Losing Touch With Haight Street

Few cities across America can credit their unique qualities to a social movement in which a central neighborhood played a pivotal role in defining the atmosphere of the city as a whole. The six-block stretch of upper Haight Street is the heart of the city; it is the pride and joy of all natives alike and acts as a monument for what San Francisco represents. San Francisco, unlike most American cities, is a final destination for many, as it is universally understood to be a Mecca for misfits. This sense of unity in the strange was born out of the Haight in the 1960s, an era that built itself upon foundations of free love. Haight Street, from Masonic Avenue to Stanyan Street on the border of Golden Gate Park, is the living and beating heart of San Francisco, pumping psychadelic life throughout the city.

The Summer of Love, the summer of 1967, added fragrant, passionate and drug-induced euphoria that allowed for the blossoming of free love ideology, which would root itself in the physical location and in the minds of residents. Over one hundred thousand flocked to the six-block stretch of San Francisco in order to experience and fully submerse themselves in this truly unique and entirely new counterculture. Although many regard the Summer of Love as a time of celebration of life in the purest form, is also stained the Haight-Ashbury with drug addiction that would take decades to recover from. The Summer of Love was highly publicized and idealized, which caused the forced creation of a “commoditized” hippy — paradoxical in nature, however, many did not want to fully envelope themselves in the drug culture. Not only was the Summer of Love the climax of the union of drugs, music, and freethinking, but it also gave way to the rapid and downward spiraling transition into drug addiction and economic decay.

The subsequent gentrification of Haight-Ashbury is fashioned upon the new set of standards of “coolness” that the Summer of Love produced, guiding the Haight to evolve into a detached and commercialized shell of its former glory.

Developing Settler Territory

Prior to the 1960s, Haight Street history does not stand apart from much of California history. Many in hot pursuit of easy money during the Gold Rush of 1849 flocked to San Francisco, a rapidly growing city due to this quick influx of population. Haight Street, for lack of a better marker, consisted primarily of sand dunes and inhospitable land. This land would later be converted into farmland to accommodate the rising population.

Even at the beginning stages of the Progressive era, this small stretch of land was “considered by most to be too harsh to inhabit, [but] this unlikely spot would become the most desired areas of the city.” [1] It wasn't until the building of the Market Street Railway’s Haight Street line in 1883 that the neighborhood began to transition from farmland to a more densely populated subset of the city. The newly introduced railway connected the Northeast corner of the city, where the majority of city-dwellers lived, to the countryside. The railway engine house was built on the same land that is now Kezar Stadium, another city landmark that played “home to two NFL teams, …[ and host] concerts for the Greateful Dead, the Doobie Brothers, and many other rock legends”[2] (Cohen 2008) during its instrumental years of marrying music and free love ideology. The turnaround for this equally iconic, San Francisco cable car was at the intersection of Haight Street and Stanyan Street, along the eastern border of Golden Gate Park.

With the building of the Haight Street line brought residential development and prominent families seeking spacious living in the newly urbanized outskirts of the city. The Victorian style architecture had already embedded itself in San Francisco culture, and Haight Street would follow suit in the emblematic style. The coming of the railway line poured affluence into a previously ignored, “inhospitable”[3] (Cohen 2008) countryside. As the city stretched its physical boundaries westward proportionally to its population growth, the Haight-Ashbury district made its way centrally in relation to the rest of the city. It dug itself a small yet beloved hole as the heart of the city.

As the cable car lines increased in complexity and expansiveness, Haight Street was a convergence point at Stanyan Street station, where many lines crossed over. This point attracted even larger crowds, and became a tourist spot at the turn of the 20th century. The industrial revolution not only modernized production capacity and economic stimulation, but also induced a nation-wide phenomenon of cross-class spending, excess, leisure time and upward economic mobility — concepts that were unable to flourish during Victorian-era regimented structures.

The Upper Haight (the portion of Haight Street after Masonic Ave. on the side of Golden Gate Park) attracted many out of town visitors and deemed itself an appealing tourist destination. The Victorian architecture juxtaposed alongside conspicuous spending and the remarkable cable car technology brought curious visitors, flooding the growing business center with money. Small amusement parks and tourist attractions popped up along Haight Street, which quickly became a nationally recognized traveler destination. A diverse array of business models and shops incorporated themselves onto the the 12 block stretch. Family run stores such as bicycle shops, plumbing and carpentry shops, and other small businesses found comfort and profitability.[4] (Cohen 2008)

Haight Street Amusement Park, 1895

Haight Street, in the years following the birth of the industrial revolution, arose as a highly desired location for wealthy families seeking space outside of the densely populated northeastern regions of the city.

