The hippie "scene" on Haight Street in San Francisco was so very visual that photographers came from everywhere to shoot it, reporters came from everywhere to write it up with speed, and oportunists came from everywhere to exploit its drug addiction, its sexual possibility, and its political or social ferment. Prospective hippies came from everywhere for one "summer of love" or maybe longer, some older folk to indulge their latent hippie tendencies, and the police to contain, survey, or arrest. "Haight"—old Quaker name—rhymed with "hate," but hippies held that the theme of the street was love, and the best of hippies like the best of visitors and the best of the police, hoped to reclaim and distill the best promise of a movement which might yet invigorate American movement everywhere. It might, by resurrecting the word "love,", and giving it a refreshened definition, open the national mind, as if by the chemical LSD, to the hypocrisy of violence and prejudice in a nation dedicated to peace and accord.
It was easier to see than understand: the visual was so discordant that tourists drove with their cars locked and an alarmed citizenrry beseeched the police to clean it out.
It was easy to see that the young men who were hippies on Haight Street wore beards and long hair and sometimes earrings and weird-o granny eye-glasses, that they were barefoot or in sandals, and that they were generally dirty. A great many of the young men, by design or by accident, resembled Jesus Christ, whose name came up on campaign pins or lavatory walls or posters or bumper stickers. Are you Bombing With Me, Baby Jesus. Jesus Is God's Atom Bomb.
The script was "psychedelic." That is to say, it was characterized by flourishes, spirals, and curlicues in camouflaged tones—blues against purples, pinks against reds—as if the hippie behind the message weren't really sure he wanted to say what he was saying. It was an item of hippie thought that speech was irrelevant. You Don't Say Love You Do It. Those Who Speak Don't Know Those Who Know Don't Speak. But it was also my suspicion that hippies would speak when they could; meanwhile, their muteness suggested doubt. In one shop—the wall was dominated by an old movie advertisement—Ronald Reagan and June Travis in Love Is in the Air (Warner Brothers), their faces paper-white, blank, drained. I asked the hippie at the counter why it was there, but she didn't trust herself to try. "It's what you make of it," she said.
It was easy to see that the young women who were hippies were draped, not dressed; that they, too, were dirty from toe to head; that they looked unwell, pale, sallow, hair hung down in strings unwashed. Or they wore jeans, men's T-shirts over brassieres. When shoes were shoes the laces were missing or trailing, gowns were sacks, and sacks were gowns. If You Can't Eat It Wear It.
A fashion model was quoted in a newspaper as saying, "They don't really exist," who meant to say, of course, "I wish they didn't." The young ladies were experimenting in drugs, in sexual license, living in communal quarters furnished with mattresses. Praise The Pill. Bless Our Pad. Girls who might have been in fashion were panhandling. "Sorry, I've got to go panhandle," I heard a hippie lady say, which was not only against the law but against the American creed, which holds that work is virtue, no matter what work you do. Hippie girls gave flowers to strangers, and they encouraged their dirty young men to avoid the war in Vietnam. Thou Shalt Not Kill This Means You. Caution: Military Service May Be Hazardous To Your Health.
The shops of the "hip" merchants were colorful and cordial. The "straight" merchants of Haight Street sold necessities, buf the hip shops smelled of incense, the walls were hung with posters and paintings, and the counters were laden with thousands of items of nonutilitarian nonsense—metal jewelry, glass beads, dirty pictures, "underground" magazines, photographs of old-time movie stars, colored chalk, dirty combs, kazoos, Halloween masks, fancy match boxes, odd bits of stained glass, and single shoes. Every vacant wall was a bulletin board for communication among people not yet quite settled ("Jack and Frank from Iowa leave a message here.")
The music everywhere was rock 'n' roll out of Beatles, folk, African drums, American pop, jazz, swing, and martial.
