The Hippie Spirit Lives in San Fran 50 Years On

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May 17, 2017

Fifty years after San Francisco’s Summer of Love, Barry Divola goes looking for the hippie spirit of 1967.

I’m standing at what was the most famous intersection in the world in 1967, the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco. I’d be wearing flowers in my hair if I had any hair. But it’s 2017. I’ve changed and so has the neighbourhood that spawned hippie culture, free love, recreational LSD and psychedelia. I’m here to find out what it was like then, what it’s like now and how the city plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. 

The first person to push me through the rabbit hole of The Haight’s trippy history is a tour guide who has told me to meet him on a bench at the Panhandle, the long, narrow stretch of greenery that runs off Golden Gate Park. The Summer of Love kicked off in the park in the winter of 1967, when more than 20,000 people showed up for The Human Be-In, a counterculture gathering where psychologist Timothy Leary immortalised the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out”.

My guide is difficult to miss. Wes Leslie is a moustachioed dandy in a checked three-piece suit, a floppy bow tie and a fedora. We spend the next couple of hours wandering the neighbourhood and he occasionally strums the acoustic guitar around his neck and breaks into songs from the era.

He explains that the area used to be sand dunes. The entire park, which is 20 per cent larger than New York’s Central Park, was man-made and planted with more than 155,000 trees, including Australian eucalypts. 

In the 1960s, a new, young generation, who would go on to be called hippies, started infiltrating The Haight (aka Haight-Ashbury), shacking up in the sprawling Victorian houses featuring bay windows, ornate detailing and multicoloured frontages.

“In the mid-’60s, you could rent an entire eight-bedroom house for $175 a month,” says Leslie. “Today, a one-bedroom apartment here costs about $3200 a month.”

We stop outside 710 Ashbury Street, where Leslie breaks into Friend of the Devil by the Grateful Dead. This was the home of the band that provided a large slice of the soundtrack of the hippie era. A tree on the footpath outside is scarred with the names of fans and messages to the group. Members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club lived in the house directly across the road at No. 719; singer Janis Joplin resided in the next block at No. 635; and on nearby Cole Street, murderous cult leader Charles Manson started gathering his notorious Family around him. Something much darker was flowering alongside peace and love.

Wander down Haight Street today and it’s a mix of grunge and gentrification. You’ll find a clutch of vintage clothing stores – such as Decades of Fashion, Held Over and Relic Vintage – packed with preloved fashion from times past, right alongside the Dr Martens, FTC and upmarket Woot Bear outlets. There’s Bound Together, a dusty anarchist bookstore with tomes about the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X in the window, and The Booksmith, a well-lit, meticulously catalogued bookshop. You’ll also find dive bar Murio’s Trophy Room and Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery. 

As Haight Street reaches Golden Gate Park, the opposite corners sum up the dichotomy of the area: a Whole Foods Market store faces McDonald’s. There’s even a Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream parlour at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, with imitation street signs outside that are fastened with padlocks and taken in at closing time because they kept getting stolen for souvenirs.

You’ll encounter eccentrics and, as in many parts of San Francisco, the homeless. While sitting at a Brooklyn-style café called Stanza Coffee Bar, I’m approached by a scruffy bearded guy in his 20s. “Help me fill in the blank, man,” he says, pointing to the blank piece of cardboard he’s holding. “I need to buy a beer. My name’s Jeremiah but everyone around here calls me Smurf.” I give him my spare change and he flashes me a peace sign. For a moment it feels like I’m in a scene from Hair.

This year is a 12-month celebration of what happened in San Francisco 50 years ago. City-wide exhibitions, concerts and events are planned, spearheaded by The Summer of Love Experience, a huge retrospective of art, fashion, music, photography and film, which is showing at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park until August 20.

“Our exhibition is like a time machine back to 1967,” says Julian Cox, the museum’s chief curator. “But we’re also celebrating the fact that San Francisco is a nexus for creativity today. That spirit of inventiveness and pushing boundaries is still here and you can trace it back to 1967.” 

Joel Selvin turned 17 in 1967 and went on to become a music writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He lived through the Summer of Love, he’s written about it extensively and he’s not shy about pinpointing the spark for what happened.