Tragedy Hits, A Community Rebuilds

The devastating effects of the 1906 earthquake drastically transformed this neighborhood of prosperity into a refugee camp, housing some 15,000 working class men, women and children who found themselves instantly homeless. Fortunately, Haight Street appeared virtually untouched by the destructive and demoralizing earthquake, but much to the dismay of the rich families that inhabited this neighborhood, working class families sought shelter. The already small neighborhood was overwrought with immigrants and lower class San Franciscans immediately following the earthquake and fires.

Once a coveted “destination for patrons of bicycle shops, hotels, restaurants and amusement establishments, Stanyan Street became the site of breadlines that stretched for many blocks.”[5] (Cohen 2008) Unsurprisingly, affluent families who originally flocked to Haight Street for second homes or for an escape from the gritty city life suddenly fled, taking the wealthy local economy with them. In the years leading up to the mid 1920s, Upper Haight fell into an economic depression, housing working class families who converted massive Victorian mansions into multi-unit, low-rent apartments. Although San Francisco had emerged gracefully from this tragedy, the small confines of the Upper Haight could not sustain the safe haven for displaced families as sturdily.

In addition, Haight Street was hit hard by the stock market crash in October 1929 and received limited economic relief from the families and municipal government that built the neighborhood into a San Franciscan monument. During the World War II years, ship building jobs attracted African American and other minority families who not only sought job opportunities but also a sanctuary away from vicious white supremacy.

These working class families hoped for a space away from racism and job discrimination, drawing upon the dynamic that Haight Street offered to the homeless families directly following the 1906 earthquake. There was an albeit limited push for urban renewal during the post-war years, Haight Street also became a site for the labor movement, resulting in White Flight into the suburbs. This revival of Haight Street as an asylum of inclusiveness solidified the ideology of what the Upper Haight represented. The Summer of Love is ultimately rooted in this ideology, inextricably binding the Haight-Ashbury district to free love philosophy.

Because the Haight-Ashbury district evolved into a predominantly minority-run neighborhood, rent remained affordable to tenants despite its central location and remarkable architecture. Although San Francisco as a whole could not break free from the white supremacist hegemony, this community stood in for a utopic vision of racial and ethnic harmony.

These all-encompassing beliefs were most highly concentrated in the Upper Haight, where it not only attracted minority individuals seeking shelter, but also a revitalized generation of Beat writers migrating from North Beach and college students from San Francisco State. The centrality and proximity to both downtown and Golden Gate Park “made the Haight the ideal nurturing ground for a bohemian subculture.”[6] (Ashbolt)

A Drug-Induced Spiritual Awakening

As rent in the North Beach district of San Francisco rose, writers retrospectively famed as the Beat Generation migrated to the Haight. North Beach was previously home to poets, such as “Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Philip Lamantia,”[7] (Ashbolt) who all prided themselves on their misfit personalities and actively experimented with drugs and sexuality.

The eclectic mix of literary intellectuals, labor movement leaders, minority families and college students of San Francisco State, allowed for a breeding ground of counterculture principles and the conception of the free love movement. As rock and roll music entered the picture roughly in the late 1950s into the early 1960s, Haight Street culture fully absorbed the political aims of this counterculture ideology and created an entirely new way of life; the hippy. The hippy combined the political aspects of the labor movement and counterculture political goals, with the aura of inclusivity that the Haight Street provided throughout its brief history. Hippy culture was wholly wed to the Haight-Ashbury, and the two forged a bond in which one could not exist without the other. In 1965, hippy culture was alive and flourishing, when drugs were added into the concoction.

The relationship between drugs and music is key to understanding the relationship Haight Street maintained with the city during the Summer of Love and for decades after. While political goals did help cultivate the counterculture, “‘If you look at the political agendas of the 1960s, they basically failed,’ says actor Peter Coyote, who belonged to a Haight-Ashbury commune during the 60s.”[8] (Selvin 2007) The spiritual revolution that was experienced through drugs and music proved to be more influential than the political goals in thinking about hippy culture.