Anybody who was anybody among hippies had been arrested for something, or so he said—for "possession" (of drugs), for "contributing" (to the delinquency of a minor), for panhandling, for obstructing the sidewalk, and if for nothing else, for "resisting" (arrest). The principal cause of their conflict with the police was their smoking marijuana, probably harmless but definitely illegal. Such clear proof of the failure of the law to meet the knowledge of the age presented itself to the querulous minds of hippies as sufficient grounds to condemn the law complete.
Hippies thought they saw on Haight Street that everyone's eyes were filled with loving joy and giving, but the eyes of the hippies were often in fact sorrowful and frightened, for they had plunged themselves into an experiment they were uncertain they could carry through. Fortified by LSD (Better Living Through Chemistry), they had come far enough to see distance behind them, but no clear course ahead. One branch of their philosophy was Oriental concentration and meditation; now it often focused upon the question "How to kick" (drugs).
The ennobling idea of the hippies, forgotten or lost in the visual scene, diverted by chemistry, was their plan for community. For community had come. What kind of community, upon what model? Hippies wore brilliant Mexican chalecos, Oriental robes, and red-Indian headdress. They dressed as cowboys. They dressed as frontiersmen. They dressed as Puritans. Doubtful who they were, trying on new clothes, how could they know where they were going until they saw what fit? They wore military insignia. Among bracelets and bells they wore Nazi swastikas and the German Iron Cross, knowing, without knowing much more, that the swastika offended the Establishment, and no enemy of the Establishment could be all bad. They had been born, give or take a year or two, in the year of Hiroshima.
Once the visual scene was ignored, almost the first point of interest about the hippies was that they were middle-class American chilldren to the bone. To citizens inclined to alarm this was the thing most maddening, that these were not Negroes disaffected by color or immigrants by strangeness but boys and girls with white skins from the right side of the economy in all-American cities and towns from Honolulu to Baltimore. After regular educations, if only they'd want them, they could commute to fine jobs from the suburbs, and own nice houses with bathrooms, where they could shave and wash up.
Many hippies lived with the help of remittances from home, whose parents, so straight, so square, so seeming compliant, rejected, in fact, a great portion of that official American program rejected by the hippies in psychedelic script. The 19th Century Was A Mistake The 20th Century Is A Disaster. Even in arrest they found approval from their parents, who had taught them in years of civil rights and resistance to the war in Vietnam that authority was often questionable, sometimes despicable. George F. Babbitt, forty years before in Zenith, U.S.A., declared his hope, at the end of a famous book, that his son might go farther than Babbitt had dared along lines of break and rebellion.
When hippies first came to San Francisco they were an isolated minority, mistrustful, turned inward by drugs, lacking acquaintance beyond themselves. But they were spirited enough after all, to have fled from home, to have endured the discomforts of a cramped existence along Haight Street, proud enough to have endured the insults of the police, and alert enough to have identified the major calamities of their age.
In part a hoax of American journalism, known even to themselves only as they saw themselves in the media, they began at last, and especially with the approach of the "summer of love," to assess community, their quest, and themselves.
They slowly became, in the word that seemed to cover it, polarized, distinct in division among themselves between, on one hand, weekend or summertime hippies, and on the other, hippies for whom the visual scene was an insubstantial substitute for genuine community. The most perceptive or advanced among the hippies then began to undertake the labor of community which could be accomplished only behind the scene, out of the eye of the camera, beyond the will of the quick reporter.
The visual scene was four blocks along on Haight Street. Haight Street itself was nineteen, extending east two miles from Golden Gate Park, through the visual scene, through a portion of the Negro district known as the Fillmore, past the former campus of San Francisco State College, and flowing at its terminus into Market Street, into the straight city, across the Bay Bridge, and into that wider United States whose values the hippies were testing, whose traditions were their own propulsion in spite of their denials, and whose future the hippies might yet affect in singular ways unimagined by either those States or those hippies. From the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets it was three miles to Broadway and Columbus, heart of North Beach, where the Beats had gathered ten years before.
