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Bohemia’s Strange Trip

from the magazine

Bohemia’s Strange Trip

Fifty years after the Summer of Love, freedom flourishes in San Francisco—if you can afford the rent. Summer 2017
Arts and Culture
Cities
California

San Francisco, that most forward-looking of cities, has looked backward this summer. Half a century after an estimated 100,000 young Americans descended on the 20 blocks surrounding the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets to “tune in, turn on, and drop out,” the city has commemorated the birth of America’s counterculture. A frenzy of nostalgia—exhibitions, concerts, conferences, lectures, installations, street fairs, walking and “magical mystery” bus tours—has celebrated all things “hippie.” More than 50 of San Francisco’s best-known institutions—the California Historical Society, de Young Fine Arts Museum, University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco State University, San Francisco’s ballet and opera companies, dozens of art galleries, and private merchants—paid tribute to 1967’s Summer of Love, iconic shorthand for a decade that not only shattered the city’s and the nation’s cultural and political norms but also gave birth to a countermovement that elected Ronald Reagan as California’s governor—and, in 1981, the nation’s president. In 1966, Reagan ran explicitly against student activism in Berkeley, which was then merging with the growing youth movement across the bay in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to create the hippie counterculture.

California’s political schizophrenia, an enduring hallmark of the state’s politics, may have predated that fateful summer, argues Adam Hirschfelder, director of strategic initiatives for the California Historical Society, but it was “deeply exacerbated by the 1960s counterculture.” It is an irony not lost on some sponsors of these myriad anniversary “happenings” that, while San Francisco has been celebrating the youth culture that evolved into “San Francisco values”—left-wing or rigidly liberal politics, social tolerance, gender and sexual freedom, a shared sense of community, concern about the planet’s inherent fragility, and an embrace of change—President Donald Trump was marking a half-year in the White House by proclaiming in tweets and speeches the triumph of his own unorthodox, nostalgic political upheaval, one aimed at making America “great” again.

Today, San Francisco is better known as the home of another kind of revolution—that of high tech and Silicon Valley, which, by some accounts, owes much to the ideas and institutions that emerged during that fateful summer 50 years ago. It’s no accident, many argue, that the Bay Area became high tech’s geographic and spiritual global headquarters. Information, too, wants to be “free.”

By now, the information revolution has long since overrun the countercultural revolution, at least economically. Well-heeled techies have displaced latter-day hippies, says Stannous Fluoride, a wry, well-informed guide for Flower Power Walking Tours in the Haight. He spoke with me while guiding tourists along the Haight’s tree-lined streets and elegant late-Victorian houses, the so-called Painted Ladies, where Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane—and, yes, the mass murderer Charles Manson and Jonestown’s infamous Reverend Jim Jones—once lived or hung out. “What helped make the counterculture possible was cheap rent,” he says. But since 1987, San Francisco’s median home price has exceeded New York’s, and for years, the city has had the dubious distinction of being the nation’s most expensive; it appeared last year on the Guardian newspaper’s list of the world’s ten costliest places to live. The older, avant-garde Beats and, later, the teenage hippies who flocked here could not have afforded to live in the city today. The musicians who combined elements of jazz, blues, folk, and rock and roll at the Fillmore West and the Avalon Ballroom to produce a quintessentially American sound would not be able to pay the rates at even a decrepit recording studio today, much less the run-down house at 710 Ashbury Street once shared by San Francisco–born Jerry Garcia and other members of the Grateful Dead, the band that embodied the counterculture spirit.

Heroin, opioids, and crime are on the rise again in Fog City. Homelessness has again become a plague, and not only in the Haight. Billionaires step over sleeping bags and dodge dog feces on sidewalks to enter some of the nation’s most expensive restaurants. A city with more dogs than children, San Francisco has become, like New York, a city of extremes of wealth and poverty, with too few of the middle-class adults upon whom urban cultural and economic vibrancy ultimately depend.

According to Salon founder David Talbot, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist and author of Season of the Witch, a sweeping chronicle of the counterculture, “San Francisco values” did not “come into the world with flowers in their hair,” he wrote. “They were born howling in blood and strife.” As his book and the most forthright of the commemorations make clear, San Francisco endured years of “frantic and often violent conflict” after that much celebrated summer of ’67—the political assassinations of a mayor and the first openly gay member of the city’s Board of Supervisors, bombings, riots, kidnappings, serial race murders, antigay street mayhem, the biggest mass suicide in history in Jonestown, and a panic-inducing AIDS epidemic—before the city finally “made peace with itself and its new identity.”