For the most part, it was “‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. And those were all fun,’ says social satirist Paul Krassner.” [9] (Selvin 2007) The relationship between music and drugs encouraged this spiritual revolution, as experienced by the hippy during the years immediately preceding the Summer of Love.

Most true hippies living in the Haight insist that the culture peaked in the years leading up to the Summer of Love, in 1965 through 1966. The opening of the Psychedelic Shop by co-founder Ron Thenlin hardened the necessity of drugs in this spiritual exploration. The Psychedelic Shop opened in January of 1966, well over a year since the birth of the hippy. This odd shop offered pamphlets on safe drug use, and tips and tricks for a good experience on LDS.

While Beat generation writers had experimented primarily with marijuana and peyote, hard drugs were not prominent on the scene. LSD, commonly known as acid, was extremely instrumental in understanding hippy culture. For users, “LSD…was seen to break down boundaries of perception, melting the self into the world around it.”[10] (Ashbolt) As one can imagine, sustaining these heavily drug-induced ideologies is incredibly psychologically taxing. Hippies placed music as experienced through LSD of the highest importance.

Hippy culture, with its growing popularity among the then-teen baby boomers, began to pick up steam throughout 1966. Countercultural publications, such as The San Francisco Oracle, combined ornate, colorful and vibrant imagery with hippy philosophy to advertise hippies and challenge societal norms of youth culture representation. Towards the end of 1966, the paradoxes within hippy culture began to emerge; “While the hippies yearned for personal authenticity…they were bedecked in colourful costumes and used the market place as a space for performance.”[11] (Ashbolt) This overt representation of self through flamboyant imagery advertised itself for the Summer of Love. To onlookers, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury appeared to be the one and only place of acceptance and a good time.

Summer of 1967: The Death of the Authentic Hippy

Over 100,000 flocked to the city during the Summer of Love in 1967 after impatiently awaiting for the winter to burn off and the summer fun to begin. While the music was at its peak and psychedelic drug circulation abundant, there existed an air of despair that many tried to ignore during this short period. For true hippies, it marked the end of their beloved spiritual revolution and the transition into mainstream culture. For the newcomers, the balancing act of drugs and music began to tip heavily in favor of drug use. By the end of the summer of 1967, the Haight-Ashbury deteriorated into an edifice of drug us; the music had died, and the local economy was on the downturn. That following October, the Psychedelic Shop closed its doors. The Death of the Hippy Parade solemnly made its way down Haight Street, at which they publicly announced that the spiritual innovation progress had come to a screeching halt.

Political activist Michael Rossman, one of the organizers of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964, reflects “‘When the Haight was healthiest was when it wasn’t known as the Haight.”[12] (Selvin 2007)

The Hippy Paradox: Constructing a Psychadelic Shopping Center

By 1970, many store windows along Haight Street were boarded up and the once-thriving neighborhood had turned into a full-blown drug ghetto. Police surveillance almost abandoned the uncontrollable neighborhood, making 1968 through 1970 some of the most treacherous times Haight Street has ever seen. The lack of public resources in the neighborhood with the putrid smell of the homeless overrun with drug addiction left Haight Street undeveloped throughout much of the early 1970s.

The San Francisco Department of City Planning conducted a background study focusing on the potential to transform the Haight-Ashbury into a shopping district in 1972. This government document looked to capitalize on this combination of bohemian and grunge, a mixture that many participants remember as being “the epitome of cool.”[13] (Ashbolt)

While hippy counterculture tried desperately to separate itself from consumer society, it could not escape the performance that it underwent as the subject of national attention. Hippies operated under paradoxical limits, meaning that while they advocated for a breakaway from consumerist values, they in turn reveled in the spotlight and could not unsubscribe from mainstream culture. The San Francisco Department of City Planning’s background study on this potential for a bohemian shopping district was merely an extension of the entrails disemboweled from the Summer of Love.

Many corporate businessmen and women still gathered in the city as “weekend hippies” and “pretend beatniks”[14] (Ashbolt) to cherry-pick off the remaining frivolity from the Summer of Love. The Department of City Planning aimed to regenerate a commoditized version of this epitome of cool, as the hippies of the Summer of Love had done.[15] (SF Dept. of City Planning 1972) According to Ashbolt, “Aspects of hippy style clearly fed consumer society.”[16] (Ashbolt) In other words, despite the initial resistance to mainstream culture, the electrifying production of hippy style appealed to those looking for a temporary getaway, promised by an actual and real location. This atmosphere of coolness matched with a truly unique style made Haight Street a profitable and clear candidate for gentrification.

