San Francisco’s iconic street corner, Haight and Ashbury, became the hippie counterculture district during the 1960s. In many ways, it was the street corner that changed the world. From humble beginnings, it turned into a psychedelic mindset that would come to sweep the nation. When people hear “Haight-Ashbury,” many think of the Summer of Love, a counterculture movement with Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead and hippies galore.
Those are all legitimate associations, no doubt, but what isn’t common knowledge is that the famed street corner has a deep history – one that explains the future it came to see. This is the story of Haight-Ashbury, its history, rise to fame, and the musicians who lived there in its heyday.
From the Pacific to where Buena Vista Park now sits, there were once fog and sand dunes, and not much else. For about 100 years, from when the first Spanish explorers stepped foot in the region in 1769 to the Gold Rush-era population, the Haight-Ashbury District was inhospitable. That is, until the population boom.
Between 1848 and 1870, the population skyrocketed from 1,000 to nearly 150,000. San Fran citizens were eager for their fresh, new and outstanding city to get some recognition. After all, New York City’s Central Park opened in 1858 and served as an American model of possibility. San Francisco wanted to follow suit, so they opened the Golden Gate Park in 1873.
By the late 1880s, a cable car line was built that went from downtown on Haight Street to Stanyan Street, the entrance to Golden Gate Park. This meant that the park was easily accessible, and it became a popular destination. Rich families started building large homes in the area, including the Victorian-style homes that would become the houses of the hippies in the next century.
Just as the city was starting to boom, the 1906 earthquake occurred and with it came the fire. Most of the wealthy residents bought cars and fled the district, escaping the general public and the remnants of the earthquake. Still, the area continued to be built out. Only this time, working-class row houses were popping up instead of the large Victorians.
By the 1910s, the new Haight-Ashbury was a healthy and comfortable neighborhood. Stanyan Street became the prime business area for most of western San Francisco. The number of street cars increased, along with the number of elementary and high schools.
In 1924, a local columnist wrote, “There is a comfortable maturity about the compact little city that San Francisco knows as Haight-Ashbury. Not the maturity that is suspicious, but a nice, upholstered and fuschia garden sort of grown-up-ness, just weathered enough to be nice, and new enough to be looking ahead to the future.”
During the Depression, families in the area were forced to “double-up,” with two or three families living in a house or apartment that was built for one family. During the Second World War, many servicemen and workers moved to San Francisco, bringing changes to the neighborhood.
The neighborhood grew increasingly working class. The upper and middle classes “progressed” to the developing Sunset or “up the hill.” New owners were absent landlords who rented to the working classes. With time, the area came to be known for its cheap rent. And cheap rent meant students and bohemians.
To give you a picture of what it was like back then, during the early ‘60s, a six-bedroom Victorian home located at 1090 Page Street, for example, rented rooms for $15 per month! These days, the same size home will run you close to $5,000.
But back then, it was the thing to do. And those who came to unofficially run the place, absolutely loved it. According to the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, “You’d get four or five people and you could rent a huge, wonderful Victorian house and fix it up any way you want and it was great … a great way to live.”
In the post-war 1950s, North Beach was the home of the trendy jazz, poetry, and folk music scene. The local folk included Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen (Kaukonen eventually performed with Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane).
After a very brief period in the Army, Garcia moved to Palo Alto when he was 18, where he met guitarist Bob Weir in 1963. Together, they formed The Grateful Dead. A few years earlier, in 1960, writer Ken Kesey was at Stanford, completing a creative writing fellowship that was about to change his and tons of people’s lives.
Kesey signed up for the government-sponsored LSD experiments that were being conducted at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital. Kesey worked night shifts in the psych ward – a job that would inspire his best-selling novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
There, he would administer LSD to himself and his friends. After One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published and became an overnight success, Kesey bought a place in the La Honda redwoods in the Palo Alto hills. He introduced LSD to all of his friends, but it was 1963, and the drug was simply too new to be illegal.
He also didn’t call it that. For Kesey and his friends, it was called acid, and it changed their lives forever. By 1964, Kesey was living in an old 1930s school bus that he painted with psychedelic colors. He even gave the bus a name: Further.
He started traveling across the country with his friends, to New York City and beyond. They were known as the Merry Pranksters, and they essentially went on one long acid trip. The scene was detailed in Tom Wolfe’s bestseller, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. (The title says it all.)