The Haight-Ashbury district is a hundred square blocks of homes and parks. One of the parks is the Panhandle of Golden Gate, thrusting itself into the district, preserving, eight blocks long, a green and lovely relief unimpaired by prohibitions against free play by children or the free promenade of adults along its mall. Planted in pine, maple, redwood, and eucalyptus, its only serious resistance to natural things is a statue honoring William McKinley, but consigned to the farthest extremity, for which, in 1903, Theodore Roosevelt broke the ground.
The Panhandle is the symbolic and spiritual center of the district, its stay against confusion. On March 28, 1966, after a struggle of several years—and by a single vote of the San Francisco Supervisors—the residents of the Haight-Ashbury district were able to rescue the Panhandle from the bulldozer, which would have replaced it with a freeway assisting commuters to save six minutes between downtown and the Golden Gate Bridge.
In one of the few triumphs of neighborhood over redevelopment the power of the district lay in the spiritual and intellectual composition of its population, which tended toward firm views of the necessity to save six minutes and toward a skeptical view of the promise of "developers" to "plant it over" afterward. Apart from the Panhandle controversy, the people of the district had firm views clustering about the conviction that three-story Tudor and Victorian dwellings are preferable to skyscrapers, that streets should serve people before automobiles, that a neighborhood was meant for living as well as sleeping, that habitation implies some human dirt, that small shops foster human acquaintance as department stores don't, and that schools which are integrated are more educational than schools which are segregated.
One of the effects of the victory of the bulldozer would have been the obliteration of low-cost housing adjacent to the Panhandle, and therefore the disappearance of poorer people from the district. But the people of the Haight-Ashbury failed of enthusiasm. "Fair streets are better than silver," wrote Vachel Lindsay, leading hippie of Springfield, Illinois, half a century ago, and considered that part of his message central enough to carry it in psychedelic banners on the end pages of his Collected Poems:
Fair streets are better than silver.
Green parks are better than gold.
Bad public taste is mob law.
Good public taste is democracy.
A crude administration is damned already.
A bad designer is to that extent a bad citizen.
Let the best moods of the people rule.
The Haight-Ashbury—to give it its San Francisco sound—had long been a favorite residential area for persons of liberal disposition in many occupations, in business, labor, the arts, the professions, and academic life. It had been equally hospitable to avant-garde expression, to racial diversity, and to the Okies and Arkies who came after World War II. Its polyglot population estimated at 30,000, was predominantly white, but it included Negroes and Orientals in sizable numbers and general distribution, and immigrants of many nations. Here William Saroyan and Erskine Caldwell had lived.
During the decade of the sixties it was a positive attraction to many San Franciscans who could easily have lived at "better addresses" but who chose the Haight-Ashbury for its congeniality and cultural range. Here they could prove to anyone who cared, and especially to their children, the possibilities of racial integration. The Haight-Ashbury was the only neighborhood in the nation, as far as I know, to send its own delegation—one white man, one Negro woman—to the civil rights March in Washington in 1963.
Wealth and comfort ascended with the hills, in the southern portion of the district. In the low, flat streets near the Panhandle, where the hippies lived, the residents were poorer, darker, and more likely to be of foreign extraction. There, too, students and young artists lived, and numbers of white families who had chosen the perils of integration above the loss of their proximity to the Panhandle. With the threat of the freeway many families had moved away and many stores had become vacant, and when the threat had passed, a vacuum remained.
The hippies came, lured by availability, low rents, low prices, and the spirit of historic openness. The prevailing weather was good in a city when weather varied with the contours of hills. Here a hippie might live barefoot most of the months of the year, lounge in sunswept doorways slightly out of the wind, and be fairly certain that politic liberals, bedeviled Negroes, and propertyless whites were more likely than neighbors elsewhere to admit him to community.
The mood of the Haight-Ashbury ranged from occasional opposition to the hippies to serene indifference, to tolerance, to interest, and to delight. As trouble increased between hippies and police, and as alarm increased elsewhere in the city, the Haight-Ashbury kept its head. It valued the passions of the young, especially when the young were, as hippies were, nonviolent. No doubt, at least among liberals, it saw something of its own earlier life in the lives of hippies.