It was not until 1978[17] (Cohen 2008), however, would the once young hippy teens faithfully returned to their beloved Haight Street, this time accompanied by children. The physical location of Haight Street had not changed conspicuously, and its centrality in the city and close proximity to Golden Gate Park continued to be a desirable location for most. The symbolic Victorian era houses remained willfully intact and untarnished, despite having undergone waves of multiple revolutions, month-long parties, drug binges and abandonment. The open-minded ambience remained firmly integral to Haight Street culture, now simply known as the Haight.

The demolition of the condemned Haight Theater in 1979, a multipurpose, vaudevillian theater house that held a special place in the hearts of locals, pinpointed the beginning of the gentrification process.

Branding the Haight

In 1978, the first Haight Street fair took place the first weekend of June in order to showcase the individuality and beauty of Haight Street. This fair, meant to be a celebration of Haight Street, inevitably turned into a spectacle of buying odd trinkets such as glass pipes, drug paraphernalia, and colorful bohemian garb.

The 1980s called for an even stronger push for gentrification and whitening of the neighborhood. In the early 1980s, a GAP clothing store opened on the corner of Haight and Ashbury, and was a hotly contested point of controversy. The GAP represented corporate America encroaching on the safe haven that Haight Street provided to those trying to hide from the totalitarianism of consumer culture. The continual gentrification of Haight Street would keep GAP in business until 2008, where it would be replaced by an independent, albeit high-end, designer boutique.

While many native Haight-Ashburians clung fiercely to Haight Street ideology and steered clear of corporate America, fully embracing the individual the neighborhood was undoubtedly whitening. The housing bubble was on the rise and rent skyrocketed, pushing low-income minority families and youths out of their beloved homes. Upper Haight still attracted many in search of a home that would be accepting of them, however, the San Francisco municipal government turned its back on those who had created this inclusive culture.

These men and women, who succumbed to drug addiction in the months following the Summer of Love, were neglected and left to suffer. Longtime residents could no longer afford to live in their own homes, making space for white, yuppie migrants to take their place, effectively changing the landscape of Haight Street. Where the Psychedelic Shop once stood was now replaced by generic clothing stores attempting to channel bohemian, grunge, hippy style, alongside smoke shops selling glass smoking paraphernalia. McDonalds opened its doors at the corner of Haight Street and Stanyan Street, another invasion of corporate America into the beloved sphere of nonconformity. However the Department of City Planning reinforced the Haight Street manufactured authenticity, yet still ignored those who comprised the true Haight Street constituency.

In addition, the Reagan era economic policies, shortened to Reaganomics, dismantled much of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society proposals, which guaranteed to aid the poor in hopes of raising the living standards for the country as a whole. Reaganomics encouraged spending and cut taxes for the rich, strongly facilitating white flight and urban neglect. The consequences of these ill-thought policies, which are still felt today, imprinted lasting impacts on Upper Haight, such as cuts to programs supporting those with mental illnesses and homeless shelters.

Instead of helping rehabilitate these men and women who built the foundations of the Haight Street counterculture, Regan era policies degraded them to homeless vagabonds, in search of their next fix. Much of the origins of Haight Street belief systems were lost in the gentrification process, and the men and women who had wandered here during the booming hippy culture were drowning in their own addictions, no longer able to perpetuate these spiritual ideologies.

The Residual Hippie Counterculture

Gentrifying Haight Street, much to the chagrin of white supremacist corporate minds, could not completely replace gritty Haight Street originals with the commoditized dream of this counterculture. What did endure was a predominantly white neighborhood, less diverse as it once stood, but still a symbol of a spirited subculture that could not be found anywhere else in the country. As Brian J. Godfrey explains in his essay “Urban Development and Redevelopment in San Francisco” (1997)

The Haight-Ashbury illustrated the importance of nontraditional social identities in neighborhood evolution: A lingering countercultural reputation encouraged gentrification, but this very appeal ultimately diminished the social diversity of a self-consciously heterogenous district.[18]

Here, Godfrey points out is that while the Haight-Ashbury did present an ideal source of a new consumerism pool of wealth, it simultaneously destroyed the foundations upon which it was built. The central paradox of the latter hippy culture of 1967, in which performance and a rejection of mainstream America concurrently operated under the national media gaze, in turn subscribed participants to consumer America. Haight Street hosted a counterculture before it became a subculture in 1967.

