Don't Even Go There—Travel Writing for the Rest of Us

Even if the world is your oyster, you can still chip a tooth on its shell. While travel magazines feature exotic locales of breathtaking beauty, we expose sites so depressing that no traveler this side of Edgar Allan Poe would venture there without a tub-load of tranquilizers. Take Las Vegas (please) and the $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet line at Sam’s Town. That's the world we explore at Don’t Even Go There.

On this site, we tell of places we’ve visited but wish we hadn’t. We reveal vacation plans gone awry and relate horror stories from the road best abandoned. These true stories reflect where we’ve chosen to go. We only have ourselves to blame. We rarely needed to exaggerate—the truth really is stranger than a Dan Brown novel.

Don’t Even Go There: travel tips for those of us who aren’t escorted by security guards, pampered by wealthy benefactors, or provided a generous per diem. This blog is for seasoned travelers and armchair tourists who want the real world first-hand and head-on, with all its drama, horror, and humor. You’ll laugh at us, cry with us, and decide to stay home more often.

02 December 2008

Haighted It

As long as we’re skewering once popular destinations, let’s continue with the following story. At one time, we dreamed of going to this place—to pay our respects, to relive a past we never knew, and to just see it with our own eyes. To say we were disappointed is an understatement, as you’ll read for yourself. —MB & JS

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
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 4
Rent-Attainment: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 1

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.


DALSF said...

I love the idea of your blog. Came across it a few weeks ago.

Just got caught up in your Haight (Haighted It) story. Strange how people view San Francisco's Haight. I'm 5th generation San Franciscan, grew up in and around the Haight, where we used to trick-or-treat on Halloween from shop to shop.

Loved the first wave of hippies, and hated it within a year. A safe family neighborhood turned into an ongoing costume party, then into drug hell, and then into silly wanna-bes for years. I know one woman who showed up about 20 years too late for the party, followed the Grateful Dead around the world, and was still making tie-dye T-shirts when I last saw her a couple of years ago. Didn't like tie-dye in the first place, and surely don't like them now.

I counselled at Haight-Ashbury Clinic for a spell. That was equally sad as it was frequented with young people wanting to be Jack Kerouac, et al.

As for "hangers-on becoming a minority in their own historical neighborhood," well, no. Hippies and druggies did not start the Haight. It was a wonderful San Francisco neighborhood with beautiful Victorian homes before the hippies and it is being resurrected again as a wonderul San Francisco neighborhood with beautiful Victorian homes. Thank God.

Mark Bloom and Jason Scholder said...

DALSF, thank you for your detailed note, sprinkled with some fabulous history. Had we only known sooner, we might have adjusted our expectations. But then you wouldn't have had any reason to write . . . and maybe neither would we. Stop back again soon.