Upon their return from the bus trip, at the end of 1964, Kesey began throwing dance parties. These parties were called “Acid Tests,” and included live music, movie projections, light shows, and a big trashcan full of LSD-laced Kool-Aid. Yup. For $1, you get your acid at the door.
It wasn’t an official order, but those who attended these “tests” weren’t supposed to leave until dawn, in order to not attract any attention. Unsurprisingly, word spread fast. “The Acid Tests were 100% fun,” as Jerry Garcia remarked once.
Garcia noted that “Everyone who went to an Acid Test came out a different person … and loved it.” Owsley Stanley, known to be a mad genius and outlaw chemist, went to one of these parties, immediately fell in love with the Grateful Dead’s music, and signed on to be their sound person, manager, and benefactor.
Stanley was rolling in the dough, and acid, after making and distributing over 10,000 tabs of the stuff from his East Bay laboratory between 1965 and 1966. This was the psychedelic movement in the making, but there was a whole other scene brewing in the district…
Another major part of the Haight-Ashbury scene was the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and they had nothing to do with the act of miming. The group was founded in 1959, and they continue to perform political theater for free in Bay Area parks every summer to this day.
In the ‘60s, they played a role in how the scene fused in 1965. Bill Graham, the Mime Troupe’s business manager, created a platform for the musicians of the scene and era to merge. With help from local concert promoter Chet Helms, Graham held a benefit at the Fillmore Auditorium.
The event, which featured bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, became Graham’s very first venture into the concert business. By early 1966, he left the Mime Troupe and formed his own company, Bill Graham Presents.
Together, Graham and Helms produced dances every weekend with popular local bands. They also copied the in-crowd trend of light shows and multimedia effects from Kesey’s “test” parties. Most of the bands who played performed for free, in Golden Gate Park’s Panhandle. 1966 was a year of unrest in America.
Across the country, people were restless. The draft was at its height, with over 382,000 young men enlisted to fight in Vietnam. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t only processing but taking a radical turn with the Black Panthers in Oakland.
There was also the National Organization for Women which was founded in Washington, D.C. This was also the year that Hunter S. Thompson published his first and well-known book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (which he penned in his Haight home at 318 Parnassus Avenue).
The Hells Angels’ house, by the way, was located at 719 Ashbury, across the street from the Grateful Dead who were living at 710 Ashbury. Soon enough, riots were being held in the streets when a police officer shot a black teenager in the back in the Bayview District on September 27, 1966.
The riots that resulted were in the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Bayview and Fillmore. The National Guard was queued, and local cops arrested a lot of hippies in the Haight district as part of the spillover.
A few days later, on October 6, California declared LSD illegal, becoming the first state to do so. That very same day, thousands of young people – hippies and non-hippies alike – convened at the Love Pageant Rally in the Panhandle. You can call it a “peaceful” protest.
According to Allen Cohen, the publisher of San Francisco’s underground newspaper Oracle, “We were not guilty of using illegal substances. We were celebrating transcendental consciousness. The beauty of the universe. The beauty of being.” And with it came the rise of a new movement.
It was called the Gathering of the Tribes, but it was probably better known as the “Human Be-In.” The rally happened in the Polo Fields of the Golden Gate Park in January 1967. It was actually very well organized and promoted; it succeeded in attracting a crowd of more than 20,000 people, from far and wide.
Among those who showed up were the poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, East Coast LSD advocates Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, philosopher Alan Watts, and bands like the Grateful Dead. The Haight became the unofficial ground zero of hippiedom.
Stores and cafes on Haight Street opened up, catering to hippies. Suddenly, newspapers across the country were reporting feature stories about the new bubbling scene. Jefferson Airplane released their popular single Somebody to Love in April 1967 and then White Rabbit in June 1967.
White Rabbit was basically the siren song of acid, and it was broadcast on radio stations from the east to west. Meanwhile, the original acid “scenester” Ken Kesey was arrested on a pot charge in 1965. He was in jail by 1967 after being on the run in Mexico and returning to the United States.
It was 1967 and the notorious Summer of Love was about to take over the masses. Over 75,000 young people showed up in the small neighborhood. It was practically impossible for the region to cope with the massive influx. A group of socially-conscious hippies, a byproduct of the Mime Troupe, formed a new group called the Diggers.
