The first time I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti was unforgettable: It was early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and Elizabeth Farnsworth and I were working on a story about him for the PBS NewsHour.

As surreal news trickled in of planes crashing in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the crew and I continued to set up the lights and cameras while Ferlinghetti floated in and out of the room, offering stoic yet witty commentary.

Shortly after that  morning, he composed “History of the Airplane,” a prose piece inspired by the attacks. Here’s an excerpt:

And they kept flying and flying until they flew right into the 21st

century and then one fine day a Third World struck back and

stormed the great planes and flew them straight into the beating

heart of Skyscraper America where there were no aviaries and no

parliaments of doves and in a blinding flash America became a part

of the scorched earth of the world

So, when KQED conceived of its Boomtown series, which seeks to put the Bay Area’s current boom-and-bust cycle in context, I thought who better to turn to than Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to reflect on the changes that gentrification and technology have made in his beloved city.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, pictured in 1959, at the age of 40. (Courtesy of City Lights Bookstore)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, pictured in 1959, at the age of 40. (Courtesy of City Lights Bookstore)

Ever since the iconic poet, painter and publisher helped spark a literary renaissance in the 1950s with the “Beat” movement, Ferlinghetti has served as a conscience for San Franciscans, especially when times are tough.

When Ferlinghetti arrived in the city in 1951 from New York, he settled into a $65/month apartment in the Italian working-class neighborhood of North Beach. That was the beginning of his journey to put San Francisco on the world’s countercultural map by publishing the work of beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

With $29/month rent for a massive art studio, “it seemed as ideal as any city could be for an artist or writer … a city small enough for human conviviality and large enough for intense creative ferment, with a metropolitan sensibility,” he wrote in a 2001 prose piece titled “The Poetic City That Was.”

But 64 years after arriving in San Francisco, despite his status as a literary legend, the 95-year-old co-owner of the renowned City Lights bookshop and publishing house says he doesn’t feel so at home in the city by the bay anymore. He complains of a “soulless group of people” too busy with their phones to “be here” in the moment.

“A new brand of dot.com millionaires and generally Silicon Valley money moved into San Francisco with bags full of cash and no manners and very little education in the great culture of Western civilization,” he told us when we went to visit him at his North Beach apartment last month.

Beat poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti will turn 96 in March. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)
Beat poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti will turn 96 in March. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

“In 1951 I had the feeling walking up Market Street … that the general attitude was that San Francisco really wasn’t part of the United States. They were sort of an offshore republic. … But that’s not the case anymore,” he told us.

“Now it’s like the rest of the country. Our city is like all the other cities. We’ve lost that feeling of being a unique place. I think the electronic revolution has caused that. So with the Internet it becomes flat earth. We’re living in the flat earth now.”

The George Krevsky Gallery in downtown San Francisco, which had shown Ferlinghetti’s work for two decades, was forced out of its building to make way for a cloud computing startup called MuleSoft.

Krevsky now sells most of his artwork online — out of his home in the Oakland Hills. Some of Ferlinghetti’s works can be seen at Live Worms, a gallery on upper Grant Avenue, one of the few parts of North Beach that still feels bohemian.

As part of its “Legends of the Bay Area” series, the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art in Novato is hosting a retrospective exhibition of Ferlinghetti’s art work through April 5.

Last Saturday, at an opening night reception, Ferlinghetti thanked the museum director for the exhibit and noted that it was “nicely hung.”

“I know that has a connotation,” he told the crowd, “and I’ll leave it at that.”

A day after our interview, Ferlinghetti left me a voicemail expressing concern that he struck too negative a tone and invited us back to his apartment for a second take. He wanted me and our audience to know that he still has hope.

“There’s always hope in love. Love and hate are viruses. Love can make a civilization bloom and hate can kill a civilization,” he told us when we returned. Then he read this poem:

“Recipe For Happiness Khaborovsk Or Anyplace

One grand boulevard with trees

with one grand cafe in sun

with strong black coffee in very small cups.

One not necessarily very beautiful

man or woman who loves you.

One fine day.

Curious about the boom/bust cycle that is reshaping the Bay Area? Check out our Boomtown series.

  • atworkforu

    Yeah, and when the hippies, beatnics, draft dodgers, and pot smokers moved in, the longshoremen and seamstresses were pissed off. Get over yourself.

  • paul

    What a crank. San Francisco is changing, get over it. The city still as vibrant and creative as it ever was, except now young ambitious people are in tech. I’m sick of the older generations picking on millennials. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

  • theliberator

    So sick of these stories. The bottom line is that most native San Franciscans are blubbering hypocrites. They are all about “change”, unless they have to change. Adapt or die.

    • alrui

      They guy bemoans people with bags of $ yet who patronized his store over the years – homeless? NOT!

  • bkalafut

    Ferlinghetti is the part owner of City Lights yet complains that techies don’t know the great history of Western civilization? The garbage they promote and peddle there–critical theory, deconstructionism, victim ideology, high and low Marxism–is the reason why many get zero real education in the history of our civilization. Physician, heal thyself!

    • Matt V

      “critical theory, deconstructionism, victim ideology, high and low Marxism”is why many get zero real education? LMAO you need to stop yourself before you sound any stupider. critical theory and thinking is exactly what is being left out of schools so that students are left to be cogs in giant industrial wheels instead of intellectuals, innovators, and problem solvers.

      • bkalafut

        Always the ignorant man calling something he doesn’t understand “stupid.” “Critical theory” is a kind of phony approach to philosophy–devised in Frankfurt by Marxists to promote Marxism–which has its users in effect looking at the world through stencils and describing what gets through what part. It is a large part of what passes for “philosophy” on the European continent (think Marcuse, Gramsci, Habermas, etc.), sloppy, soul-killing, intellect-stunting, society-wrecking nonsense compared to the enlightening work of “Analytic” philosophers of the English speaking world.

        To conflate this with “critical thinking” is laughable.

        Critical Theory produces hordes of Mireille Miller-Young types who know how to work themselves up into offense at imaginary slights–the opposite of “intellectuals”.

        You, Mr. V, are the one who should resolve to stop being stupid and learn enough so you stop thinking reasonable things sound stupid. Or perhaps you are working out of the Saul Alinsky playbook and have just been caught in it. If that’s the case, “Sorry Sir, it won’t happen again” would be an OK response.

  • Mpass

    Surprised at the knee jerk reactions to this piece. There is some truth to what he is saying, even if folks don’t like how he said it.

  • Nick

    Ferlinghetti is an SF original. A real patron of the Arts who helped put this city on the map culturally. Sure, he comes off a bit cranky in the video — but he isn’t wrong. And writing him off wholesale is failing to appreciate what it means to be San Franciscan in my humble opinion.

  • Paul

    This guy moved to San Francisco at age 32, displaced some Italian immigrants in North Beach and decided he knew what was best for the city. Substitute 22 for 32, Mexican for Italian and Mission for North Beach. Everything old is new again.

  • saintlennybruce

    In 2001, 600k tech workers left the Bay Area, about 10% of the regional population. None of them thought they would be the one to lose their job when the boom went bust. Tech workers have been integral to Bay Area society for decades, so before getting knee-jerk defensive when a long-time resident expresses frustration with “tech a**holes”, take a moment to consider that they may just dislike a**holes, not all techies. Unless you identify as an a**hole…

    • alrui

      The guy is an a**hole himself!

  • salvatp

    you deserve your props my brother. As awesome as longshoreman and seamstresses are they didn’t put S.F. on the map you did. And it wasn’t economic it was cultural….thank you

  • Brian

    This is no country for old men. That’s what the book was about. atworkforu is on-point.

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