The arts are a traveller’s window into the heart of San Francisco

South China Morning Post, August 2012.

San Francisco has always had an acute sense of the frontier, and this can be said for its arts scene as well as for its gung-ho economy.

As a gold rush town, it was unusually cosmopolitan. In the mid-1800s it hosted up to 37 foreign consuls and boasted newspapers and theatre productions in at least five languages. By the time Mark Twain turned up in the 1860s, the city was a blur of bohemian activity, with strip after strip of saloons, boarding houses, dance halls, brothels and theatres.

During the next century, this bohemia fell victim to industry and the power of the American puritans; it is no coincidence that its architecture is so frothily Victorian. But its role as an artistic frontier somehow survived and ‘heading west’ has brought out the best in many writers since – from Jack London and Jack Kerouac to Isabel Allende and Amy Tan.

For anyone wanting to get a real sense of the place – after the trips to Alcatraz and a few laps of the bridge – there is scarcely a better angle from which to view it.

Once the counter-cultural hub of the Beat scene – the radical 1950s art movement of jazz, booze and ‘free thoughts’ – North Beach rubs shoulders with Chinatown and is defined by its homey European cafes, jazz dens and gelato stands. The Beat Museum, which opened in September, is a great place to start, especially on a Saturday morning when it holds its walking tours.

Converted rather haphazardly from a travelling exhibition, the museum needs a little spit and polish, but you will be pushed to find better memorabilia. Keep an eye out for the Beat pad mock-up, the annotated works of Howl by Alan Ginsburg and the screening of avant-garde films from the era.

A wander outside will take you to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, the original Beat publishing house and still one of the city’s favourite independent bookstores. It also published Howl – a vehement, emotionally raw poem that changed the way literature was received in the United States. Handwritten signs and scattered chairs beckon. ‘Welcome, have a seat and read a book,’ one bids. Another says: ‘Free the press from its corporate owners!’

Next to City Lights on the aptly named Jack Kerouac Alley sits Vesuvio, another old Beat haunt. This snug two-storey bar serves the local literati and is still infused with a ’50s spirit, sans the fashionable fog of tobacco. The bar will begrudgingly offer you the Kerouac special: rum, tequila, orange/cranberry juice and lime served. But no absinthe.

A further stroll takes in the quirky Hotel Boheme, the Purple Onion (where Maya Angelou used to sing and dance before she became an author), 12 Adler Alley, where the word beatnik was born, and other relics and tributes to a movement that, as Beat Museum founder Jerry Cimino said, ‘was the most tolerant, compassionate and inclusive of them all … that told people to do what they love and then watch the world follow’.

The Ritual Roasters Cafe in the Mission is a sea of laptop-lit faces, all oblivious to the chai lattes that grow cold beside them. Local novelist K.M. Soehnlein said: ‘This is very much the situation in San Francisco. People writing their novels and screenplays on their laptops … I’m much more inclined to be the kind of writer who would sit in a noisy cafe to work, to feel the pulse of a lot of strangers and music.’

Outside, Valencia Street is a strip of ethnic restaurants, thrift stores, smoke shops and bars. It is also home to the largest contingent of independent bookstores in the city and is an incredible place to browse.

Modern Times is one of the more progressive hubs in the community, with large sections on globalisation, politics and gender, most of which reflect the Bay Area’s leftist credentials. Borderlands Books and Dog Eared Books are both eclectic and welcoming, the former known for its science fiction, the latter for its ‘zines (the quirky paper forefathers of the blog). Most of these places boast heaving events calendars as notable authors and activists do the rounds.

The bars are also involved in the literary scene. Writers With Drinks is a monthly reading set presented by irreverent transsexual and magazine publisher Charlie Anders at the Make Out Room, while Dalva and Sadie’s Flying Circus has regular, boozy word sessions. Expect writers that range from local upstarts to published authors Michelle Tea or Kirk Read. Other points of interest are Intersection for the Arts – a venue with a great programme of alternative performances and 826 Valencia; a charitable tutoring centre set up by best-selling author and literary titan Dave Eggers.

Though the back area of 826 is set aside for teaching, it is a good hub for lit-mags and a browse around the random Pirate supplies shop that fronts the venue.

While these districts are two of the most vibrant in San Francisco, there are literary snippets to be found across the city. The public library offers a free downtown tour of the haunts of Dashiell Hammett – father of the American detective novel and writer of the Maltese Falcon – and other hints for true relic hunters.

However, the contemporary scene is more rewarding, with its influence even cracking the financial district. During the week, corporate types get their fix from the lunchtime reading series at Stacey’s Bookstore and among the industrial innards of Varnish – a chic gallery, wine bar and literary venue. Then there is the warm woods and rich malts of the Edinburgh Castle – Irvine Welsh’s venue of choice when in town – and the monthly gig at Hayes Valley’s punky Rickshaw Stop.

San Francisco will always have plenty to offer, and this is just one way to take its pulse. But it is in this scene, in particular, that the city spirit is distilled and made unique. ‘Reading feels like an endangered activity,’ Soehnlein said. ‘More people spend time programming their iPods and watching YouTube than sitting quietly and reading, so it’s valuable that in a city like San Francisco you can just immerse yourself in this world. It’s a kind of salvation.