California: Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The name “Haight-Ashbury” became synonymous in the late 1960’s with the counterculture in all areas of the arts and creative expression.

Site Office

Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council

P.O. Box 170518

San Francisco, CA 94117

ph.: (415) 621-9553

The San Francisco neighborhood known as Haight-Ashbury takes its name from the intersection of Haight Street and Ashbury Avenue, immediately east of the Richmond district, north and south of the Panhandle, and east and southeast of Golden Gate Park. Affordable housing and proximity to Golden Gate Park apparently combined to make “the Haight” a desirable neighborhood and gathering point for the hippies of the 1960’s who preferred the Haight to the more cramped and increasingly expensive North Beach district of San Francisco, which had been the locus of the beatnik activities of the 1950’s.

The Human Be-In

Almost since the days of Father Junípero Serra and Captain John C. Frémont, San Francisco, the picturesque city of hills by the bay, has attracted artists and seekers of various sorts. Although North Beach had been the undisputed center of beatnik activity, the effect of the business activities of the so-called Hong Kong Mafia was the conversion of bistros and coffeehouses into sweatshops and noodle factories while rents increased in what had been a beatnik-Italian quarter near Broadway and Columbus (site of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books). These pressures conspired to move hipsters south and west toward Haight-Ashbury (or “Hashbury,” as some were soon to call it), for its cheap housing which ranged from Victorian-charming to contemporary-mundane but which had nice views of the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park and even of the Presidio and Golden Gate itself if one lived on the streets approaching Buena Vista Park.

Therefore, the neighborhood known as Haight-Ashbury was in many respects a fitting place to host a “Gathering of the Tribes,” as the January 14, 1967, San Francisco Human Be-In was called. There was perhaps no more characteristic single event in the so-called hippie period of Haight history than the Human Be-In. Organized by Allen Cohen, an editor at The San Francisco Oracle, one of the first underground newspapers, the Be-In was intended as a “union of love and activism.” Young people, poets, musicians, political operatives of the New Left, and college students converged at the Polo Grounds in one of the earliest examples of a mass gathering of young people for a nonpolitical cause. Although the antiwar movement had brought large numbers of young people together in the streets, organizing principles of the Human Be-In were very different. People came to “drop acid” (take LSD), listen to poetry and music, celebrate together their new religion of being in the countercultural congregation, enjoy the newfound sense of community, and celebrate the earth and themselves and each other.

Unlike rallies across the bay in Berkeley, there was nothing at all political at the Be-In. As the ingested LSD began to affect the collective consciousness, and the smells of marijuana and incense filled the air, a notable palette of San Francisco musicians and poets entertained the crowd in what became essentially the first major outdoor festival concert and happening–fully two and a half years before Woodstock and half a year before the notable 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Timothy Leary, formerly a Harvard researcher, greeted the audience with what would later become his signature statement: “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service played music throughout the afternoon. Poet Gary Snyder chanted the mantra of Maitreya, and poet Allen Ginsberg chanted the mantra of Shiva and danced in excitement as more and more people gathered. Other readings included those by poets Michael McClure, Ferlinghetti, and Lenore Kandel, all of whom were a part of the San Francisco literary community of the 1960’s. The Diggers, a neosocialist community group familiarly known as the “hip Salvation Army,” were very active, giving away slices of apple, turkey sandwiches, incense, and feathers. Although Jerry Rubin spoke briefly on behalf of the free speech and radical left movements of Berkeley, the events of the day were otherwise essentially apolitical. The crowd was estimated at anywhere from ten to twenty thousand, but the statistic is not as important as the effect: The music and poetry and drug-taking were no longer just occurring within the dark, evening confines of the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms–it was right out in the open, in daylight. There is perhaps no better musical evocation of the period than one-hit wonder Scott Mackenzie’s song, “San Francisco,” which includes the lyrical refrain, “If you’re going to San Francisco,/ Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”

The Free Clinic

What followed in Haight-Ashbury from the Human Be-In was the Summer of Love, 1967. With the lyrics of “San Francisco” as background, not only young adults but also teenagers, many of them runaways, converged in San Francisco, especially the Haight-Ashbury district, in the fabled summer of 1967. It remains a moot point whether the Haight at its countercultural zenith was populated with serious cultural radicals or merely with teenyboppers and runaways. What is undeniable, however, is that the medical needs of the community increased proportionally as the population–residential and street–swelled in the Haight during 1967 and 1968. Although the ethos of the Haight included freedom and openness, the presence of runaways and the active drug trafficking resulted in some community-wide paranoia. Countercultural journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “Love is the password in the Haight-Ashbury, but paranoia is the style. Nobody wants to go to jail.”

Although most of the inhabitants of the Haight did not have much money or personal possessions, their naturally passive attitudes as well as the effects of drugs rendered them easy targets of criminals. Hippie girls and women were especially vulnerable to attack, and such victims, due to their illegal drug usage, generally passive dispositions, and perhaps their status as runaways as well, were often reluctant to report crimes to the police or to seek legal redress.