They had a free store and served free food in the park every day at 4 p.m. The Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic opened up in 1967 to help with the frequent overdoses and injuries. The clinic still exists, by the way, at 558 Clayton. And the now-defunct Haight-Ashbury Switchboard helped thousands of newcomers find housing.
But not all who showed up were of the savory type. Mixed in with the flower children were the immoral, like Charles Manson, who took up residence at 636 Cole Street after an early stint in prison. Manson, as you know, later became a cult leader.
He and three of his followers were convicted of seven murders in 1971, which were committed in Southern California in 1969. Aside from Manson, there were celebrities who were pulled in by all the media interest. The famous pot bust of world-class ballet dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn occurred at 42 Belvedere Street in July 1967.
After the high of the Summer of Love came a withdrawal of sorts. The “Death of the Hippie” march took place on Haight Street in October 1967, which was a mock funeral for hippiedom. It was complete with an open coffin that contained beads, locks of long hair, dead flowers, copies of the Oracle and Berkeley Barb, and other symbolic items.
The founding hippies who first settled in the district soon picked up and moved east to Berkeley, north to Marin, or south to Santa Cruz. The other strays who came for the Summer of Love went back to wherever they came from. But there were also many who stayed put.
By 1968, the federal government declared LSD illegal. By 1969, speed and heroin came in as replacements for acid and pot. And with this new scene, came new crime for the Haight-Ashbury district.
Most of the businesses that had catered to the hippies on Haight closed up shop by the end of the decade. The beginning of the ‘70s cast a dark shadow over the neighborhood. The bleak decade began with an unsolved bombing of the Upper Haight police station. The hit on the Waller Street station in February 1970 took the life of one officer and injured eight more.
San Francisco entered a state of turmoil in the ‘70s, as the stronghold of “free love” became the capital of pornography. The Mitchell brothers released Behind the Green Door, one of the first nationally released adult films, in 1972.
Then, the “Zebra murders,” were a series of racially motivated crimes. These created a new sense of paranoia among residents. In 1978, the Jonestown massacre took place. Jim Jones, an Indiana preacher who had relocated to San Francisco, led a “new church” called the People’s Temple.
Jones’ new temple attracted thousands of followers. Once allegations of abuse started to surface in the media in 1977, Jones moved the temple to Jonestown in Guyana. A California congressman paid a visit to the church, only to be shot and killed as he was departing.
Jones then directed his followers to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Most of the over 900 victims were from the Bay Area’s Black community. San Francisco Congresswoman Jackie Speier was in her early 20s and worked for the California congressman who died in Jonestown. Speier was shot five times but luckily survived.
On November 27, 1978, just nine days after the horrible event, the murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk occurred. Milk was the first openly gay elected official in California, and his assassination shook the city.
As you can see, it was a grim decade and a stark contrast from the one that preceded it. By the late ‘70s, the Haight was ready for change. The Castro’s gay community started buying and renovating many of the dilapidated Victorian homes that hippies had previously occupied.
With the support of locals and businesses that never fled the neighborhood, these newcomers started opening stores on Haight Street, too, which helped breathe new life into the area. But the upcoming decade wasn’t going to be easy. The ‘80s proved harder in some ways.
As the plague of AIDS spread in the early ‘80s, the Haight’s gay community suffered big time. Many of its members passed in the following decade. It didn’t take long for all the bars, nightclubs, and businesses they established to be sold to new owners who catered to a much younger and straighter demographic.
With the ‘80s came a new kind of trend of skinheads and “gutter punks” who showed up and started helping themselves to the free services offered by the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. They got free meals served by the Haight-Ashbury Food Program at Hamilton United Methodist Church while also hanging out on the street and asking for spare change.
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the new rave scene began. Haight Street nightclubs as well as the college radio station KUSF became an inspiration for local bands, new music, and a new wave of alternative culture.
These days, the Haight is still continuing its legacy of free and fun gatherings. The Haight-Ashbury Street Fair is now in its fourth decade, where past sets included Metallica and a reunited Jefferson Airplane. The free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass concerts that take place in October bring people back to the 1960s and often feature musicians from the era, like Hot Tuna and Peter Rowan.
Speaking of musicians of the era, let’s take a look at they’re up to these days. For instance, Phil Lesh (of the Grateful Dead) opened up a restaurant and music club in San Rafael called Terrapin Crossroads, and he even performs there often.
