C.R. Snyder’s photographs of North Beach circa-1959 capture the vibrance and diversity at the height of the Beat era.
When we first came to San Francisco in 2006, The Beat Museum occupied two different small spaces in North Beach, each for three months, before we were able to settle into our current location across the street from City Lights. The first was at 1345 Grant Avenue in the old Figone Hardware store where the Live Worms Gallery is located today. The second was at the old Del Monte Cannery near Ghiradelli Square.
One day in April, 2006, while we were still at the Cannery, a man named Bob walked in and showed us some photographs he’d taken of North Beach back in 1958 and 1959. I recognized a few of the pictures because they’d been used on the covers of some Beat books that had been published in the 1990s, and credited to C.R. Snyder. But the vast majority of what Charles Robert (“Bob”) Snyder showed me that day I had never seen—and nor has anyone else.
A few months after we’d moved into our third San Francisco location at Broadway and Columbus, Bob brought us a gift—some pictures from inside the Six Gallery where Allen Ginsberg had read “Howl” for the very first time. They are the only pictures of the inside of the Six I have ever seen.
Sadly, Bob Snyder passed away about a year ago. Not long afterward, his wife, BJ, called to inform us that Bob had left instructions that all his photographs were to be donated to The Beat Museum, along with their copyrights.
We’re honored to be custodian of this amazing record of Beat and North Beach history. Among these hundreds of photographs are many taken inside various North Beach apartments, bars, cafes and clubs, including The Cellar and The Place (both featured in Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels). Bob knew many of the people who frequented these establishments personally, and his photographs show a candid intimacy, in part because he used the natural light in these places, foregoing the intrusiveness of a flashbulb.
C.R. Snyder’s photographs document the amazing cross-section of people on the scene here in North Beach in the late 1950s. One of their more compelling aspects are the crowds Snyder’s lens captured: dance parties, rent parties, jazz with poetry, and bar scenes—complete with lots of familiar faces. These photographs are testament to the truly diverse composition of the Beat scene in those years, from anonymous hang-arounds to now-famous personalities. For instance, there are several previously unseen shots featuring Bernice Bing, the influential Chinese-American lesbian painter, along with Japanese-American Joanna Chiyo Nakamura Droeger, who owned and operated the Brighton Express coffee house right next to the Old Spaghetti Factory in North Beach and later in Jackson Square.
With the recent publicity surrounding our reopening, we’ve been joined by some new volunteers. One is David Zeeman, a teacher in the community with an eye for detail, who’s agreed to help us in cataloguing C.R. Snyder’s two hundred rolls of film.
The thing I really love about these photos David is working on, is that even though it was Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassady who became the most famous, the people on the scene at the time reflected such a tremendous diversity. It’s encouraging, with all that is going on in the world today, to see in these contact sheets that there was once a time in San Francisco, some 60 years ago, during a time when society was so deeply segregated on the basis of things like race and class, when people from very different backgrounds, cultures, and identities came together in friendship and joy, and forged a new beginning to what our collective futures can still be.
There’s still a lot of work to do, but we’re hoping that in the coming months The Beat Museum will be able to host a gathering of North Beach old timers to help us identify as many of the people in the photographs as we can.