The alley is between Columbus and Stockton, just off Broadway in North Beach, the city’s Italian district. It’s worth a visit, beginning with City Lights Bookstore, which borders the alley on the north side. City Lights is itself a beatnik era landmark, still vibrant today, which was founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a free spirit himself who was a friend of Kerouac’s and a fine poet.
The bookstore holds readings and publishes books, something it has been doing since 1955, when it published Ferlinghetti’s poetry collection, Pictures of the Gone World. A special 60th anniversary edition of Pictures will come out in the fall. (Another Ferlinghetti collection worth exploring: the wondrous Coney Island of the Mind.) Be sure to go downstairs in the shop where the likes of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, William Burroughs and other poets hung out, and where their books are displayed for sale.
Jack Kerouac Alley is very short, perhaps 75 feet long, lined by colorfully painted walls and buildings with fire escapes. A pot of flowers hangs from one of the light poles. On a recent Saturday afternoon T-shirts and other clean clothes were drying on a fire escape.
Pavement blocks in the alley contain inspirational quotes by Ferlinghetti, John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou and other writers. On the Chinatown side of the alley—Grant is one of the main thoroughfares of Chinatown—there is a saying in English and Chinese. It says, “In the company of best friends, there is never enough wine.” The central quote in the alley is by Kerouac. Unlike the other sayings, which are engraved on squares, Kerouac’s words go round in a circle because, as everyone knows, the author of Desolation Angels and Dharma Bums was no square.
(For a soundless—and yet playful—16-second circular walk around Kerouac’s pavement quotation, see the video above. But don’t get dizzy.)
On the south side of the alley opposite City Lights is Vesuvio, one of the city’s many fine drinking establishments and another beat era landmark. After all the walking you’ve done in the alley, stop in to rest your feet and have a drink. Both Kerouac and Neal Cassady, the inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in On The Road, drank there, and pictures and news clippings about the pair cover the walls, as do stuff about the other beatnik luminaries as well as movie stars such as Gene Hackman and Daryl Hannah who have shot films in the alley or at Vesuvio.
Anywhere is a good place to sit but upstairs you might find a window seat where you can look out on the passing North Beach scene. Across the street is Tosca, another fine old San Francisco drinking establishment, and just down Columbus is the Café Zoetrope, Francis Coppola’s restaurant with its brilliant red awnings on the ground floor of the unique and brilliantly green Sentinel Building. It’s a cool scene. If the beats were around today, they’d dig it.—Kevin Nelson