Tracing Jack Kerouac’s footsteps in San Francisco, Part 1

from the Artsology series The Arts Adventurer

I'm a big fan of Jack Kerouac and the Beats, so a trip to San Francisco brought out my curiosity as to where in the city did Kerouac hang out? Kerouac made several visits to San Francisco but never lived there, other than a short period when he worked on the Southern Pacific Railroad as a brakeman and had an extended stay in a hotel near the train station. But when he did come to town on his various cross-country journeys, he did have a number of favorite places that he frequented. There are numerous guides and articles identifying these places, but I wanted to see if I could come up with a path that he might have taken on any given day and actually spend a few hours tracing those footsteps.

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Jack Kerouac alley in San Francisco

I decided to start at City Lights Bookstore, on Columbus Avenue in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Kerouac was friends with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights, which was a gathering place for a number of the Beat writers at the time.

One could say that Ferlinghetti figured prominently in the development of one of Kerouac's novels, because he let Kerouac stay at his cabin in Big Sur, where Kerouac wrote his book of the same name, Big Sur, which was published in 1962. At any rate, the picture at right shows City Lights Bookstore as it appears now and as it appeared back in the 1950s when Kerouac would have been around.

City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco - current and vintage pictures of it

For a fan of Kerouac and the Beats, looking around the bookstore is fun ... they have a huge collection of original titles by Beat writers, as well as books on Beat-related topics and the history of The Beat Generation. They also have a number of large reproductions of vintage book covers hanging on the walls (see at right), such as this 1976 Corgi Books edition of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Len Deighton's cover for On The Road which was used for the British first edition of the book in 1958.

Considering Kerouac's penchant for drinking, it's not a huge surprise that one of his favorite San Francisco bars (Vesuvio) is next door to City Lights Bookstore. It's interesting to note that in 1988, Ferlinghetti wanted to honor Kerouac's history in San Francisco, and so he petitioned the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to transform the alleyway separating the bookstore from the bar and rename it "Jack Kerouac Alley," as seen in the picture of the street sign at the top of this post. A side note here - the "(Adler)" listed under Kerouac's name on the street sign refers to the original name of this alley that connects Columbus Avenue to Grant Avenue.

William Burroughs Naked Lunch and Jack Kerouac On The Road

Below left I have a picture looking down Jack Kerouac Alley from Columbus Avenue, with Vesuvio on the left. Below right the picture shows my view as I'm leaving City Lights and approaching the alley and Vesuvio - I'm including this view here because on the day that I was there, the alley had a number of guys hanging out, sitting on the ground, drinking, playing music, and a few were panhandling. If you look closely at my picture below right, you can a guy "fishing" for spare change, with his cup hanging from a fishing pole, hoping people will drop in a few coins ... I thought that was a pretty funny approach in asking for money.

view of Vesuvio Bar in San Francisco from the viewpoint of Jack Kerouac Alley next to City Lights Bookstore

a panhandler fishing for change in the Jack Kerouac Alley between City Lights and Vesuvio

Go inside Vesuvio with us and see one of Kerouac's favorite watering holes.

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