Think you could have out-drunk Jack Kerouac if you had attended Columbia with him in the early 1940s? That might have been a challenging task, given the Beat writers’ penchant for barhopping and cheap wine soirees.
However, many of the group’s favorite haunts around Manhattan are still open for a visit. In honor of what would be Kerouac’s 88th birthday on March 12, stop by some of his urban hangouts that have endured—like the works of the Beats themselves—for over half a century.
Columbia is where two of the most renowned Beat writers—Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg—met and formed a nucleus of intellectual and imaginative collaboration. They soon drew other writers into their progressively creative circle, including William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Like all Columbia College freshmen, Kerouac and Ginsberg lived near College Walk. Ginsberg resided in Hamilton Hall, which was comprised of student rooms at the time, while Kerouac dormed close by in Hartley Hall.
Later, they moved to apartments further off-campus, near Riverside Park on West 118th and 113th streets. Kerouac’s first wife, Edie Parker, lived at 421 West 118th St.
Broadway nightlife staple Havana Central, then the West End bar, frequently hosted Kerouac’s group. It seems that Thursday night debauchery has changed little since the Beats attended Columbia.
As the writers filtered out of higher education and Morningside Heights, they migrated down to Greenwich Village for both work and play, favoring establishments like Minetta Tavern and the White Horse Tavern. At these locales, Kerouac bummed dinner off of his fellow writers. If only Columbia students could have a Burroughs to buy dinner when they run out of dining dollars.
Washington Square Park was then, as it is now, the domain of NYU students. Kerouac was allegedly fascinated by the fact that the park had once been a cemetery, with 10,000 bodies buried in the soil.
Many of the aforementioned locales also feature prominently in Beat generation works: Ginsberg’s “Howl” vividly describes Manhattan streets, and Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty of Kerouac’s “On the Road” meet on Columbia’s campus.
For further reading, Beat archivist Bill Morgan’s “The Beat Generation in New York: A Walking Tour of Jack Kerouac’s City” offers further material for Manhattan expeditions. Additionally, “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,” a recently published collaboration between Kerouac and Burroughs, will not disappoint as a firsthand account of the city from a Beat perspective. Travel through the eyes of Kerouac, and discover what characters lie beyond Columbia’s gates.