Feel the love in San Francisco
During the 1960s, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood was the hub of the psychedelic counterculture movement. It was also the epicenter of the transformative Summer of Love, which took place in 1967. That year, an estimated 100,000 young people, musicians, artists and curious middle-class vacationers arrived in the city to pursue creative self-exploration as well as sexual and spiritual enlightenment – often through the use of psychedelic drugs – in the spirit of universal love and peace.
Today, you can retrace the footsteps of those hippies or “flower children” on the Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour. It is led by local resident Sunshine Powers, known to everyone in the Haight as Sunny. As well as pointing out the locations associated with many of the famous musicians of the scene, Sunny also imparts a good sense of the ideas that flourished at the time and that continue to shape the urban fabric of the city.
Stops on the tour include the Red House, named for the song of the same name by former resident Jimi Hendrix, a pink house where Janis Joplin lived and the home of The Grateful Dead, where an original red-and-white painting by rock poster artist Stanley Mouse can be discerned against the stone step.
The tour also passes the location of the Free Store, which was operated in 1967 by community activist group The Diggers. They named themselves partly in honor of a 17th century English anarchist group and partly because they believed everyone should do what they “dig.” The Diggers believed that freedom was only possible through the abolishment of money and the social influence and hierarchy that went with it. During the Summer of Love, they offered daily essentials at the Free Store, including free food, in exchange for other items or skills.
“The Summer of Love wouldn’t have happened without the Diggers,” explains Sunny. “They used to bake bread upright in coffee cans so that they could fit more in the oven; if you cleaned three cans for them, they would give you a loaf.”
Sunny wasn’t born yet during the Summer of Love – her parents met in San Francisco that year – but she is fully committed to living in the community spirit of the time.
She is dressed head to toe in tie-dye, complimented by red suede ankle boots, long, brightly-colored feather earrings and a bright, sparkly swath of her own brand of glitter across her eyes. She is co-owner of clothing emporium and community base Jammin on Haight and is on the Board of Directors of Taking it to the Streets, a new organization that seeks to transform the lives of homeless kids in the Haight-Ashbury area. In her spare time, she educates people on local history.
“What happened here fifty years ago changed who we are as a society,” she says. “I feel it is our duty as members of this awesome community to not only honor that, but to shape the next 50 years.”
Sunny’s favorite stop on the tour is the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, the first nonsectarian free clinic in the US. It was established in 1967 to support young people in the city suffering from substance abuse, mental disorders, sexually transmitted diseases and poor general heath. It continues to offer services at two locations in the city and was the model for free clinics state-wide.
“Healthcare should be a right, not a privilege,” Sunny says as she stops in front of the sign fronting the clinic. “If we don’t heal homelessness and addiction and help people with mental diseases, then we’re not going to move forward as a society. And isn’t that the role of a society – to move forward?”
San Francisco has a long tradition of welcoming diverse communities. The year after the 1849 Gold Rush, the city’s population swelled from 1,000 to 25,000, with arrivals from different countries and cultures. But it was the arrival of the Beats in the 1950s, a generation of writers that broke literary convention to explore controversial themes such as drug use, sexuality and immorality, in a style they described as “naked self-expression,” that paved the way for the sixties counterculture movement to take root in the city.
Journalist Joel Selvin has covered pop music for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1970 and has written several books about music. He says that Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On The Road, based on the writer’s music and drug fueled travels around the US, was the beacon that lured many artists to the city.
“When I wrote my book Summer of Love, I spoke to 200 musicians,” says Selvin. “Over 95% of them grew up somewhere else, but they all came to San Francisco because of On The Road.”
One of the key events that sparked the mass influx of people to the city during the summer of 1967 was the “love-pageant rally” gathering in october 1966, which was widely covered in the media. The rally protested the criminalization of LSD. The subsequent Human Be-In, held in Golden Gate Park, saw around 20,000 people gather to listen to music amid a haze of incense and marijuana smoke. It was at this event that American psychologist and psychedelic drugs advocate Timothy Leary uttered the iconic phrase “Turn on, tune in and drop out.”
The media and wider public’s interest in the hippie counterculture was further enhanced by the Monterey Pop Festival, whose lineup included The Jimi Hendrix Experience – the group’s first major American appearance, Haight resident Janis Joplin, The Who and Otis Redding. It was held in the Monterey County Fairgrounds 190km south of San Francisco in June 1967, the same weekend that most schools closed for the summer holiday.
Despite the blur of seemingly spontaneous concerts, LSD and Diggers soup, Haight resident Kurt “Crowbar” Kangas has many memories from the Summer of Love. “Concerts were held all the time. It never really mattered who played, it was a gathering of friends more than anything,” he says. “One of the most remembered events was when Jimi Hendrix played in the Pan Handle around Fell St and Clayton – this was before anyone knew who he was – and we all said, ‘Man, can this guy play the guitar.’”
Like many people living in the Haight at the time, Crowbar baked bread for the Diggers and sold issues of The San Francisco Oracle, an underground magazine that combined poetry, spirituality and multicultural interests with psychedelic design and reflected and shaped the Haight countercultural community.
After Oracle editor Allen Cohen passed away in 2004, his widow, Californian artist and former teacher Ann Cohen, put on his mantle to keep the feeling of the sixties alive in the local arts community. Today, she manages the magazine’s back catalog from her Chinatown studio.
Over a pot of green tea, surrounded by her in-the-moment paintings of performing musicians, Cohen and I look through color prints of psychedelic covers with titles such as “The Aquarian Age,” “Indian Issue” and “Psychedelics, Flowers and War.”
Between the covers, articles and interviews, transcribed word for word to avoid any manipulation of the message, hand-drawn ads for local food stores are interposed as well as classifieds for bands seeking musicians and announcements for gay dances held at 7:30am in local community centers.
“I think of San Francisco as a big community,” she says. “When we come together, when we accept all different people, we’re healthier. When you feel good about yourself, you do better. That’s from the sixties – being accepting of different people. Those seeds are still blossoming.”
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, exhibitions, street parties and concerts are taking place in San Francisco throughout the year. But the influence of sixties counterculture and the Summer of Love can be found at many levels of the city’s urban fabric at any time.
The city has progressive social drug rehabilitation programs and through its Healthy San Francisco health access program offers affordable healthcare to uninsured residents. It’s also a sanctuary city with a policy of not prosecuting illegal immigrants. Folsom Street Fair, billed as the world’s biggest leather event, attracts leather fetish enthusiasts from around the world. And the Castro Street Fair, set within the district where pedestrian crosswalks are painted with rainbows, celebrates LGBT rights.
“Since the Summer of Love, we in San Francisco have always been open to love,” says Sunny Powers. “Whether that’s the gay marriage movement or equality, it has been an idea to let people be who they are.
“That’s something San Francisco holds very true. It doesn’t matter what you look like, it matters what you do. If you’re a good person, San Francisco is going to be good to you.”
Text: Gemma Price
Published: January 12, 2017