Forget the sun. Forget the North Pole. For one brief summer back in 1967, the world revolved around the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco, the Hollywood and Vine of Hippiedom.
It was the Summer of Love, a time when youth flowed to San Francisco hoping to remake the world with flowers, innocence and LSD.
Much has changed since the “turn on, tune in and drop out” counterculture burst into the public consciousness 20 summers ago. The Vietnam War has ended, the basic nature of affluence in the affluent society has changed, and hippies have become a comfortable, almost quaint, anachronism.
But the flash of history represented by the Summer of Love has had lasting effects on both the nation and this city, in ways ranging from a broadly based environmentalist movement and a general distrust of authority to new attitudes toward sex and a chronic problem with illegal drugs.
“The whole legacy of that cultural revolution in the mid-'60s is extremely important,” said historian Kevin Starr, media fellow at the Hoover Institute. “Attitudes toward social relationships . . . that were considered eccentric 20 years ago are mainstream America now.”
“San Francisco was a wellspring, the headquarters in some sense,” recalls Todd Gitlin, an author, essayist and associate professor of sociology at UC Berkeley. “People, at least in the Midwest, weren’t looking to New York for cultural cues. They looked to San Francisco.”
San Francisco “popularized an attitude,” said feminist journalist Deirdre English, who as a teen-ager made a pilgrimage from Chicago that summer. “The attitude was one of seizing life, feeling free; feeling that if we do not like something we can change it; feeling there was this critical mass of people who wanted to reject inherited, authoritarian, conformist ideas and make the world our own.”
San Francisco, which served as ground-zero for this cultural explosion, has shared its fallout. Haight-Ashbury has changed--more expensive types of trendy shops now line Haight Street and the once-neglected Victorian homes adopted by hippie communes are now among the most coveted housing in town. But the old working-class neighborhood still hosts the avant garde as well as the old guard.
The city itself also continues to reflect the new life styles ushered in by the counterculture. It has the highest percentages of single-person and single-parent households of any city in the nation. It also is the unofficial capital of the human-potential movement, with its self-help and self-actualization gurus.
San Francisco also remains an individualist’s Xanadu, where the hippie cry, “Do your own thing!” served to incubate a new cornucopia of causes--women’s liberation, gay rights, senior citizen power, emancipation of mental patients and accommodation of “mobility-impaired persons,” as well as efforts to save the whales, protect the forests and politically empower every racial, ethnic and sexual constituency with a typewriter and a photocopier.
“It has made San Francisco the alternative political capital of America,” said Starr, with some disdain. “It took San Francisco out of the mainstream of American cities and made it an eccentric alternative capital.”
Despite its effect on the city, or maybe because of it, the Summer of Love will pass almost unnoticed by the San Francisco Establishment; spokesmen for Mayor Dianne Feinstein and the city Convention and Visitors Bureau said they have no plans for any celebration. Indeed, city officials were reluctant even to discuss the anniversary.
Even unofficial events are few. An art-house theater in the area produced a multimedia show earlier this year, and UC Berkeley sponsored a seminar on the ‘60s experience last March. The final event happens this morning, when a local producer will host an “All Beings Parade” down Haight Street, a “community celebration” in Golden Gate Park and a combination concert and poetry reading in a Haight Street nightclub.
Local newspapers, magazines and television stations have offered nostalgic recaps of the summer, but San Francisco itself seems too busy with the future to spend much time romanticizing this sliver of its past. Hippies, after all, were just another chapter in the city’s richly bohemian history.
San Francisco has long represented a frontier, in several senses. Born as a boom town in the Gold Rush, its very foundation was laid by social castoffs and dreamy schemers of every conviction. The wide-open West has always represented freedom and possibility in the American psyche, so San Francisco--at the edge of the continent--was the furthest extension of those ideals.
‘A Perfected Boston’
Examiner columnist Rob Morse recently mused that the city was “a perfected Boston . . . a place where the values of Thoreau and the transcendentalists have roosted, without the sexual Puritanism and no-neck racism of the town of bean and cod.”
Indeed, a native son of Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac, took the 1950s’ “Beat Generation” on the road--and to San Francisco. The Beats flourished in North Beach, eventually overflowing into the low-rent Haight-Ashbury district.
That was the start of bohemianism in the Haight, which soon started to draw white, middle-class youngsters--dismissed by the Beats as “hippies” because of their pseudo-hip attitude.
Hippies flourished in the early ‘60s for several reasons, sociologists say, including a new youth-oriented culture, an unprecedented number of teen-agers, a period of unparalleled affluence and the popular sense of American destiny and power. At the same time, these truths were tainted by wrenching social events, such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a brutal reaction to the civil rights movement, the deepening Vietnam War and a lingering anxiety over nuclear weapons.
“Those were the issues that cut through the b.s., that cut through the traditional value system,” concluded cultural historian Peter Carroll, author of a number of books and essays on both the ‘60s and the effect they had on the ‘70s. “My sense of it is the political issues were the ones that really broke the back of the culture, and then allowed (the counterculture) to surface.”
Also important were, of all things, two pharmaceuticals. One was the birth control pill. The other was LSD.
“I think it needs to be established firmly, flatly and finally that what we call ‘the ‘60s’ would never have happened had it not been for psychedelic drugs,” novelist Tom Robbins said during the recent UC Berkeley colloquium on the decade.
Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, was introduced to the Haight-Ashbury subculture courtesy of the Department of Defense.
Several historians, including Charles Perry, note that Defense Department researchers at the Palo Alto Veteran’s Administration Hospital paid Stanford students $75 a day in the late 1950s and early ‘60s to take LSD and other drugs to help explore possible military uses of the chemicals.
Among the happy applicants for this job was a young writer named Ken Kesey. Kesey, in fact, later wrote part of his acclaimed first novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” while tripping on psychedelics. He was keen to share this remarkable drug experience with others, and San Francisco’s bohemians were a receptive audience.
Use of Drug Spread
LSD began to spread in volume throughout the Haight in 1965, thanks in no small measure to Augustus Owsley Stanley, the best-known source of the then-legal drug. At the time, LSD was seen as a new method to explore reality and challenge society’s assumptions.
In his book “The Summer of Love,” Haight-Ashbury chronicler Gene Anthony quotes an early LSD merchant as saying that LSD was seen as “the opening to the unity of mankind. . . . A means for developing and expanding human consciousness, and an increase of intelligence and compassion.”
It also was a means by which more than a few inexperienced users frightened themselves into walking out of windows or into plate-glass doors, recalled San Francisco Police Inspector Richard Leon, who walked a beat in the Haight area then.
Nonetheless, fueled by LSD, marijuana and new ideas, the bohemian community flourished. As the community grew in 1965 and ’66, so did its reputation--and the number of people arriving with only the clothes on their backs and maybe a few dollars. By the fall of 1966, people were predicting an invasion the following summer by tens of thousands of aspiring hippies.
Many would be drawn by “The San Francisco Sound,” and those musicians who performed it--The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and others. The legendary Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967 added to the youth tide.
Summer Lasted a Year
In some ways, the Summer of Love lasted an entire year. The first signpost may have been in October, 1966, when the Legislature outlawed LSD and hippies responded with a peaceful “Love Pageant” protest rally in Golden Gate Park.
That same month, after witnessing a brief spasm of race riots in adjoining neighborhoods, a political-theatrical-anarchic group cleaved off from the San Francisco Mime Troupe and earnestly began to encourage spontaneous creativity among the swelling ranks of the new, aimless, would-be hippies.
The group called itself the Diggers, after a group of religious Communards who clothed and fed the poor of feudal England.
“We asked: ‘What is the social perspective of the hippies? What should it be?’ ” said Peter Berg, an original Digger. “We decided that since the media picked up on ‘love,’ we would just put ‘free’ in front of it. In fact, we put free in front of everything. You give me the noun, and we’d put free in front of it and see what happens. So: Free food.”
“Free housing. Free money,” offered Berg’s wife and fellow Digger, Judy Goldhaft.
“Free clinic. Free theater,” rejoined Berg.
“Free clothes. Free experiences,” responded Goldhaft.
“Everything is free. Do your own thing.”
That was the Diggers’ leitmotif and the hippie Zeitgeist.
Discards of Society
Diggers gathered the discards of the consumer society and distributed them to the hippies, giving away free hot meals in the park and opening up a “free store” full of clothing and other items.
Berg and Goldhaft said the idea was to encourage hippies to free themselves of greed and other problems by shedding materialism and to create art in everything they did, by doing whatever they wanted. The Diggers helped to light the fuse by performing free theater on the streets and by launching into spontaneous street games.
Part of the scene were the “gatherings"--parties, happenings, concerts, meetings--some of them planned, some not. The biggest of all came in January, 1967, with “Pow Wow: A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In.” It was a joining of forces between local young political radicals and young apolitical hippies. It wound up more like a free concert and picnic than political rally, but tens of thousands of people attended.
As the Summer of Love unfolded, the magic of Haight-Ashbury withered. Many of the new pilgrims came in search only of free sex, or cheap drugs--a party for the summer, not a new way of life. Some immigrants, encouraged by reports that society’s rules were suspended, came to exploit the innocents and commit crimes.
“By ’67, it was the worst time there,” Leon remembered. “I think that if you had any kids that weren’t disillusioned at all, it was in late ’65 or ’66. Then, by ’67, all these guys--dope dealers--had really moved in in force.”
In October, 1967, the Diggers gave their final performance, the last act in that type of street theater they had titled the Summer of Love. It was a mock funeral called “The Death of Hippie.”
Within a year, the hangers-on and “part-time hippies” had scattered. Most real hippies had fled the Haight to join rural communes in Northern California or Southern Oregon. In those bucolic, self-sufficient settings, many felt they could better act on their new principles.
Many are still there today, running farms, hosting small inns or working at various crafts when they are not trying to preserve the environment or promote peace. Others have returned to cities, including San Francisco, where they are active in the peace movement, environmental causes and other political work.
“People who were disaffiliated in the ‘60s--that is, those who questioned their commitment to the mainstream society--never really lost their sense of disaffiliation,” Carroll noted. “You really never can go back in.”
But there is a sense among some observers that the people who still live alternative life styles were among the brightest and most promising of their peers. They are seen almost as a new “lost generation.”
“There are a lot of lost cases in my generation . . . people who are grossly underachieving,” English said. “We wasted years and years and years by not taking things seriously. And now a lot of people are in middle age, and they don’t have a position of authority; they don’t have any power in the society. It’s like we all took incompletes in adulthood.”