Still, as Talbot argues, the counterculture could have been born only in this city of outcasts. Despite its modern-day obsession with astrology and all things spiritual, San Francisco, or Yerba Buena, as it was initially known, has always been unapologetically ribald, eccentric, and moneygrubbing. While most of America’s eastern cities were founded by God-fearing Puritans seeking freedom to practice their faith and form communities of decorum, the men who came to the Bay Area were schemers and dreamers, attracted by the lure of gold, copper, and silver, or by the opportunity to sell life’s essentials to those hoping to acquire them. (See “California Emerges,” Winter 2015.) By 1866, Talbot reports, the city had 31 saloons for every place of worship. Even the great earthquake of 1906, which some evangelical preachers considered God’s verdict on “Sodom Francisco,” failed to dampen the raucous, bar- and burlesque-filled energy and profits generated by the Barbary Coast. William A. Kelley, a visitor in the early 1850s, described San Francisco as a city of “precocious depravity.”

By the 1930s, however, the city’s more staid, God-fearing Irish—and later, Italian-Catholic families—had solidified their political control and imposed a new, unaccustomed order. San Francisco’s upper class had long been at least half-Catholic, a distinction among American cities shared only by Baltimore and New Orleans, notes Michael Anton, a native San Franciscan and critic of the city and its culture. The Catholic Church’s influence permeated key institutions, particularly city hall and the San Francisco police department. Cops routinely rounded up gays and lesbians in midnight raids. At the same time, the radical longshoremen’s union and the Democratic Party became embedded in the city’s political DNA.

San Francisco has always been unapolegetically ribald, eccentric, and moneygrubbing.

But San Francisco’s inherent rowdiness could not be suppressed forever. It erupted once again in the mid-1950s, says historian Dennis McNally, when poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press (founder of the eponymous bookstore) published Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” warning that America was becoming a soulless monster of consumerism and conformity. “Howl” “lit a fuse and defined a mass of disaffected proto-artists who didn’t buy into mainstream values,” McNally wrote in an essay for the de Young museum’s catalog of its April-August exhibition Summer of Love, Art, Fashion, and Rock and Roll, a display of some 300 rare and familiar concert posters, photos, films, interactive music-and-light shows, and the embroidered denim jeans and loose-fitting shirts and dresses that forever changed how young Americans, especially young women, dressed. Arrested and charged with obscenity for selling Ginsberg’s poem, Ferlinghetti and the clerk who had sold the book to an undercover cop stood trial. Their acquittal in October 1957 was a pivotal free-speech victory that helped fuel the 1964 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. Another precursor of the coming upheaval came in 1960, when protesters ran the House Un-American Activities Committee out of San Francisco after it tried holding hearings in the city. In 1965, psychedelic proselytizers Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, along with members of the Grateful Dead, began hosting “acid parties,” at which LSD and other mind-bending drugs spiked communal punch bowls and were distributed to runaways for free.

Many historians date the unofficial birth of the Summer of Love to the winter of 1967—specifically, to January 14, 1967, when tens of thousands of “freaks,” as hippies then called themselves, gathered in Golden Gate Park for a “Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In.” For a full day, they ate, chanted, sang, and listened to rock bands, poems by Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Michael McClure, and speeches by Timothy Leary, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (the “primary apostle for Zen Buddhism in America,” as McNally calls him), and Berkeley radicals like Jerry Rubin. At day’s end, audience members picked up the trash, leaving the park spotless, to the amazement of police. The media took note, finding in the gatherings in and near the Haight a sharp counterpoint to the bloodshed of the Vietnam War. Hippie culture made the cover of Time. John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas wrote a song encouraging people to attend the Monterey International Pop Festival in June wearing “flowers in your hair.” To ensure that they did, the festival flew in 10,000 flowers from Hawaii.

As legions of teenagers eagerly anticipating summer break made plans to travel to San Francisco, city government looked at the impending human flood with indifference. Meetings between Haight merchants seeking help from the mayor and city officials came to naught. The Haight would have to fend for itself. The “Diggers,” political provocateurs and members of a former mime troupe, provided volunteer services for the youth pouring in to the city—free food and clothing, “feed-ins” near City Hall, and a parade to celebrate “the death of money.” The Diggers sought to “liberate San Francisco’s consciousness” by arguing that food, shelter, health care, and even entertainment were not commodities but fundamental human rights. Their posters and street manifestos were the most “passionate expressions of what would later be called San Francisco values,” McNally wrote.

To rescue teenage runaways from being swept up in police dragnets, activist lawyers formed the Haight-Ashbury Legal Organization, or HALO, funded by the Grateful Dead and other bands’ benefit concerts. In 1967, Huckleberry House, the nation’s first alternative shelter for runaways, opened its doors. That same year, Robert Conrich, a physician and LSD enthusiast, launched the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, which proclaimed: “Health care is a right, not a privilege,” according to Talbot. Kids freaking out during bad acid trips or bouts of suicidal depression filled the clinic’s “calm center,” where they received care from volunteer staff.

