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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
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The Poetic City That Was
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
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The painter,who thought he was Stephan Dedalus in James Joycežs Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man setting forth to articulate the uncreated conscience of his race, saw San Francisco for the first time from the deck of an Oakland ferry some fifty years ago.
     He had come overland by coach train from New York, having left Barcelona just a few weeks before. Hežd been in Spain for several years on the G.I. Bill, learning the language and attending art school. And someone there had told him that San Francisco was the most European city, the most Italian city, the most polyglot city, the most bohemian city in America, except for Greenwich Village. He had no inclination to return to the heartless stone canyons of Manhattan where the art establishment seemed as entrenched as in Europe with no footholds offered to the young and unknown. And anyway, being a red wine addict, he was attracted by the rumor of San Francisco as the center of the only real wine region in the United States. "All those dagos," someone had told him, "theyžre not going anywhere where you canžt grow wine." That was enough for him, and to hell with the rest of wineless America.
     Fifty years ago the city seemed an ideal place for a poet and artist to live, especially one who considered himself a kind of expatriate. He was to learn much later how so many poets and artists in America increasingly saw themselves as expatriates in their own country, a country in which the "subjective," or the "inner self," was increasingly under attack in a ravenous consumer society. In fact, Henry Miller had prophesied it all in his Air Conditioned Nightmare, written upon his shocked return to the U.S. after many years in France. "Another breed of men has taken over," quoth Henry, or words to that effect. Greed would be king, but that wasnžt evident in 1950s San Francisco, as our anti-hero prepared to land on the Barbary Coast.
     Approaching the Ferry Building, he stood on deck and saw a small shining white city, looking rather like Tunis seen from seaward, a Mediterranean city, with small white houses on hillsides, brilliant in January sunshine. Near the Ferry Building there were some larger, mostly white buildings that he later learned to call "highrises" -- not really qualifying as skyscrapers by New York standards. And their clean sharp shadows had the look of early morning, though it was already past noon. It seemed an early morning city, rising up the hills, the air itself flashing with sunlight -- that special San Francisco January light, so different from the pearly light of Paris beloved by painters.
     He was the first off the ferry, with no idea where to go, except up. The city rose up before him as he started up Market Street, his sea bag over his shoulder, paint box underarm, still wearing his Basque beret.
     He walked and walked and walked that day, and got the impression that the natives had a kind of island mentality, considering themselves San Franciscans first, on an island which wasnžt necessarily a part of the United States. He felt right at home from the first. It seemed as ideal as any city could be for an artist or writer, perhaps like Athens at the height of Greek culture, or Dublin at the time of the Irish Renaissance-- a city small enough for human conviviality and large enough for intense creative ferment, with a metropolitan sensibility.
     It took him some time to discover North Beach, the Italian and bohemian center of the city. But in a few days he found a big sunny flat for $65 a month and a huge painting studio for $29. There was no electricity above the ground floor, and he had a pot-bellied stove for heat. There was a whole new school of poets brewing, and there were pioneering artists around the School of Fine Arts who later became famous as San Francisco Figurative painters and abstract expressionists. It was the last frontier, and they were dancing on the edge of the world.
     Fifty years later, he awoke one fine morning like Rip Van Winkle and found himself again with his sea bag on his shoulder, looking for anywhere he could live and work. The new owners of his old flat now wanted $2500 a month, and his studio was $3000 plus. Many of his friends were also evicted, for it seemed their buildings werenžt owned by San Franciscans anymore but by faceless investors with venture capital. Corporate monoculture had wiped out any unique sense of place, turning the "island-city" into an artistic theme-park without artists. And he was on the street.

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