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Mapping San Francisco’s Literary History

by An Xiao on November 8, 2013

A screenshot of The Literary City.

A screenshot of The Literary City (via the San Francisco Chronicle)

OAKLAND, Calif. — San Francisco has become a city of gadgets, but it’s always been a city of letters. The town was central to the Beat movement in the 50’s, and the recent, city-wide SF Lit Crawl shed light on its wide variety of independent bookstores. According to Google Maps, there’s one Barnes and Noble in the city, in the tourist-friendly Fisherman’s Wharf, whereas a quick search on Yelp reveals a wide variety of indie stores throughout.

sfliterarycity2I was excited to learn recently about The Literary City, an interactive map developed by the San Francisco Chronicle and updated this year. Compiled by the Chronicle’s book editor, John McMurtrie, the map features booksellers, key locations (like Allen Ginsberg’s old apartment on Montgomery, where he wrote “Howl”), and passages about the city, and it’s a lovely reminder of the spirit of the Bay Area, which has so often celebrated freedom of expression.  One peculiar dot in the middle of the Bay points to a passage from Maya Angelou from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

“To San Franciscans, ‘the City That Knows How’ was the Bay, the fog, Sir Francis Drake Hotel, Top o’ the Mark, Chinatown, the Sunset District and so on and so forth and so white. To me, a thirteen-year-old Black girl, stalled by the South and Southern Black life style, the city was a state of beauty and a state of freedom.”

This project grows out of the jigsaw map of San Francisco that made the rounds last year, also developed by McMurtrie.  Compiled with words and phrases about some of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods, it brought to life the way the city has been described and discussed over the years. Aside from their intrinsic value as a collection of literary history, maps like these also offer a window into how the narratives of the city continue in new forms in the 21st century.

The Literary City by John McMurtrie. Click to view larger.

The Literary City by John McMurtrie. (click to enlarge)

I’m reminded of a recent New Yorker profile on the region’s entrepreneurial culture, where author Nathan Heller draws a direct line with the historical bohemian spirit of the city:

The youth, the upward dreams, the emphasis on life style over other status markers, the disdain for industrial hierarchy, the social benefits of good deeds and warm thoughts—only proper nouns distinguish this description from a portrait of the startup culture in the Bay Area today. It is startling to realize that urban tech life is the closest heir to the spirit of the sixties, and its creative efflorescence, that the country has so far produced.

Fittingly, the interactive Literary Map is made of collaborative, open source technologies like Open Street Map and Leaflet.  These aren’t Bay Area technologies per se, but one could argue that they emerge out of the free software movement, whose origins can be traced in part to discussions and actions in the Bay Area like the Open Source Initiative in Palo Alto.

Jack Kerouac, of course, gets a passage, and his pin is dropped at the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge: “There was the Pacific, a few more foothills away, blue and vast and with a great wall of white advancing from the legendary potato patch where Frisco fogs are born.”  It’s a story that continues today with the popular @KarlTheFog Twitter account, a perennial favorite for the tech-enabled in the city:

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