The Flowering of the Hippies

"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, and that they were generally dirty."

A hippie record is entitled Notes From Underground. The hippie behind the counter told me that "underground" was a hippie word. He had not yet heard of Dostoevsky, whose title the record borrowed, or of the antislavery underground in America, or of the World War II underground in France. A movement which thought itself the world's first underground was bound to make mistakes it could have avoided by consultation with the past, and there was evidence that the hippies had begun to know it.

Nobody asked the hippies to accept or acknowledge the texts of the past. Their reading revealed their search for self-help, not conducted among the traditional books of the Western world but of the Orient—in I Ching and The Prophet, and in the novels of the German Hermann Hesse, especially the "Oriental" Siddhartha. Betrayed by science and reason, hippies indulged earnestly in the occult, the astrological, the mystical, the horoscopic, and the Ouija. Did hippies know that Ouija boards were a popular fad not long ago?

Or did they know that The Prophet of Kahlil Gibran, reprinted seventy-seven times since 1923, lies well within the tradition of American self-help subliterature? No sillier book exists, whose "prose poetry," faintly biblical, offers homiletic advice covering one by one all the departments of life (On Love, On Marriage, On Children, On Giving, On Eating and Drinking, On Work—on and on) in a manner so ambiguous as to permit the reader to interpret all tendencies as acceptable and to end by doing as he pleases, as if with the sanction of the prophet.

Hesse was a German, born in 1877, who turned consciously to romantic expression after age forty, but the wide interest of the hippies in Siddhartha is less conscious than Hesse's. To the hero's search for unity between self and nature they respond as German youth responded to Hesse, or as an earlier generation of Americans responded to the spacious, ambiguous outcry of Thomas Wolfe.

Inevitably, they were going through all these things twice, unaware of things gone through before. Inherent in everything printed or hanging in the visual scene on Haight Street was satirical rejection of cultural platitudes, but in the very form and style, of the platitudes themselves. Children of television, they parodied it, spoofing Batman, as if Batman mattered. The satire in which they rejoiced was television's own artistic outpost. The walls of Haight Street bore, at a better level, the stamp, of Mad magazine or collages satirizing the chaos of advertising: but anyone could see the same who turned the pages of Reader's Digest fast.

Of all the ways in which hippies began to polarize toward work their withdrawal from the visual scene was most astute. They had begun to learn, after flight, rebellion, and the pleasures of satirizing things they hoped they could reject, that work requires solitude and privacy, and that to work well means to resist the shaping influence of the media, abandoning the visual scene to those whom it gratifies.

The ideal of work—not simply jobs, but meaningful work, work as service—had been a hippie ideal from the outset. The apprehension of quiet, positive acts as meaningful, requiring time and liaison, was a more difficult act than parading the streets in costume. The act of extending community beyond oneself, beyond other hippies, beyond the comfort of drugs to the wider community of diverse color and class was nearer than hippies had thought to the unity of self and nature.

At the start, it was frightening to undertake. Finally, it was instructive and exalting. To share community, to arrive finally at the meaning of one's own world, was to feel life from a point of view formerly hidden from oneself, and only partly revealed by mystical reading. Self-regulation was more satisfying than regulation by the police, and conformity to enduring objectives more liberating finally than chemical visions.

The hippies patrolled their garbage—the "sweep in"—and modulated their music. If such acts were this side millennium, they were nevertheless gestures of community reflecting an emergence of the hippies from the isolation of their first two years in San Francisco. Acquaintance with the straight community increased as work and work projects proliferated. Acquaintance produced degrees of trust and accurate identity. Generalizations failed. Not all straights were pure straight, even as hippies differed one from another.

