If history repeats itself, which it’s known to do, visitors will flood the iconic Haight-Ashbury district this year for the golden anniversary of the Summer of Love.
Merchants here are part of an unlikely assortment of more than 50 city institutions and groups gearing up to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the season when tens of thousands of young people arrived, heralding a social movement that left its stamp on the world. So far, everything from the city’s major art museums, ballet and symphony to its airport and annual How Weird Street Faire is involved.
“We didn’t anticipate this a year ago,” said Anthea Hartig, executive director of the California Historical Society, one of two nonprofits planning the anniversary. “The realm of cultural response has been even more exciting than we thought.”
The 30th and 40th anniversaries were celebrated, as well, but organizers think higher-than-expected interest in the 50th might be driven by rocky political times.
“Who could have predicted the alignment of circumstances that has people hungry to learn what took place?” said Lisa Hasenbalg, a marketing director at San Francisco Travel, a nonprofit funded through the city’s hotel tax. “In the context of where we are politically, it makes this time resonate. There is strong renewed interest in important social changes and the spirit of the people.”
Organizers hope the array of exhibits and events will add context and depth, beyond the well-documented explosion of drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll associated with the Summer of Love. It’s unclear if there will be a concert that echoes those in 1967. City officials have declined one permit request, but may reconsider, they say.
There’s already been an anniversary Human Be-In – a tribute to the Golden Gate Park gathering that included Timothy Leary first saying the words “turn on, tune in, drop out” – a psychedelic music show at the famed Fillmore Auditorium, a “Hippie Modernism” exhibit at Berkeley Art Museum and a display of rock music photos at City Hall.
The de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park will explore “the visual and material cultures of a generation” with an exhibition, opening in April, of rock posters, hippie fashion, photographs and interactive music and light shows. That same month, San Francisco International Airport will exhibit rock concert photos, and the Cartoon Art Museum will host “Comix From the Summer of Love.” The historical society will open its own show in May.
Visitors will also take tours of Haight-Ashbury, long associated with the birth of the hippie movement. In summer 1967 it was run-down, many storefronts were vacant, and stately Victorians and Edwardians were in disrepair.
Young people hung out at all hours, jamming the streets and nearby Golden Gate Park. The city was unprepared for the onslaught, said Stan Flouride, a tour guide and neighborhood historian who uses a pseudonym because he once worried his political writing would get him in trouble. The city’s Department of Public Health, he said, compared the flower children to “an outbreak of bubonic plague.”
The Diggers, a group of radical community activists, organized an effort to feed people living on the street. A free clinic and shelter for homeless youths were founded. Both the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics, now called HealthRight 360, and Huckleberry Youth Programs are celebrating their own 50th anniversaries this year.
Flouride, who grew up in New Jersey and moved to the neighborhood in 1982, has watched it change. He enjoys explaining local history to tourists, pointing out landmarks, famous storefronts, murals, and homes of the Grateful Dead and other musicians. But he hopes the uptick in tourists won’t make the area “Disneyfied.”
Today, the neighborhood struggles with gentrification and its own complex legacy of tolerance. Haight Street, known for its head shops and vintage clothing stores, has lost many long-term businesses because of high rents. Home prices are among the highest in the city, and the area was an impetus behind the city’s ban on sitting or lying on the sidewalk during the day.
“Everybody who lived in the Haight 50 years ago has been pushed out,” said Christian Calinsky, a tattoo artist and founder of Taking It to the Streets, an organization that has gotten nearly 200 young people off the street by providing housing and employing them to clean the neighborhood. “Now people are here to be part of the tech and biomed boom. They aren’t the same as before, the artists and outcasts, the people who wanted to make a place for people like me to feel normal.”
Calinsky said he appreciates the historic significance of the anniversary but worries how young people who arrive with nowhere to stay – like those 50 years ago – will be treated.
“We are one of the only programs in the city that offers immediate housing,” he said. “There is a waiting list for the shelters. … I don’t know if I’m looking forward to the police response or the amount of growth of the population that will happen.”
Ted Loewenberg, president of the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, is wary of the upcoming anniversary.
“It’s not fear and loathing, but there is an air of uncertainty about what’s going to happen,” he said.
Sunshine Powers, owner of Love on Haight, a store that donates a portion of proceeds to Calinsky’s program, is looking forward to the anniversary. She says her role is not just to sell locally made tie-dyed clothes, but also to educate visitors, discussing the past and how it relates to the present.
Dressed in an array of tie-dye, her eyes lined with glittery shadow, Powers sometimes solves conflict outside her store with what she calls a “glitter bomb” that she sprinkles on troublemakers.
“We are at a pivotal point where we need more love, we need more peace,” she said. “It’s not a hippie ideal. It’s a human ideal. And that’s my business model.”
Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.