There was no electricity above the ground floor, and he had a pot-bellied stove for heat. There was a whole new school of poets brewing, and there were pioneering artists around the School of Fine Arts who later became famous as San Francisco Figurative painters and abstract expressionists. It was the last frontier, and they were dancing on the edge of the world.

Fifty years later, he awoke one fine morning like Rip Van Winkle, and found himself again with his sea bag on his shoulder looking for anywhere he could live and work. The new owner of his old flat now wanted $4,500 a month, and many of his friends were also evicted, for it seemed their buildings weren’t owned by San Franciscans anymore, but by faceless investors with venture capital. Corporate monoculture had wiped out any unique sense of place, turning the “island city” into an artistic theme park without artists. And he was on the street.

—An excerpt of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 2001 prose poem “The Poetic City That Was,” which appeared in San Francisco Poems. Ferlinghetti turned 96 today. He is a longtime and legendary San Franciscan, his name synonymous with a former version of the city. He cofounded City Lights—the city’s iconic independent bookstore and literary press—in 1953, and was arrested in 1956 on obscenity charges after City Lights published Allen Ginsberg’s HowlYou can see him read a section of “The Poetic City That Was” aloud in this KQED video segment about Ferlinghetti’s perspective on the San Francisco’s  changing landscape.

Read the poem