For veterans and fans of the 1960s’ counterculture or for those who merely want to relive recent history, a visit to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood would seem like the perfect destination. Not far from the panhandle of Golden Gate Park—which witnessed many of the concerts, protests, and “be-ins” of the decade—the intersection between Haight Street and Ashbury Street survives as the birthplace of the international Hippy Movement, a memorial to the cultural chaos of the 1960s.
The arts flourished here, not only giving the Hippies their collective voice, but also driving the era’s Cultural Revolution to new extremes. Robert Crumb sold his first comics here. The Grateful Dead refined their music here. Janis Joplin drank here (and there and over there). Artists, musicians, writers, and poets all called it home. This was the neighborhood that fostered not only cultural upheaval but cultural folk heroes as well. No one, no matter how Republican, can ignore the impact this little neighborhood has had on the world today.
Visiting Haight-Ashbury to smoke a joint seemed like a rite of passage. We wanted it to be a pilgrimage to the psychedelic Mecca, a middle-finger extension to the straight, corporate mode of conduct. But the neighborhood’s not what it used to be, and our symbolic act of protest almost got us busted.
When we went, not so very long ago, we found that gentrification preceded us. The cheap, dirty houses where the Dead lived in communal bliss have been cleaned up and sold off. The fixer-uppers have been fixed up. All those flop-houses have been not flopped, but flipped for a profit. Lucy in the sky, even with all her diamonds, couldn’t afford the raised rent and had to move out. The entire neighborhood has been transformed.
Sure, we found a couple head shops and a comic book store still in business. They were counting on us, the nostalgic tourist roaming aimlessly in a heady fog, to support them. The rest of the area is now home to upscale boutiques and beauty salons. The neighborhood today is a decent place to live. Even your mother would approve.
The hippy tourists and the homeless hangers-on have become a minority in their own historical neighborhood. Tie-dyed T’s have been replaced by rainbow flags. Dancing bears have been usurped by Teddy bears. Leather bars aren’t just for bikers anymore.
Yes, Haight-Ashbury has turned gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. It just didn’t seem to belong there, in the Home of the Hippie. The Jimi Hendrix Electric Church Foundation, which we were lucky enough to see on an earlier visit, survived for a time, but it’s gone now, and the other purple houses in the neighborhood have a much different meaning than they did back in the day.
Yet when we contemplated the change—like all good Haight-Ashbury tourists, over a smoke—we began to realize something important (at least it seemed really important at the time, if you know what we mean). The more the neighborhood has changed, the more it’s stayed the same. Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s helped birth the sexual revolution. Today, a different sexual revolution’s being waged. Back in the ’60s, women burned their bras while men burned their draft cards. Today, a portion of the population is doing a slow burn as they try to gain equal rights. Sound familiar? Maybe the change is more fitting than we initially gave it credit for. Maybe it’s fate. Maybe it’s karma. Maybe gays just make better tenants than hippies.
If you want to make the pilgrimage to Sixties Central, aka Head Headquarters, don’t expect the old neighborhood to be there to greet you. The real estate market waits for no man, and no monument, museum, or movie will ever capture what it was like to be at the Haight in its height of Ashbury prime. History moves on. Maybe it’s time for you to do the same.
Little Known Quote: Former Beatle George Harrison visited the neighborhood in 1967 and was appalled by what he saw. “I went to Haight-Ashbury, expecting it to be this brilliant place, and it was just full of horrible, spotty, dropout kids on drugs. It certainly showed me what was really happening in the drug culture. It wasn’t . . . all these groovy people having spiritual awakenings and being artistic. It was like the Bowery, it was like alcoholism, it was like any addiction.”
Lessons Learned: You can’t go back in time. Ignoring reality is like slaying windmills: it only works if you’re half-crazed or half-cocked. Either way, there’s a cell waiting for you if you continue. Accept what is. Enjoy the new ambiance of the neighborhood and its businesses. Break out the credit card and go shopping. Maybe you’ll even find a great new restaurant.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 4
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 2/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: San Francisco International Airport
Native Population: 750,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: Piercing salons, homeless, Victorian architecture, Castro Stret (nearby), and the Golden Gate Park (also nearby).
Final Point of Interest: Haight-Ashbury holds a street fair every year in June.