Transforming Tampa Bay: Kerouac’s last home

click to enlarge The Kerouac house in St. Petersburg’s Disston - Heights neighborhood. - Linda Saul-Sena
Linda Saul-Sena
The Kerouac house in St. Petersburg’s Disston Heights neighborhood.

Just as the cliche says that you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t tell an author’s interior life by his home. Jack Kerouac, the free-spirited novelist of On The Road and high priest of the Beat Generation, spent the last six years of his life in a very ordinary suburban house at 5169 10th Ave. N. in St. Petersburg.

Back then, St. Pete was not the haven of hip it is today. Except for the Beaux Arts Coffeehouse in Pinellas Park and Haslam’s Book Store, which Kerouac haunted, there wasn’t much countercultural activity.

The real places where Kerouac spent time — the bars, bookstore, accountant’s office and his home — will all be highlighted on Sunday, April 19 at the The Kerouac in Paradise Slow Ride & Shuffle Party, leaving at 2 p.m. from the Mirror Lake Shuffleboard Complex.

Saving Kerouac’s home can be the center of preserving his legacy, and Margaret Murray, a founding member of Friends of the Jack Kerouac House, outlines three potential futures for the now-empty property:

1. Restore the home to its mid-’60s state and open it as a museum similar to the Hemingway House in Key West. There is a growing recognition of the many authors who have called Florida home at major points in their lives, including Zora Neale Hurston, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Hemingway, Dennis Lehane, and others. “It would be wonderful,” muses Murray, “if we could, through a museum, showcase the personal, intimate and domestic aspects of his life.”

2. Move the house to the University of South Florida’s downtown St. Pete campus, where it would serve as a literary/writers’ center. “USF St. Petersburg remains interested in the Kerouac home,” says Thomas Hallock, chair of the Department of Verbal & Visual Arts, “and supports efforts to bring increased attention to the author’s legacy in our city.” Conversations about placing the house on campus are “in the works,” he says, but “no definite decisions have been made.”

3. Begin a Writers-in-Residence program similar to that of The Kerouac Project in Orlando. Housed in a modest wooden bungalow in Orlando’s College Park neighborhood, The Kerouac Project came to be after a group of generous fans learned that the writer had lived in the house while working on his On the Road sequel, The Dharma Bums. The group established a non-profit and raised funds to purchase and renovate the property as a haven for emerging writers. Over the last 15 years, 51 writers-in-residence have worked there, inspired by the property’s literary history.

In St. Pete, the challenge in making similar ideas a reality is Kerouac’s contested will, which muddies the future disposition of this property. The Friends of the Kerouoac House are trying to find the best path through this legal labyrinth. Meanwhile, they have organized bike rides, readings and bar crawls to raise awareness of the writer’s time in St. Pete and develop broad community support for securing the house. This spring’s launch of the SunLit Festival, a St. Pete celebration of local literary stars, included a Kerouac birthday celebration at the Flamingo Bar, the dive bar where the writer famously had his final drink.

The variety of attendees at these events is cross-generational and impressive. Kerouac’s wild embrace of life attracts a swath of folks living large through his prose. As an urban planner by trade, I’m thrilled with the concept of enhancing our area’s cultural identity, and laud the efforts of the Friends.

But I’m troubled by the counterpoint between the man and his house. The sheer mundaneness of the place bothers me.

I’ve visited a number of authors’ homes, from Mark Twain’s ridiculously overdone Victorian manse in Connecticut to Emily Dickinson’s spare New England home to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s cracker house, complete with chicken coops. These homes were places where the authors wrote, and each helped shape the writer’s work.

Kerouac’s home was where he retreated from life. He didn’t produce any significant writing there. He lived with his mother and wife, a volatile and dysfunctional combo, and basically pickled himself on alcohol. The house in its ordinariness belies the creative writer who dwelt there.
Perhaps more than the house itself, it is the city at large that deserves recognition for its role in Kerouac’s life.

Kristy Andersen, a local documentary filmmaker, is currently producing an hour-long film about the writer and his time in St. Petersburg.
“I found a lot of people who knew and cared about him as an important writer. These people really looked after him. They made sure that someone was with him at all times. The man who wrote the great American road novel never learned to drive, so they’d give him rides to the bars he frequented in Tampa, particularly The Wild Boar. Some were students, others bartenders.”

Maybe the disconnect between the humble house and the gifted writer really is negligible. The point is that Kerouac lived in this very authentic space in our community. Even if the space is ordinary, it can be energized in exciting, creative ways that connect us to the artist. Kerouac’s meaning to the rich arts scene in St. Pete deserves to be honored and built upon as part of our local heritage. 

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