Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti laments changing San Francisco

March 24, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
Ninety-six-year-old Lawrence Ferlinghetti settled in San Francisco in the 1950s, where he opened the City Lights bookshop and publishing house. But today San Francisco is better known as a central hub of the tech boom than of countercultural creativity. Jeffrey Brown offers a look at how the poet sees his changing city.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Everywhere we look these days, there’s evidence of the tech boom, supposedly exciting, thrilling, wonderful for us all. Well, maybe not for all of us.

One of San Francisco’s legendary figures, who celebrates a birthday today, laments what it’s done to his city.

Jeffrey Brown explains.

JEFFREY BROWN: At 96, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, painter and publisher, is still revered as a cultural treasure in the San Francisco Bay Area.

WOMAN: How are you?  I brought you some flowers.

JEFFREY BROWN: A recent opening for a retrospective exhibition of his artwork at the Marine Museum of Contemporary Art drew a large crowd.

WOMAN: You really, truly are a legend of the Bay Area.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI, Poet, Publisher, Painter: Thank you.


JEFFREY BROWN: Ferlinghetti once wrote, “All I ever wanted to do was paint light on the walls of life.”

And that he’s done, here in poetry.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: “The changing light in San Francisco is a sea light, an island light, and the light of fog blanketing the hills, drifting in at night, through the Golden Gate to lie on the city at dawn.”

JEFFREY BROWN: When Ferlinghetti first arrived in San Francisco from New York in 1951, he settled into a $65-a-month apartment in the Italian working-class neighborhood of North Beach.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: It was still the last frontier when I arrived in 1951. It was a wide-open city. You could come here and just start anything you wanted, because, in New York City, it would have been impossible to start a bookstore unless you had lots of money.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ferlinghetti opened City Lights bookshop and publishing house in 1953, the beginning of his journey to help put San Francisco on the world’s countercultural map. He published the works of Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

For decades, on a range of causes, he served as an anti-establishment conscience for San Franciscans.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Women’s liberation means men’s liberation.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, these days, the establishment has changed, along with his city. Today, San Francisco is better known as a central hub of the tech boom, a city of entrepreneurs and companies like Twitter that have become international giants.

And while that boom is credited with driving unemployment to an all-time low, it’s also blamed for rapid gentrification, making the city unaffordable for many. And that rankles Ferlinghetti.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: A new brand of dot-com millionaires and generally Silicon Valley money have moved into San Francisco with bags full of cash and no manners.

JEFFREY BROWN: The pace of change, Ferlinghetti says, has quickened beyond control, but it’s not a new issue for him. He read for us a passage from a 2001 piece titled “The Poetic City That Was.”

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: “Fifty years later, he awoke one fine morning, looking for anywhere he could live and work. The new owners of his old flat now wanted $4,500 a month. And many of his friends were also evicted.”

JEFFREY BROWN: One example close to home, 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 start-up called MuleSoft. Krevsky now sells most of his artwork online.

Of course, Ferlinghetti’s is not the only view of San Francisco these days. When a version of this story was posted online recently, he did draw support, but there were a few strong blasts as well.

“What a crank,” wrote one person. “The city is still as vibrant and creative as it ever was, except, now, young ambitious people are in tech.”

Another wrote, “In 60 years, I’ll be complaining about the new crop of San Franciscans. Fogeys gonna foge.”

Still, Ferlinghetti himself continues to find his own way forward through poetry.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: There’s always help in love. And love and hate are viruses. Love can make a civilization bloom, and hate can kill a civilization. This is a little poem which is full of hope.

“One grand boulevard with trees. One grand cafe in sun with very black coffee in very small cups. One not necessarily very beautiful man or woman who loves you one fine day.”

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.