His fellow and former Grateful Dead band member, Bob Weir, lives in Marin and is part-owner of a cozy restaurant and music club in Mill Valley called Sweetwater. Both his and Lesh’s spots are intimate venues. As for the Grateful Dead’s John Perry Barlow, he died in 2018.
But before he passed, he was a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that defended digital privacy, free speech, and technological innovation. Ken Kesey passed in 2001, after years of living on his family farm in Oregon. But his brother Chuck’s Springfield Creamery makes Nancy’s Yogurt, which you might have seen in grocery stores.
Peter Cohon (who was one of the Diggers) became an award-winning actor who changed his name to Peter Coyote. You’ve seen him in several movies and TV shows, like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; he has also narrated a bunch of PBS documentaries.
Paul Hawken, who used to be a member of hippie-era Haight-Ashbury Calliope Company commune, went on to become a successful entrepreneur. He founded the organic food company Erewhon as well as the upscale gardening company Smith & Hawken. Hugh Romney, who was one of the Merry Pranksters, co-founded the Seva Foundation, which aims to prevent blindness. He also founded Camp Winnarainbow, a kids’ summer camp in Mendocino.
If you’re curious as to who lived in the district back in the day and where their houses were, then here you go. The Grateful Dead lived at 710 Ashbury. Across the street were the Hells Angels, at 719 Ashbury. Janis Joplin lived at 635 Ashbury and 122 Lyon.
Country Joe McDonald and the Fish resided at 638 Ashbury. 1090 Page was the home of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Chet Helms and the Family Dog headquarters were on 639 Gough. “Hippie Temptation” house, the site of the CBS documentary, was on 1550 Page.
The list goes on: 1828 Page was where Ron Donovan (the poster artist) lived. Jimi Hendrix stayed at 1524 Haight. 879 Haight was home to Flipper (the punk band), and our favorite psychopath Charles Manson lived at 636 Cole.
Then there was Graham Nash, and several owners later Bobby McFerrin, who lived at 731 Buena Vista West. A few doors down, at 737 Buena Vista West, lived Jack London, who wrote White Fang. The beat playwright and poet Michael McClure lived at 264 Downey. Patty Hearst (and the Symbionese Liberation Army safe-house) was at 1235 Masonic.
And last but not least were some even more famous names, like Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols whose home (and site of his non-fatal overdose after his band’s last show) was at 32 Delmar. As for Jefferson Airplane, 2400 Fulton was the place they called home for a while.
George Hunter of the Charlatans was at 200 Downey. Hunter S. Thompson fired his shotgun at the Hells Angels at 318 Parnassus. And 42 Belvedere was where Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev were during the 1967 pot party bust.
The Diggers were one of the most legendary groups from the time and the place. They were cloaked in anonymity, which only added to their appeal. The Diggers took their name from the original English Diggers, who once spread a vision of a society free from private property and buying and selling.
San Francisco’s Diggers evolved out of two basic traditions that thrived in the Bay Area in the mid-‘60s: the bohemian/underground scene and the Civil Rights/peace movement. They combined street theater, anarchist action, and art in their social agenda: to create a Free City.
The Digger’s most talked-about activities were distributing free food every day in the park, as well as handing out “surplus energy” at the numerous Free Stores, where everything was free for the taking. The group also coined slogans that were central to the counterculture and eventually made their way into the larger society.
They coined the popular phrases “Do your own thing” and “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” The Diggers were the forerunners of many new ideas, like baking whole wheat bread. You might have seen the popular Free Digger Bread that was baked in coffee cans at the Free Bakery.
They also founded the first Free Medical Clinic, tye-dyed clothing, and celebrations of natural planetary events, like the Solstices and Equinoxes. The Diggers consisted of actors, and their stage was the streets and parks of the Haight-Ashbury district, at first.
Later, they took over all of San Francisco. The Diggers evolved out of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which R.G. Davis, the actor, writer, and director, had founded the decade prior. The Diggers represented a natural evolution, going from indoors to the parks of the city, giving free impromptu performances on stages that were erected on the same day of the show.
As actors, they created a series of street events, marking the evolution of the new hippie phenomenon from a face-to-face community to a media circus that popped up on the world’s front pages of newspapers and on TV screens.
The Diggers would broadcast their events and their editorial comments of the day. They made announcements to a larger Hip Community and published manifestos and miscellaneous communications. They handed out leaflets by hand on Haight Street. These days, the community still exists and is trying to make a dent in society, but mainly on the Internet.