Reimagining a New Life in North Beach
This is the first in a series of five articles introducing our vision of what’s possible for the future of the Beat Museum. While we have not committed to any one particular idea (this is just an initial vision), we are looking for input from four particular constituencies: the local North Beach community, the Beat Generation community around the world, San Francisco City authorities and decision makers, and like-minded philanthropists who might be inclined to support this project long term.
We believe it is important for the Beat Museum to remain in North Beach. This neighborhood is integrally tied to the Beat Generation, being where the Beats exploded into national and international acclaim, and literary enthusiasts flock to our neighborhood from all over the world to better understand and bear witness to this important literary movement. The Beat Museum belongs here; it simply wouldn’t fit in another city, or even another part of San Francisco.
One of the challenges we face is there are very few buildings or locations in North Beach that might fit the requirements of a world class museum dedicated to the Beat Generation. A second challenge is the cost of real estate in one of the most magnificent cities in the world.
We believe we have hit upon a solution that can meet the needs of the four constituencies we described above. The Beat Museum has been serving the public since 2003, and now we’re seeking help in continuing our mission far into the future.
Read the press release here.
It began with a photograph.
Taken by photographer Fred McDarrah in 1959, the image captures Jack Kerouac at the height of his power and grace. He’s in command of an audience, reading from his recently published bestselling books using a ladder as a podium. The world has yet to crash in on him (as related in his soon to be written novel Big Sur, which captures the events from 1961 on his last trip to California). Many say he appears to be a Christ-like figure, which I think Jack would have appreciated.
This is the image that transfixes so many Beat Generation fans. How could a single picture so readily represent the entire world the Beat writers came to represent in 1950s America? The grittiness, the scrappiness, the mutual support and love these rebels so often felt for one another. The coming seismic shift in America, the assault on conformity through the written word, the yearnings of youth as they claimed their power in the society they were changing, the transition from the world of black and white, foreshadowing the colorful psychedelic revolution that would roll across the continent and eventually around the world. It was a short ten years between this photographic moment in 1959, and when the entire world would witness the gathering of 400,000 in the fields of upstate New York—a gathering that would have never been possible without the world the Beat Generation had wrought. Nothing would ever be the same.
Why this particular photograph?
We first started working with architect Eugene Tssui in July of 2021 on what a new reimagined Beat Museum in North Beach might look like. We presented our initial ideas and requirements as a broad discussion because we knew we wanted community buy-in. We wanted to present a wide variety of concepts to show what might be possible to the various constituencies we represent. Some people might want big and bold, while some prefer to see understated elegance. We want to fit in seamlessly in the neighborhood and we recognize there will be a lot of opinions as to what should and should not be considered. We’re not out to cause division or make a statement our general community might not embrace. We’ve considered a dozen facades. And until we receive community feedback there is nothing that is off the table as we sort through various ideas.
To see more detail, please click to enlarge
At one point we suggested to Eugene we’d like to see a life size bronze statue of Jack Kerouac in a pose suggested by Fred McDarrah’s 1959 photograph. A life sized Kerouac with his arms outstretched on the roof, or maybe at the entrance to the building. In one of the alternative facade designs Eugene took it a step farther when he responded with a bigger than life sculpture that he had discussed with his sculptor friend Scott Donahue who maintains his studio in Emeryville, California. Donahue has a reputation for bigger than life public art from San Francisco and Berkeley to Huntington Beach, and indeed around the world.
North Beach has long been San Francisco’s Little Italy
One of the locations under consideration is the former Buon Gusto Sausage Building, built in 1948. Buon Gusto had a number of markets located around the Bay Area and it was this building, located at 535 Green Street between Grant and Columbus, that produced the inventory sold at these markets. In fact, Jack Kerouac even mentions one of these markets in Chapter 78 in his novel Desolation Angels, as he walks from Chinatown into Little Italy, passing City Lights, gazing at Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill. Upon his return to North Beach he describes joyfully meeting up with his friends Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Neal Cassady, Peter Du Peru, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky.
The Italian term “Buon Gusto” translated to English means “Good Taste,” and it is with hope and appreciation we’re looking to offer a plan that is in “good taste” for all of North Beach to benefit from long into the future.