Text by Andrew Dudley / Photos by Toby Burditt
They drove across the Bay from Berkeley, caught northbound buses from LA, and hitchhiked from far-flung locales across the country.
Thousands of young people came here, rejecting the trappings of the American Dream, lured by tales of cheap drugs and free love. They converged on a single neighbourhood, turning Victorian houses into crash pads and communes, smoking grass and tripping on LSD in one wild-eyed Summer of Love.
It was 1967, and this small neighbourhood near the centre of San Francisco suddenly had the world’s attention. Hunter S Thompson dubbed it the “Hashbury”. Local bus companies, overwhelmed by tourists hoping to gawk at the scene, derogatorily called it “Hippieland”.
The hippies are long gone, but Hippieland – or Haight-Ashbury, as it’s more commonly known – remains. And it still attracts droves of disillusioned teens and camera-toting tourists. They hop off the bus at Haight Street’s western end, where it meets Golden Gate Park, and their adventure begins.
Golden Gate Park was the site of the “Human Be-In” gathering of 1967, which featured counterculture writers like Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary as well as such local bands as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead – it established this neighbourhood as the epicentre of the hippie movement.
Echoes of that era still ring in the park’s hills and fields, with late-summer music festivals like Outside Lands and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass attracting top talent and diverse crowds year after year.
The eastern entrance of the park is also where Haight Street is at its highest – both literally and figuratively. The smell of marijuana smoke, a familiar presence in the city, is particularly inescapable here. On “Hippie Hill,” one of Golden Gate Park’s leafy slopes, throngs of pot enthusiasts gather for an unofficial 4/20 (code for cannabis) celebration each April. And as long as things stay mellow, the local authorities tend to look the other way. (Marijuana is illegal in California, though the laws are only sporadically enforced.)
It’s no surprise, then, that the western end of Haight is lined with numerous smoke shops, as well as tattoo parlours, cheap pizza joints and liquor stores. The mix is not all that different from the late ’60s, when the likes of the Psychedelic Shop and the Drugstore Café ruled the street.
After 1967, when worn-out hippies held a ceremony marking “The Death Of The Hippie”, things did change. The Haight became the centre of San Francisco’s comedy scene in the 1980s, and a hub for rock in the early 1990s, when the now-defunct I-Beam nightclub regularly drew the likes of Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Today, it’s a mishmash of its colourful history, even if the storied intersection of Haight and Ashbury is now anchored by a Ben & Jerry’s.
That coveted address is undoubtedly the most visited corner in the neighbourhood. The iconic street signs have been hung unusually high to discourage theft, and rumour has it that during popular events like the yearly Haight-Ashbury Street Fair, held on the second Sunday in June, the poles are greased to deter eager climbers.
Other tourist draws around the neighbourhood include landmarks from the era’s defining music scene. There’s the purple Victorian on Ashbury where the Grateful Dead lived, the “red house” on Haight where Jimi Hendrix stayed (the eponymous song is supposed to be about two sisters he dated in the same block), the apartment on Page where Janis Joplin jammed with Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Yet the neighbourhood revels in a modern-day music all its own. On weekends, the strumming Jugtown Pirates whomp and holler from a Haight Street stoop, while transient teens with guitars and tambourines can be found busking on nearly every block. Further eastward, in what’s called the Lower Haight, you can hear soul and funk music pouring out of record shops like Groove Merchant Records, Jack’s Record Cellar and Rooky Ricardo’s Records.
And there are new shops and eateries drawing fresh attention to the area as well. There’s Alembic, consistently ranked among the city’s greatest cocktail bars, and its sister brewpub, Magnolia. And new street-chic boutiques like Black Scale and Pink+Dolphin attract young shoppers from around the city and beyond.
Tourists compete for sidewalk space with panhandlers and street performers, long-time residents and young transplants, yet somehow this lively mix of old and new works. “The ’60s philosophy of live and let live is still alive and kicking,” says Christin Evans, owner of The Booksmith, one of San Francisco’s few remaining independent bookstores. “We have all types here – ageing hippies, tech professionals, artists, international visitors, young people who shop at the vintage clothing stores. All sorts of creative types and free spirits.”
To Christin, the vibe of the neighbourhood hasn’t changed all that much since the Summer of Love came to a close nearly five decades ago. But there is at least one reason she wishes she could turn back the clock. “You just don’t see bell-bottoms and flowers in peoples’ hair as often any more.”
Andrew Dudley is the editor of haighteration.com, a blog covering all the goings-on on Lower Haight.
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The straight guide to San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge
Opened in 1937, the 1,280m Golden Gate Bridge across the entrance to San Francisco Bay is one of the Seven Engineering Wonders of the World. It had the longest suspension bridge main span until it was surpassed in 1964.
In San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island – known as the “Rock” – served as a federal prison from 1933-63. Al Pacino and George “Machine Gun” Kelly are among its most notorious inmates; no one escaped, though as many as 13 died trying. It’s now open for tours.
Yerba Buena Gardens
Ideal for families, this public parks in the city’s “SoMA” district features shaded walks and sculptures, an ice rink, the Children’s Creatity Museum, plus a centrepiece arts centre.