Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love: Hippie Haven USA

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During the "Summer of Love,” psychedelic rock music entered the mainstream, receiving more and more commercial radio airplay across the Unites States. The Monterey Pop Festival in June further cemented the status of psychedelic music and the Hippie co

Once a refuge for wealthy San Francisco residents after the 1906 earthquake, the “Haight,” a 20-square-block area just east of Golden Gate Park, was hit hard by the Depression, as was much of the city proper.

Residents who could afford it, left the declining and crowded neighborhood for greener pastures within the growing city limits, or found newer, smaller homes in the Bay Area suburbs. Those who stayed opted to start letting rooms in their homes.

During a housing shortage during World War II, many of the large single-family Victorians that were common architectural features of the Haight were sub-divided into apartments to house workers. Others were converted into boarding houses. But despite these adjustments, by the early 1950s, the Haight was a neighborhood in serious decline.  Many buildings had been left vacant after the war, delayed maintenance had taken its toll, and the exodus of middle class residents to the newer suburbs continued.

Victorians today

In the mid-1950s, a significant event took place that would come to color the atmosphere and attitude of the Haight-Ashbury district. A proposed freeway that would have run through the area but thwarted by a citizen freeway revolt that lasted until 1966.  From this resistance, the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC) was formed in 1959.  Still active today, HANC is one reason for the Haight-Ashbury district sense of independence and individuality.

During the 1950’s, San Francisco, became known for several folk clubs including the hungry i, the well-known Beatnik hangout opened by “Big Daddy” Nord where the Kingston Trio recorded a best-selling live album in 1958.  Quickly becoming a haven for the burgeoning American counterculture, Haight-Ashbury live performances became known as the most “hip” and progressive in the country--guitarists playing solos lasting for several minutes, light shows with bare-breasted dancers providing atmosphere, and audience members frequently dressing as wildly as the performers.

Due to the availability of cheap rooms and vacant properties for rent or sale, the Bohemian subculture that would subsequently flourish in Haight-Ashbury took root, and to a great extent, has remained to this day.  But San Francisco remained a backwater of the national music industry until 1966 when entertainment promoter Bill Graham began booking local bands like the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin) at the Fillmore Auditorium and other large dance venues.

With support from such deejays such as Tom Donahue (first on the Top 40 station KYA and later on the new album-oriented FM stations KMPX and KSAN) and from San Francisco-based Rolling Stone magazine (founded in late 1967), the city became a centre of the world's popular music when the Fillmore West emerged as an internationally renowned venue for acts from Britain and the rest of the United States. Soon, music and drug use came to define both the atmosphere and the cultural focus.  Haight-Ashbury was “on the international map.”

The neighborhood became the center of what some called the “San Francisco Renaissance,” culminating in the 1967 “Summer of Love,” when tens of thousands of people converged on the neighborhood, many practicing free love, using drugs, and advocating for the creation of a money-free, utopian society.

Reacting to the stream of college and high-school students which began during spring break of 1967, San Francisco's city counsel unwittingly brought additional, unwanted attention to the scene with an ongoing series of articles published in local newspapers alerting the national media to the hippies' growing numbers.  Haight-Ashbury community leaders responded to the publicity by forming the Council of the Summer of Love, giving the word-of-mouth event an official-sounding name.

The mainstream media's coverage of Hippie life in Haight-Ashbury drew the attention of youth from all over America--and even Europe.  Famous gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson labeled the district "Hashbury" in the New York Times Magazine, and the free-spirited activities of the area were reported almost daily during that year.

Soon, the Haight's fame reached its peak as it became the haven for a number of the top psychedelic rock performers and groups of the time like the Airplane. They not only immortalized the scene in numerous songs, they knew many in the community as friends and family.

During the "Summer of Love,” psychedelic rock music entering the mainstream, receiving more and more commercial radio airplay. The song "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," written by John Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, became a hit single in 1967, with the Monterey Pop Festival in June further cementing the status of psychedelic music as a part of mainstream, American culture, elevating local Haight bands like the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Airplane to international stardom.

A July 7, 1967, Time magazine cover story on "The Hippies: Philosophy of a Subculture," an August CBS News television report on "The Hippie Temptation," and other major media interest in the Hippie subculture exposed the Haight-Ashbury district to enormous national attention and subsequently popularized the counterculture movement across the country and around the world.  Long hair, boutiques, psychedelia, coffee houses, and free performances in the park became the day-to-day norm.

By the time Beatle George Harrison visited Haight-Ashbury on August 8, 1967, the whole "Summer of Love" scene had dissolved into a drug-drenched free-for-all ,complete with busloads of picture-taking tourists.  Harrison was clearly non-impressed, describing those he met there as "hideous, spotty little teenagers."  Despite his distaste, however, Harrison later donated the proceeds from a 1975 concert ($66,000) to the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, which he then visited.

(Note: On August 29, 1966, the Beatles had played their last live show in the US in San Francisco, at Candlestick Park.)

Haight-Ashbury, however, despite their best concerted efforts, could not accommodate this rapid influx of young people, with the neighborhood quickly deteriorated.

Overcrowding, homelessness, hunger, drug over-doses, and crime afflicted the entire neighborhood.  Many people simply left that fall to resume their college studies, while those remaining in the Haight staged a mock funeral on October 6, 1967, calling it, "The Death of the Hippie" ceremony, to signal the end of the played-out scene.  Well-known Hippie icon and Haight resident Mary Kasper explained the message of the mock funeral like this:

“We wanted to signal that this was the end of it, don't come out. Stay where you are! Bring the revolution to where you live. Don't come here because it's over and done with.”

That message was apparently taken literally as the large crowds did not come back in the following summer, with the neighborhood, in particular Haight Street, falling into a decline that continued from the 1970s to the 1980s.

Citywide gentrification in the 1990s brought a new breed of residents to the area in the form of young urban professionals, twenty-somethings, and thirty-somethings seeking the “hipster” lifestyle.  During this period, local store owners and merchants looked to capitalize on its past Summer of Love legacy by turning the street into a tourist attraction, which it remains today.

These days, Haight Street is one of the city's top tourist attractions and is often crowded with tourists year-round, now evolving into a bustling tourist attraction featuring psychedelic murals and Hippie-themed head shops that sell marijuana-related paraphernalia.  Corporate chains also moved onto Haight Street during the 1990s, eager to capitalize on its past history.

A group led by Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics founder David E. Smith is planning a “library museum” of the free-clinic movement, which began in the Haight in the 1960s to provide free health care to residents. Another effort, led by local artist David Wills, will chronicle the neighborhood’s history from its late 1800 farming days to the Summer of Love.





Personal experience

images via:



Haight-Ashbury.com archives

Night shot, via Michael Mullady

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