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(Justin Sullivan/2007 Getty Images)
(Justin Sullivan/2007 Getty Images)

Cultural tourism

In San Francisco's North Beach, the beat goes on Add to ...

My mother always felt she missed out on the footloose 1960s, already roped in to rearing a family in the suburbs of Toronto when Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Mamas and the Papas issued their siren calls from the radio. The opportunities to spend a summer of love in San Francisco were limited, but the music of the times made her dream of California.

And so I brought great, inherited expectations with me on my first trip to San Francisco in the late 1980s. I was visiting a friend in a modern place perched near the top of Telegraph Hill. From the window, I could see the dozens of ferries and container ships traversing the Golden Gate, the strait connecting the Pacific and the San Francisco Bay, and hear a flock of kelly-green parrots squawk companionably in the eucalyptus trees atop the hill.

I set out to find the city that inspired so many of my heroes to sing and write so intensely, from the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, to a nude beach down the dramatic coast and to the centre of the 1960s counterculture, Haight-Ashbury.

Whatever I was looking for wasn't in the Haight, where a punk wearing a swastika T-shirt harassed passersby. Everything tawdry about the sixties seemed to linger there - the grunge, drugs and political faddism - but little of the period's noble ideals, apart from the still extant free clinic. Mainly, people came here to shop for shoes. "Want a buzz, sir?" a drug dealer asked me.

I loved the "sir" part.

In the end, I found some of the freewheeling spirit I was seeking just down the hill from my temporary residence, in North Beach - an old Italian district overrun by raffish Bohemians from the 1950s on. The cafés were filled with people of all ages apparently writing their life stories in thick journals. Live soul and blues pulsed from the smoky bars. The locals lounged in the parks, seeming to have nowhere to go, no one to see.

I returned to North Beach with trepidation when I moved to the Bay Area last year. Would it have been spoiled, a Starbucks on every other block?

Somehow, the essence of the neighbourhood has survived intact, although real-estate prices nearby have skyrocketed. It's sleepier, but none the less pleasant for that. Its activist citizens have kept the chain stores out, and the artists and poets - Lord knows where they're living - still play a central role in the community.

A walk through North Beach and up to the hilltop remains a particularly San Francisco treat. At the edge of North Beach at the border with touristy Chinatown is one of the world's great bookstores, City Lights. It was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was arrested for obscenity after he published Allen Ginsberg's epochal Howl in 1956. Its perspective, set out in its most famous passage, anticipated what was to come in the sixties: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/ dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix./ Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection/ to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night."

The calmest of what became known as the beat generation, Ferlinghetti (who is still living) was acquitted in the much publicized trial, and, in its wake, disaffected youth from around the nation flocked to San Francisco, to North Beach. As often as not, readings at City Lights are still happenings, filled with wonky San Franciscans as intent on giving voice to their own issues as listening to the author.

An appropriately ramshackle museum to the beats sits around the corner among strip joints that are remnants of the glory days of the city's famously permissive Barbary Coast. A huge mural at North Beach's main intersection, Columbus and Broadway, pays tribute to the jazz musicians who provided the soundtrack to these writers' frequent binges.

The congenial site of some of these binges, Vesuvio, is across an alleyway from the bookstore, and continues to draw a decent local crowd. Although every wall is busy, covered with remembrances of times past, there's a calm easiness to the place. On my visit, a ranting man, evidently homeless, comes in - the barman, himself a member of a jazz trio, mixes the man a lemon cordial and water, and talks him out of his funk. Two older clients, sitting in the window, carry on a muted intellectual conversation over a chess game.

A block away on the nicest little street in the neighbourhood, Grant Avenue, is Caffe Trieste, where, on the day I stop by, a construction worker, a dot-commer, a lawyer and a woman who has biked in from Sausalito line up to grab their lattes. Pictures on the wall show the Caffe's Italian founder with a moray eel hanging limp around his neck, his son's foray into motocross racing, his wife singing with an accordion, his meeting with local hero Francis Ford Coppola. (The film director's offices and wine bar, Cafe Zoetrope, occupy a picturesque nearby flatiron building.) A poet in a green beret approaches me once I crack open a journal and invites me to a reading. Overheard: "I know there's fraternité and liberté, but what was the third?"

Farther along the street are some old joints I remember - the Savoy Tivoli, still rocking with live music most nights, a down-at-the-heels laundromat, a vintage clothing store, the Italian-French bakery, and a soufflé café run by a redoubtable Frenchwoman who gave the place her name, Jacqueline. There are also some mainly welcome, newish additions: the inevitable yoga studio; a superb card shop, Lola's of North Beach; the area's most vital art gallery, Live Worms, and a vinyl record store.

A left turn brings on Washington Square, which with typical San Francisco perversity has a statue of Benjamin Franklin in its centre. Less perverse is the inscription, "Welcome" printed at the pedestal's base - a cheery message I took personally on my first visit. Towering above the square is what Ferlinghetti called the Marzipan church - St. Peter and Paul's white marble takes on the aspect of translucent marzipan in the late afternoon sun. The sizable Italian community still worships here, and funerals and weddings often spill out the doors. Angels and winged creatures enliven the statuary, and a quote (in Italian) from Dante about the splendour of God is spelled out across the façade. On the square are an airy brunch place, Mama's, with six different kinds of French toast, and a classic hat shop, Goorin Bros. And, as they did decades ago, people still practise tai chi here in the mornings.

Up, up, up the hill, with its cars parked sideways to the slope and its pastel clapboard houses, still somehow vertical, the fluted deco Coit Tower beckons. Past a schoolyard resounding at recess with the yells of its rambunctious, multicultural student body; through a park filled with typical California plants - bottlebrush trees, wild fennel and manzanitas, with their curiously muscular limbs. On to the summit. The city's two extraordinary suspension bridges, the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate, are both visible. Inside the tower are murals done by various artists in the Great Depression, funded by the Works Projects Administration. They show a lost America, with all manner and class of individual from hat-sporting tycoons to uniform-wearing waitresses and dungaree-clad grape pickers.

Out the front door is Alcatraz, looming out of the mist. And where are the parrots? I'm disappointed when they don't appear. But when I descend, I hear their inimitable squawks and see their green forms streaking across the sky. It's a different sort of happiness now, less obvious, less giddy, not always appearing quite on cue, but, for that reason, particularly welcome when it finally shows up.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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If you go

Getting There Air Canada and most major U.S. carriers fly to San Francisco from Toronto and Vancouver.

Where to Stay Hotel San Remo 2237 Mason St.; 415-776-8688; www.sanremohotel.com. Built to house construction workers after the 1906 earthquake and frequently home to artists since then, the simple inn is considered San Francisco's answer to the Chelsea Hotel.

Where to Eat Café Jacqueline 1454 Grant Ave.; 415-981-5565. Caffe Trieste 601 Vallejo St.; 415-392-6739; www.caffetrieste.com.

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