Ferlinghetti backs vision for North Beach writers’ “piazza” 

click to enlarge A block of Vallejo Street at Columbus Avenue would be turned into a pedestrian plaza that would be a haven for poets to perform their work and to find inspiration. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • miKE koozmin/the s.f. examiner
  • A block of Vallejo Street at Columbus Avenue would be turned into a pedestrian plaza that would be a haven for poets to perform their work and to find inspiration.

After all that, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is just hoping for a place to sit.

As a shopkeeper and a warden of words, Ferlinghetti has made a mark: his store, City Lights Books on Columbus Avenue, is in every tourist guidebook. And after publishing a little-known eccentric poet Allen Ginsberg in addition to his own best-selling collection of verse, his presence is felt in American literature.

Now, at 95, Ferlinghetti thinks the neighborhood he first saw in 1951 could use something else. Like a "literary meeting place."

Ferlinghetti is supporting a push to close down a block of Vallejo Street to automobile traffic and transform the roadway into an Italian-style pedestrian plaza.

This plaza would have a poet's touch: A place to stand and declaim, room to sit and wait for inspiration, and verses inscribed in the pavement to ponder -- and not just of the Beats.

"A whole anthology of poetry," Ferlinghetti told The San Francisco Examiner recently.

"I see it as a literary meeting place, not only for North Beach but for the whole city, where poets and writers can get together and sound off," he added, noting that such a space could serve as a toehold for the written and tangible word in a world increasingly obsessed with the digital.

It might be a fine notion, but it's one that's been proposed before -- floated and then sunk, dismissed as a pipe dream, just wishful thinking sorely lacking in money.

Ferlinghetti knows -- he and architect Dennis Q. Sullivan, who designed the piazza, learned the hard way when digging around for the $2.4 million needed to realize the writers' space.

"We found ourselves inept when it came to raising big money," he said with a chuckle. "It just wasn't our field."

However, the driving force behind the Piazza St. Francis, the Poets' Plaza, neighborhood icon Angela Alioto, a former city supervisor, says that funds can be found.

The money is on its way, she says, and with it, colored marble from Italy to replace the concrete and gravel.

"I am very optimistic that the piazza will be done by 2015," Alioto told The Examiner from Italy, where she was last month marble shopping before returning to The City to begin a round of fundraising that will continue through the fall.

THE DREAM

At first blush, the piazza plans aren't significantly different from other streets in The City closed down in favor of pedestrian places.

But unlike, say, Jane Warner Plaza in the Castro, this pedestrian plaza promises more than patio furniture placed in the street.

Colored stones of gold and green would form stripes running north-to-south along pedestrian-only Vallejo Street. A few stone benches would provide audience seating for poetry readings, and a stone planter box would provide solace and inspiration.

Doing all that will cost at least $2.4 million. And for every missing dollar, there's a doubter.

THE DOUBTS

Alioto says she can find the money.

The neighborhood hoi polloi has heard all this before. Their reaction: We'll believe it when we see it.

And only after the money is assembled can perhaps the biggest challenger be convinced: the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

The plaza would remove the road that runs in front of the church's National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi, which includes garage space for the priests who live in the adjacent rectory.

There is some reluctance on the part of the church, which found itself an unwilling partner in another Alioto project on the same block: the Porziuncola, the replica of St. Francis' tiny church that stands on the corner of Columbus and Vallejo.

After dipping into church funds to finish the construction of the Porziuncola, the church is currently "strongly neutral" on the piazza project, spokesman Larry Kamer said, and that's predicated on the cash being on hand.

"It's critical funding be identified before ground is broken so that we can see this project has real tangible community support," he said.

On top of cash and the church's blessing, building a literary piazza requires a host of approvals -- including environmental review -- from The City, and access for people with disabilities as well as firetrucks and police.

The plans have been under review for more than a year, Department of Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said, with no timeline for approval or when modifications to the proposal might be made.

Environmental review is first, after which the myriad city agencies will come together to say yea or nay.

For now, the Poets Plaza is all still a dream, a paper piazza only.

Ferlinghetti, for his part, is sanguine.

"I think it's about to happen," he said. "It's just a measure of raising the money."

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Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Bio:
Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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