“LSD was the catalyst for all this,” he says, stroking his white beard as he sits among the 25,000 records in his Potrero Hill home. “Some now try to deny it but it’s true. The LSD experience was transformational.” People gathered at happenings and concerts under the psychedelic glow of spectacular lightshows. “There was a sense of community,” he adds. 

That changed. Selvin remembers the mood shifted when an estimated 100,000 young people descended on The Haight in the summer of 1967. Before too long, the overcrowding, drug casualties, crime and clashes with police ended the dream. A “death of the hippie” march was held in October. Even though it symbolically marked the end of the Summer of Love, Selvin still clings to the ideals of that time and is positive about the 50th anniversary. 

“The cops used to beat up hippies in this town,” he says. “Now hippies are being celebrated. That’s a good thing. And even though The Haight has changed a lot and become gentrified, there are people like that Sunny gal keeping the spirit alive.” 

As it happens, I’m meeting “that Sunny gal” the following day. Sunshine “Sunny” Powers is the owner of Love on Haight, formerly Jammin on Haight, which opened in 2012 on the corner of Haight and Masonic. The store deals in her two favourite things: tie-dye and glitter. The Summer of Love ended 13 years before she was born but, to many, Powers personifies the ongoing spirit of 1967 – it’s not just her psychedelic outfits and the multicoloured sparkles around her eyes.

“To be a native San Franciscan, you have to have pride in Haight-Ashbury,” she says. “It’s part of our heritage. The hippie, the peace sign, the flowers in the hair – it’s what people think of when they think of San Francisco.”

She feels that the Summer of Love’s 50th anniversary is the perfect opportunity to restore some peace, love and positivity to The Haight and is hoping those who visit will then go home and pay it forward in their part of the world. Powers is also on the board of Taking It to the Streets, a non-profit organisation that helps local street kids by providing food, shelter and assistance with job training. Some of them end up being employed at Love on Haight.

“I tell the girls who work for me in the store that it’s not about selling,” says Powers. “The clothes sell themselves. It’s about educating people who come in about the people who live around here and the history of Haight-Ashbury. It’s my duty as a person on this corner to do that.”

Experience the hippie and the hip in San Francisco 

Eat brunch at Zazie

No tipping? Yes, really. French-style café Zazie, which has a lovely garden patio out the back, pays its staff a good wage, benefits, health insurance and even a revenue share. Its weekend brunch is so popular that even if you’re a star like Adele – who was here a few weeks before my visit – you’ll be placed on a waiting list if you don’t arrive early. Once you taste the gingerbread pancakes and inventive eggs Benedict dishes, you’ll understand why.

Soak up Scandi chic at Outerlands

From Outerlands restaurant, you can smell the salt in the air and see the waves crashing on nearby Ocean Beach. The restaurant’s raw-wood design is a mix of Hamptons beach house and Scandinavian Mid-century. The open kitchen doles out mouth-watering pastries and hearty signature dishes such as Eggs-in-Jail, a toasted thick chunk of their pain au levain with two fried eggs in the hollowed-out centre, topped with bacon. 

Go organic at Nopa

Named for its position north of the Panhandle, Nopa specialises in wood-fired cuisine made from organic ingredients sourced from local farmers and producers. The wood-grilled hamburger and rotisserie herbed chicken are so good that chefs from other restaurants often stop by after their shifts to chow down. In this bustling, cavernous space that used to be a bank, the old vault is now Nopa’s wine cellar.  

Stay at Hotel Zeppelin 

A picture of Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead greets me outside my guestroom at Hotel Zeppelin. The rock theme continues inside: ’60s concert posters adorn the walls and the bathroom is wallpapered with the names of Bay Area bands, from The Flamin’ Groovies to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Hotel Zeppelin successfully blends the look of a stylish boutique hotel with the vibe of a rock-show after-party. The lobby has a cool cocktail bar with an open fire, overseen by a giant photo of Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick, while downstairs is a hangout room with a pool table, arcade games and an oversized peace sign made from licence plates. Book now

Get hip to The Beat Museum

Before the hippies arrived, the beatniks ruled San Francisco. Immerse yourself in their world at The Beat Museum, in North Beach, where books, photos, films and ephemera tell the stories of writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and others. In the attached store, the huge range of Beat literature will expand your mind beyond On the Road and Howl and Other Poems.

SEE ALSO: One Perfect Day in San Francisco