Back Story

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Grand Vision: The Poets Plaza

Ferlinghetti as Charlie Chaplin in 1982. photo: chris felver

As I write this, plans are being made for a Friday, Oct. 2, groundbreaking for Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s visionary Piazza St. Francis, The Poets Plaza in North Beach. The date coincides with Angela Alioto’s annual Knights of St. Francis birthday shindig. (She created the organization seven years ago.) The event is billed as a groundbreaking with a concert and dinner, combined with a fundraising. But those are the only details I have at this point. My advice to those wishing to participate is to get in touch with

Total cost of Lawrence’s project is about $3 million. The project is a public-private partnership, with the city providing about 50 percent for the cost of installing underground utilities. The city’s Department of Public Works says it will commence its underground work early in 2016. At this point, funding for the above-ground construction — including landscaping and lighting — is being sought and secured, most of it by individual pledges. Donations are tax deductible because of the project’s 501(c)(3), non-profit status. Completion date for the visionary concept is expected to be sometime in the first six months of next year.


This groundbreaking for the Italianate pedestrian piazza on that short block of Vallejo Street between Upper Grant and Columbus avenues has been a long time coming. Ninety-six year old Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the popular poet, painter, pamphleteer, editor, publisher, and tireless radical, first conceived the idea for the pedestrian piazza almost 20 years ago after being inspired by the people-friendly piazzas of Italy. He’s been patiently waiting to see its completion — waiting “for a rebirth of wonder,” as he once wrote poetically. In this case a “rebirth of wonder” will signify an absence of cars, and a public space to meditate and to read and write poetry, or to just hang out in a pleasant outdoor environment.

Noted San Francisco architect Dennis Q. Sullivan, who has long advised Ferlinghetti on the project and, in fact, designed it, describes Piazza St. Francis, The Poets Plaza as “a peaceful enclave, free of traffic, shady, with a tiled pavement incised with quotations by poets from all over the world.” Ferlinghetti has selected the poets and their quotations. Among them are Kenneth Rexroth, Walt Whitman, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, W. B. Yeats, E. E. Cummings, Maya Angelou, Bob Kaufman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Shakespeare, and Ferlinghetti himself, who, with a typical ironic juxtaposition, is adding the line “Abandon All Despair, Ye Who Enter Here.” — a twist on Dante.


The piazza site, the 600 block of Vallejo Street, is eclectic — part High-Church culture, part bohemian street theater. In contrast to the historic National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi on the north side of Vallejo near Columbus, on the south side of the street at the Upper Grant end is the iconoclastic bohemian coffeehouse Caffe Trieste that opened in 1953. Caffe Trieste is said to be the first espresso coffeehouse on the West Coast. Ferlinghetti still calls it his home away from home, as did members of the literary Beat Generation he championed. And across from Caffe Trieste on Grant is another contributor to the North Beach scene, the Saloon (oldest in San Francisco) that opened in 1861.


Those familiar with my column Sketches from a North Beach Journal, which appears in this publication monthly, know that I’ve written about Lawrence’s Piazza St. Francis, The Poets Plaza frequently. Nevertheless, now that ground will be broken soon, an update seems appropriate. And it’s my hope this column will be both informative and entertaining. I use the word “entertaining” since the history of Lawrence’s poetic vision has been fraught with more byzantine schisms than a medieval papacy. And indeed the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi, the Knights of St. Francis (the Angela-created do-good group), and City Hall are all power players involved in this effort.

The piazza project has broad backing from Mayor Ed Lee, District Three Supervisor Julie Christensen, community activist Aaron Peskin, California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, City Planning Director John Rahaim, former Planning Director Dean Macris, and various neighborhood organizations. While San Francisco’s city government is behind it, by the terms of its official charter, it cannot support a project of a religious nature. Fortunately, this is not a rubber-stamped church effort. And importantly, the City Planning Commission has stated the piazza is in accordance with the San Francisco General Plan. Other supportive groups include the North Beach Business Association, the Chinatown Community Development Center, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, the Top of Broadway Community Benefit District, and the North Beach Citizens.


