Tag Archives: Ferlinghetti

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.  http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=Lillie_Coit’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.  http://www.sfmuseum.net/hist1/h-coit.html.  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.  http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/03/17/BAVC1NM7A9.DTL.

(8) Peterson, Art.  “An Overdue Honor for Coit Tower.”  The Semaphore [San Francisco] Winter 2008: Issue 182.  Web PDF.  22 March 2012.  Page 14.  http://www.thd.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Winter-2008-Semaphore-Issue-182.pdf.

(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.  http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/200511100008.


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.  http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-wally-hedrick-12869

(3) Ginsberg, Allen.  “6 Poets at 6 Gallery.”  San Francisco: October 1955.  Via the Allen Ginsberg Project.  Web.  9 February 2012.  http://www.allenginsberg.org/index.php?page=6-poets-at-6-gallery-fliers

(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.