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Poets Plaza: An Outdoor Living Room for Writers

Plenty of bookish neighborhoods yap about their literary history, but few have written literature into their physical landscape like San Francisco's North Beach. Here the street signs are inked with bylines—Jack Kerouac Alley, Kenneth Rexroth Place—and the famed writers' cafes feel like common civic property.

Now a proposed project—the conversion of a block of Vallejo Street into a carless, tree-lined public square—aims to bring the writing culture more officially into North Beach's bones. Called Poets Plaza, it's the brainchild of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the famed poet, artist, and City Lights founder. "Lawrence comes from a European tradition of plazas," says the project's architect, Dennis Sullivan. "He wanted an outdoor living room for poets." As living rooms go, Poets Plaza fittingly abuts the salon: Caffe Trieste, the grandest of those old writers' haunts and a place still packed with scribes, many of whom live in apartments upstairs.

The Plaza design caters assiduously to the block's legacy of free expression. Portable chairs will, in Sullivan's words, "give you authorship to move," and even the trees may be set in wheeled pots. Playing the blank page is also smart design policy when you're asking to transform a city block. Sullivan hopes to place rolling planters at each end, which can be pushed out of the way if emergency vehicles need to drive through. (These would be watered with rainwater collected on the site.) Even the plaza's most striking feature isn't quite permanent: the striated green-and-white ground surface, a mime of the pattern on Brunelleschi's Duomo in Florence, Italy, will be painted initially, and only later set in stone. For Sullivan, the Plaza amounts to "a simple platform for unscripted change." Appropriately, among the few fixed features will be quotes from poets, inscribed in the ground.

Renderings by Mark Pechenik

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