Before we get into the details, here’s a brief chronology of the project and how its creator Lawrence envisions it. But let’s allow him to tell the story:

“I first conceived of the Piazza Saint Francis as ‘The Poets Plaza’ in 1998, but it was not until 2002 when my friend, the architect Dennis Sullivan, returned to the city that we formed a working committee of enthusiastic residents and created an architectural rendering of the Piazza as we envisioned it. Later we recruited several neighborhood movers and shakers, including attorney and fundraiser Angela Alioto, who worked tirelessly to recreate the Assisi Chapel of St. Francis that now adjoins that saint’s National Shrine in North Beach. Angela shared my vision for an Italianate piazza and has been invaluable in raising the funds to complete it.”


Ferlinghetti continues:

“I viewed this plaza as a great public space where writers of all generations and nationalities could come and recite their works (with quotes from great poets incised in the paving stone) — a plaza that would become the active literary center of the city.

“Inner cities around the country are learning tardily that they do not have to allow the automobile and its car culture to overrun them. The Piazza St. Francis, The Poets Plaza is one attempt to stem the dirty tide of cars and trucks. The piazza will be one barrier to cars polluting our neighborhood — which hopefully will lead to Upper Grant Avenue finally becoming a pedestrian mall.”

Well stated!


But to return to the project’s chronology, Angela Alioto, a prominent lay Catholic, has stated that in 2005 she met with then-Archbishop William Levada (who later became Cardinal Levada and is now retired) to map out what they referred to as “the Renaissance Project” for the National Shrine. It included a piazza they named for St. Francis. (Like Willie Brown, St. Francis gets a lot of things named after him.) And in due course Angela joined forces with visionary Lawrence Ferlinghetti and architect Dennis Q. Sullivan.


Meanwhile, though Piazza St. Francis, The Poets Plaza has enjoyed broad support, there has also been some limited, ill-thought opposition. Among these have been:

A few residential neighbors have exercised their NIMBY prerogatives. Their problem? When driving down the Vallejo hill, they will be required to go two blocks out of their way to find Columbus, instead of barreling straight through.

Then there has been the issue of the four parking garages used by the good padres at the Shrine. Their garages in the Shrine’s residency face Vallejo in the 600 block and, of course, Vallejo is destined to become a car-free pedestrian plaza. So future poets will be proclaiming their verse at just about the spot where the padres now back out of their garages. To deal with this dilemma an alternative plan was proposed so the garages will be entered from Upper Grant — not an unsolvable ecclesiastic mystery.

And, from time to time during the planning and the later approval process, a few individuals and organizations have raised the flag of “inconvenience” as a way to stall or shoot down Lawrence’s grand idea. But like spaghetti thrown against the ceiling to see if it will stick, nothing has stuck, and the effort moves on.

Architect Sullivan points out that there are still various city approvals to be gained and neighborhood hearings to be held. However, supporters are encouraged by progress to date and fully expect to be joining Ferlinghetti for the opening of Piazza St. Francis, The Poets Plaza sometime in the first six months of 2016.


As I said earlier in this Back Story, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is now 96, and he has been waiting patiently for his piazza to become a reality for almost 20 years. He’s much beloved, and I count him among my friends. So it’s good to know that his secular vision is on track to be completed in his lifetime. I always tend to think of him as San Francisco’s James Joyce — also an iconoclastic visionary whose prose was poetic. Here’s our chance to pay tribute to Lawrence. When the Piazza St. Francis, The Poets Plaza is completed next year, it will honor this American icon, the country’s most famous living poet, and certainly one of its most forward thinking.

And finally, there is no reason why the secular and the religious elements of the piazza cannot co-exist happily. After all, St. Francis of Assisi was a poet; Angela Alioto’s father, one-time San Francisco mayor Joseph Alioto, was a poet; and we already know about Lawrence Ferlinghetti, don’t we?

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