Present: Place and People

City Lights Booksellers: Present Place and People



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The farthest west I have ever travelled is to Oregon this past summer, and have never been anywhere near California in my memory. I therefore have little frame of reference for the places and areas I’ve explored through Google Maps of parts of San Francisco, specifically the area around City Lights Booksellers and Publishers.

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View City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in a larger map


City Lights is currently on the edge of two neighbourhoods, North Beach and China town, and the effects of both of these areas is quite interesting.

North Beach Neighborhood

Outline of North Beach Neighborhood . Circled in red is the location of City Lights.


Outline of Chinatown. Circled in red is the location of City Lights. 

As these two maps show, the intersection of Broadway and Columbus is exactly where Chinatown and North Beach meet. When I first started looking at the area surrounding City Lights, I was a little confused as to what the demographics might be given this melding of two very distinct neighborhoods. Today North Beach has retained much of its infamous beatnik roots, as well as its predominantly Italian American population. This influence was easy to spot, given the numerous Italian restaurants such as Nizario’s Pizza and E Tutto Qua.

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Nizario’s Pizza directly next to City Lights

The beatniks are also represented in this part of the city with café’s such as the Vesuvio Café, which happens to be located on Jack Kerouac Alley, which also happens to be only two blocks from the Beat Museum.

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The Vesuvio Cafe, and to the right Kerouac Alley in-between Vesuvio and City Lights.

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 The Beat Museum, located down the street on Broadway.

Then of course there was also a prevalence of adult clubs, such as the Roaring 20s and the Condor Club, a hallmark of the red light district that North Beach is also identified with.

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While finding all of these Italian and Beat generation indicators around City Lights, I also discovered a large Asian influence, literally on top of all these other cultural markers; my first clue was that the Wells Fargo sign next to Nizario’s had Chinese characters on the sign.

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There are also multiple Asian restaurants including the Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge, New Sun Hong Kong and Tutti Melon.

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Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge

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New Sun Hong Kong

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One thing that I noticed about all of the many restaurants in this area is, with the exception of tuttimelon, they are all independently owned. Throughout this neighborhood there is a distinct lack of national and international chain stores or restaurants with few exceptions.

For me one of the most interesting spots is around the corner from City Lights, where the Beat Museum and what is identified as the Chinatown community centre stand directly next to each other. Two cultures that are exact opposites each have their stronghold of culture side by side.

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Beat Museum on the right, and what is identified as the Chinatown Community development center.

With two completely different cultures, one would think that they would be at odds with each other. However, with the Beats beliefs in tolerance and compassion, and the Chinatown Community Development wishing to create a better community for all of San Francisco, not just the Chinese community, together they have been able to create a mutual beneficial community around these cultures.

In terms of demographics, this area of San Francisco is lower income. The average household income is around $12,500, with 25% of the residents of this area below the poverty level.


The level of education for this area is also below the California averages:

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90% of the population claim Asian heritage, 6% Caucasian, and 1% African American heritage.

Race Break Down City Lights Present



Although this neighbourhood seems a bit haphazard and incongruous, the influence of City Lights is undeniable. As Laura Miller notes in her book, “ community connotes the small social realm…community implies social bonds based on affective ties and mutual support…and community evokes a past steeped in tradition as opposed to a constantly changing present”(119). Despite community being an ambiguous term open to interpretation, Miller’s definition seems to apply directly to City Lights. The City Lights masthead describes it simply as a ‘literary meeting place’; this simple meeting place has for many years become a gathering place for people not only interested in the type of books being sold, but the type of culture and artistic expression that can be found there. A place is simply a place until someone places a specific meaning in that place, and only then does it become a space (Cresswell 2). Any other bookstore established in that area would just be another bookstore. But with its connection to the beat generation, and its history of supporting alternative cultures, City Lights creates a specific space that people are drawn to. This space then influences the spaces around it, as is evidenced in the types of restaurants and cafes that surround City Lights, and tailor to the same groups of people that are likely to frequent this out of the norm bookstore.

As globalization overtakes many independent bookstores, City Lights has remained a bastion of not only the emotional attachment associated with place, but also preserves the meaning that the people of this area have attached to it (Cresswell 10). If “place is also a way of seeing, knowing and understanding the world” City Lights is able to preserve for the consumer an understanding of not only what was alternative in the past, but what is alternative in our present culture as well (Cresswell 11).



Maps and Images:

Google Maps, Street Views of City Lights, Nizario’s, Vesuvio Cafe, Beat Museum, Roaring 20s, Condor Club, Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge, New Sun Hong Kong, Tutti Melon, Chinatown community Development Center, North Beach and Chinatown. <>


Population distribution map, demographics pie chart and education bar graph. <>


Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.

Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.