But these efforts were soon overwhelmed by the tens of thousands who flocked to the city that summer. Hard-drug merchants began replacing the dispensers of marijuana and LSD-spiked punch. The neighborhood’s fragile infrastructure crumbled under the weight of too many homeless people and too few city services, rendering the Summer of Love a “slightly cruel joke,” McNally observed. “By Labor Day, the Haight was a tourist carnival nightmare. By 1968, Haight Street would be inhabited by children shooting methedrine and heroin. The magic died hard.” Crime had doubled in the neighborhood by 1976.

Keepers of the counterculture flame note that some of what emerged from the Haight—especially what McNally calls a “Thoreauvian respect for the environment”—would eventually become mainstream beliefs. Many of the radical or fun-seeking counterculture pioneers may have left the Haight after the Diggers staged a “death of the Hippie” procession in October 1967, but they took their alternative ideas and lifestyles back home with them. Others went on to found communes and alternative communities elsewhere. Some activists would launch successful ventures—Stewart Brand, for instance, the army veteran who spent time on Ken Kesey’s bus, started the Whole Earth Catalog, which linked the counterculture to the digital future. “Counterculture values would be a significant part of the subsequent growth of Silicon Valley as the nation’s new technological center,” McNally wrote. “If you meditate in some fashion, or eat organic food, or do yoga, or support gay marriage, or are concerned about the environment and the survival of the planet, you are still swimming in the currents that picked up such a froth here in the 1960s.”

Others scoff at these ostensible achievements. San Francisco’s hedonist narcissism distracts from the huge challenges that the city now confronts—among them, scarce, overpriced housing and staggering income inequality. The top 1 percent of households in San Francisco’s metropolitan area earned $3.6 million on average in 2013, according to one report—44 times the average income of the bottom 99 percent. And San Francisco’s 1 percent, the Bay Area’s new gilded class, demands ever more from a city to which it gives relatively little philanthropically. Fund-raisers for impoverished children in South Sudan and to protect the Amazon are oversubscribed, while the city’s excellent opera company and ballet struggle financially.

It is San Francisco’s smug self-satisfaction that so enrages critics like Michael Anton, the San Francisco native who now works for the Trump White House in national-security communications. In a blistering 2015 critique in the Claremont Review of Books, Anton asserted that “San Francisco values” had come to reflect little more than a “confluence of hippie leftism and filthy lucre,” a marriage of convenience between “old-time materialism and hippie ‘morality.’ ” What kept the Summer of Love veneer going for so long, he asserted, is the implicit deal between the high-tech oligarchs and the hippie rank-and-file. “The latter not only decline to use their considerable propaganda skills to vilify the former, but cheerfully glorify and whitewash them,” he wrote. “The oligarchs in turn subsidize the lefties through nonprofits and make-work jobs” and, more important, “take their cues from them on matters of politics not directly contrary to their economic interests.” Both groups benefit from what he called this “socio-intellectual money laundering.” The resulting policies have done little to create opportunities for an aspiring middle class that is neither elite nor bohemian.

Anton is not wrong about the less savory aspects of the counterculture. A notable omission in the city’s much touted tradition of “tolerance,” for instance, is that it rarely extends to politics. There is no welcome mat out for Republicans, especially conservatives. Student mobs at Berkeley boast about preventing conservative scholars from speaking on campus. Socially liberal but fiscally conservative activists like David Crane, who worked as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finance director, struggle to raise funds for candidates willing to question the pension burdens being imposed on future generations by San Francisco liberals in the name of “workers’ rights.” Several Republican city residents confided that they would never display a Trump/Pence sticker on their car or home window for fear of vandalism.

Nor have many counterculture enthusiasts noted the irony of the use of the Summer of Love as yet another marketing tool for tourism, now a key industry for San Francisco. The San Francisco Travel Association predicts that some 25.6 million tourists will visit the city in 2017 and spend roughly $9.22 billion. Museums and other commemoration sponsors say that attendance is strong. “People throughout the world still care about what happened here when the counterculture was vibrant and organic,” said Hirschfelder of the California Historical Society, whose superb exhibition was curated by McNally. 

McNally concedes that some of the commemorations have been “silly and trivializing.” The Summer of Love “wasn’t about love-ins and long hair,” he said. “It was about a movement and a generation that changed this city, the nation, and the world. It was about a serious challenge to the status quo. And that,” he said, “is always to be honored.” Or, at least, remembered.

Photo: Hippies greet the sunrise on a Haight-Ashbury hilltop, 1967. (AP PHOTO)

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