All that is left from the genuine pre-Summer of Love Haight Street nature is those who have adopted the wandering youth aesthetic, living on the streets among their friends who double as their family. To many, these young adults and teens exemplify the true goals of Haight Street as a nonexclusive, welcoming home for everyone and anyone. The minstrel youth, who share the sidewalk with the drug-afflicted elderly, who appear to have lingered since the Summer of Love, are harmless beggars in search of themselves, as many runaway youths do.

In 2010, Proposition L made its way onto the municipal ballot, seeking to outlaw sit-liers on Haight Street. The Proposition would “amend the Police Code to Prohibit sitting or lying on a public sidewalk in San Francisco between the hours of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.”[19] (San Francisco County 2010) It targeted those who converted overnight from harmless beggar to menacing youth. These sit-liers are a San Franciscan tradition since the decades following the Summer of Love, exercising their right to inhabit public spaces. It was no doubt an attack on Haight Street culture by mainstream America in hopes of ridding the street of its final seamy visual landscape. To many native San Franciscans, these young men and women are as harmless as the whiffs of marijuana smoke they produce. However, as a tourist destination, the city of San Francisco hoped to attract well-to-do suburban families, turning Haight Street into a bohemian version of Union Square. Proposition L polarized the city.

A local newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, took the position of supporting these vagabonds as a San Francisco staple. As it was discovered, to no one’s shock, these young teens are attempting to escape from rough home lives to a city famed for its loving nature, including stories such as Jay’s, who left his “back-stabbing, crack-head sister.”[20] (Swezy 2010)

If one veers slightly off of Haight Street, they will find “yuppie, rich, bureaucrat people trying to clean up everything,”[21] (Donahue 2010) and Haight Street is the only street for a ten-block radius afflicted by inner-city grittiness. In a follow-up article titled “How They’re Sitting: The kids on Haight Street Aren’t Exactly the Stereotypes You’ve Been Told About” author Caitlin Donohue attempts to expel gossip surrounding these supposed dangerous youth, running rampant on Haight Street. In reality, these teens are a manifestation of a pre-Summer of Love hippy culture, sharing love and open space, and challenging authorities just as their predecessors had.

Haight Street, despite many concerns about losing its authenticity, is still a San Franciscan treasure. As a native San Franciscan, I purchased all of my high school formal dresses on Haight Street in true bohemian fashion. While many are turned off by its remaining grittiness, Haight Street is emblematic and central to San Franciscan atmosphere and ideology. The gentrification of Upper Haight undeniably comes with pros and cons concerning the inclusive quality that was created since the 1906 earthquake has perpetuated throughout its history. While there is still a contentious debate surrounding keeping it a strictly San Franciscan commodity, Haight Street will always generate feelings of strange nostalgia; comfort in the fact that no one, no matter their appearance, religion, political beliefs or drug-use tendencies, will be rejected. Haight Street will always provide a safe haven to those running away or running home, as will all of San Francisco. Haight Street, therefore, acts as a microcosm of true San Franciscanism, the belief that each individual has intrinsic values and rights, and is free to express their belief system in a city that will be accepting of them.


[1] Katherine Powell Cohen, Images of America: San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, (San Franicsco, CA: Arcadia Publishing, 2008).

[2] p 14, Cohen.

[3] p. 10, Cohen

[4] p. 26, Cohen

[5] p. 31, Cohen.

[6] Anthony Ashbolt, “”Go Ask Alice”: Remembering the Summer of Love 40 Years On,” Australasian Journal of American Studies, http://www.anzasa.arts.usyd.edu.au/a.j.a.s/Articles/2_07/Ashbolt.pdf.

[7] p. 36, Ashbolt.

[8] Selvin 2007

[9] Selvin 2007

[10] p. 39, Ashbolt

[11] p. 42, Ashbolt

[12] Selvin 2007

[13] p. 44, Ashbolt

[14] p. 44, Ashbolt

[15] San Francisco Department of City Planning 1972

[16] p 44, Ashbolt

[17] p. 77, Cohen

[18] Brian J. Godfrey, “Urban Development and Redevelopment In San Francisco,” American Geographical Society, 83 (1997): 331, http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/216033.pdf?acceptTC=true (accessed December 9, 2012).

[19] San Francisco County 2010

[20] Swezy 2010

[21] Donahue 2010