon, McClure’s point of no return, a foundational text, a fulcrum.  It’s as full of rage against a dehumanizing establishment–society at large as much as the mental health system–as it is full of joy.

Howl is unapologetic and uncompromising: a frank depiction of homosexuality, heterosexuality, pansexuality, drug use, mental illness, jazz, alienation, loss, and gain.  Take a look for yourself.  The footnote brings the poem to an uplifting close, where “Everything is holy,” from the “groaning saxophone,” to “the asshole,” to “Allen” himself (8).  Nancy J. Peters writes:  “As Allen Ginsberg often claimed, candor–the expression of authentic personal experience–was foremost, and beat work helped to bring private life into public discourse” (1).  By stripping himself naked for the crowd at Six Gallery (and later, the nation), by talking about personal experiences that were previously left unsaid, Ginsberg challenged the prevailing order and announced that things could, and should, be different.  That this poem was written, read, and published in the Bay Area speaks to the freedom that Ginsberg felt when he moved out to San Francisco.  To me, it seems that Howl could not have been created and unveiled anywhere else.

(1) Peters, Nancy J.  “The Beat Generation and San Francisco’s Culture of Dissent.”  Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, and Culture.  Ed. James Brook, Chris Carlsson, and Nancy J. Peters.  San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998.  Print.  Page 199 and 212.  Emphasis in the second quotation is my own.

(2) Karlstrom, Paul.  Oral history interview with Wally Hedrick.  San Geronimo, California: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, June 10-24, 1974.  Web transcript.  9 February 2012.

(3) Ginsberg, Allen.  “6 Poets at 6 Gallery.”  San Francisco: October 1955.  Via the Allen Ginsberg Project.  Web.  9 February 2012.

(4) McClure, Michael.  “The Beat Surface.”  Scratching the Beat Surface.  Berkeley: North Point Press, 1982.  Print.  Pages 11-13.

(5) Kerouac, Jack.  The Dharma Bums.  New York: Penguin Books, 1991.  Print.  Pages 13-14.  The book was first published by Viking Press in 1958.

(6) Howl.  Dir. Rob Epstein and Jerry Friedman.  Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2010.  Film.

(7) Ginsberg, Allen.  “America.”  In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry.  Rhino/Whea, 1996.  CD.  Disc 2, track 33.  A very short clip of Ginsberg’s reading of Howl at the same March 1956 Berkeley event can be heard here.

(8) Ginsberg, Allen.  “Howl.”  Howl and Other Poems.  San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956.  Web version available here, with footnote here.