In this context, affordable and universal health care was sorely needed. Dr. David Smith and his landmark Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic filled the vacuum in this regard. Located at 409 Clayton Avenue at the corner of Haight Street, the clinic was in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. It was founded on the belief that health care is a right, not a privilege. The health care administered by the Free Clinic was intended to be free, comprehensive, and nonjudgmental. Above all, it was to be humane. The history of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic remains one of the more positive legacies of the era.

The Summer of Love

In an April 5, 1967, press conference, Oracle editor and Be-In co-producer Allen Cohen announced that the summer of 1967 would be the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco. Coffeehouse owners and head shop owners, along with other small businesspeople in the Haight, combined to organize the Haight Independent Proprietors (HIP), a community and business organization. HIP subsequently formed the Council for the Summer of Love for the express purpose of directing Summer of Love activities. Although the Council was organized for what may seem to be valid purposes and objectives, the Diggers strenuously opposed what they perceived to be the increasing commercialization of the Haight. The Diggers would have preferred to keep media attention away from the Haight and the so-called hippie phenomenon, which even merited a Time magazine cover story for the July 7, 1967, issue: “The Hippies: The Philosophy of a Subculture.” Many Haight residents grew bitter as their neighborhood was overrun with tourists, runaways, and increased police patrols while the rest of the country waxed nostalgic very quickly about what was perceived to be the charming countercultural community of Haight-Ashbury.

Death of the Hippie and Continuing Legacies

Police surveillance and media exposure combined with the natural, deleterious effects of a culture centered on drug-taking to doom the naïvely positive ethos that Haight-Ashbury had represented in 1965 and 1966. As early as October 6, 1967, a “Death of the Hippie” funeral service and parade was held, though the hippie ethos remained operative well into the 1970’s. However, as marijuana was subsumed by cocaine, PCP (angel dust), STP, and even heroin as the Haight drugs of choice, the resulting human cost was proportionally higher as well. By the mid-1970’s, many of the HIP storefronts were closed, and the crime rate soared in the Haight. A rejuvenated Haight developed in the mid- and late 1970’s, largely through the gay pride movement and the political activism of supervisor Harvey Milk and others. Gay and lesbian storeowners started shops for cut and dried flowers, essential oils, and many of the types of arts and crafts that had been purveyed by the HIP storeowners one decade earlier. To this day, the Haight remains a countercultural mecca, the haven now for people informed and inspired by a gay and lesbian ethos rather than by the former hippie ethos.

Places to Visit

Any visit to the Haight should begin at the eastern terminus of Golden Gate Park at the so-called Hippie Hill. Proceed east along the eight blocks of the Panhandle, site of many impromptu concerts and Diggers free food giveaways. At 1748 Haight Street, the Straight Theater (“The Straight on the Haight”)–site of a vaudeville movie theater that was renovated into a multimedia environmental theater which hosted the likes of the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, and Santana–was demolished in 1981. Many other sites of interest remain, however, including the Xanadu Leather Shop (1764 Haight Street), I/Thou Coffee Shop (1736 Haight Street), and the former site of the Diggers’ Free Store (1090 Cole Street).

For Further Information
  • Gips, Elizabeth. Scrapbook of a Haight-Ashbury Pilgrim: Spirit, Sacraments, and Sex in 1967-68. San Francisco: Changes, 1994.
  • Harrison, Hank. The Dead. Millbrae, Calif.: Celestial Arts, 1980. This definitive history of the Grateful Dead through 1979 includes information on Haight-Ashbury as well as black-and-white photographs and several appendices, including five astrological charts for what Harrison considers to be the five watershed episodes in the development of San Francisco rock music culture.
  • Hoskyns, Barney. Beneath the Diamond Sky: Haight-Ashbury, 1965-1970. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. This is an evenhanded and accurate chronicle of the Haight during the psychedelic era with black-and-white photographs of significant musicians and other key figures.
  • Lurie, Toby. Haight Street Blues. San Francisco: Journeys I, 1988.
  • Obst, Linda, ed. The Sixties. New York: Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1977. In a large-scale format reminiscent of Life magazine, this 315-page text is organized chronologically with five or six discrete articles on each year, including relevant material on San Francisco, the Haight, and the counterculture. There are large, museum-quality photographs.
  • O’Neill, William L. Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960’s. New York: Quadrangle, 1971. A well-crafted combination of a scholarly and carefully researched text that is also very accessible reading. O’Neill, a history professor at Rutgers University, devotes a long chapter to the counterculture.
  • Pareles, Jon, and Patricia Romanowsky, eds. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll. New York: Summit Books, 1983. This definitive rock and roll encyclopedia includes relevant articles on each of the San Francisco psychedelic groups that lived and played in the Haight during the mid-1960’s.
  • Perry, Charles. The Haight-Ashbury: A History. New York: Random House, 1984. This text remains the definitive history of Haight-Ashbury.
Categories: History