The life of the hippie community began to reveal a history of its own. It had evolved through flight, drugs, and conflict, and back into the straight world, which it now knew in a manner different from before. To direct the Hip Job Co-op, the Free Store, public feedings in the Panhandle, to produce even one memorable edition of the Oracle (Volume I, Number 7, preserving the essence of hippie theory in debate among Ginsberg, Leary, Snyder, and Watts) required a pooling of skills, resources, and confrontation with the straight community. It meant, even, coming face to face with the telephone company, and it meant, as well, the ironic recognition that necessary work invited imitation of the very processes hippies had formerly despised. To purchase houses to shelter hippies, food to feed them, required compromise with the community, a show of dependable intentions. In the language of Leonard Wolf, San Francisco State College professor who organized formal instruction among hippies, it required "coming to terms with the ethical quandary of money." Projects with long-range implications, such as the purchase of rural sites for hippie communities, required leadership, planning, authority, discipline, and more or less continuous sobriety.

At some moments the process of learning was almost visible. "The American passion is murder," said a hippie spokesman, challenging a straight audience of physicians, lawyers, teachers, and others, including police officers, to rise and, shout him down. None of his listeners betrayed alarm—some feared that his words were too true. "I would like to see the American Establishment give more examples of love, and fewer pronouncements." He appeared suddenly to be aware that he had heard these sentiments before, and indeed it was a complaint some members of the Establishment had made forever and ever. Hippies were scarcely the first to discover hyprocrisy.

A hippie said, at the same meeting, "The American Empire is driving our sons and daughters to Haight Street. All America knows is profit and property. We all know..."—that is, we all just this minute realized; that was to say, he just this minute realized—"we all know all we need to know to act, but we don't act. Everyone knows what's wrong..." perceiving in that moment a straight community which shared with him, among other things, its powerlessness. It, too, had fought its battles with authority, and he saw it now in its diversity, rather than as monolith.

At such moments of meeting hippies knew sensations of reconciliation and escape from their own isolation. They learned, as American minorities before them had learned, that nothing was more instructive about human life than to have been a minority group, and to have emerged. Acquaintance clarified: straights had not so much opposed drugs or dirt as their inefficiency; runaway children broke real hearts; plagues of rats, by the agreement of mankind, were unaesthetic; straights, too, resisted work, yearned for varieties of love, and found the balance. Frank Kavanaugh, teacher at a Catholic high school, resident of the Haight-Ashbury for fourteen years, summarized the positive aspects of polarization in a public statement widely applauded. He wrote in part:

I would estimate that even though there have been many unwelcome incidents occasioned by both the old and new community, there has still arisen an area of understanding and mutual appreciation. I would describe it in this fashion. The new community by its rejection of certain middle-class attitudes of comfort, security, position, and property has pointed out to us our exaggerated concern for these material distractions. In their effort to create new life styles based on personalism and simple awareness of the basic joys of sensible creation, they make us more aware of the over-looked pleasures of colors, sounds, trees, children, smiles. Yet I think that they have learned much from us too. They have learned that the neighborhood in which they have chosen to demonstrate their rejection of middle-class conformity is not such a bad neighborhood after all. If they have been the victims of generalized attitudes by authority, they have also been the perpetrators of generalized attitudes themselves. Not all middle-class people are squares. Generally speaking, upon the close, personal examination of any square by any hippie, the sharp corners soften considerably and the image of a human being appears... Given more time and the absence of undue friction, the dialogue could bear rich fruit. The old and new could form one community, unique and rich in human resources, a community that could demonstrate that such a neighborhood could flourish despite the system; indeed, one that could bear the seed for a joyous revolution of attitudes in the entire city and produce a large urban community based on the real needs of its inhabitants.

The hippies had come for help. The freedom of cities had always attracted a significant segment of every generation seeking to resolve American dilemmas unrestrained by commitments to family obligations in home communities. New York and Chicago had always known waves of hippies fleeing Winesburg, Ohio. In San Francisco, as hippies engaged in public dialogue, they forced the city to examine and modify standing practices. Laws governing marijuana became exposed for their paradoxes. Accurate information on drugs became an objective. Police methods were reviewed. Perhaps the most useful debate involved new and imaginative uses of public facilities: a city which could entertain and amuse immense conventions, sporting crowds, providing for visitors luxurious frivolities of every kind, could, for example, release Kezar Stadium, site of professional football during certain seasons, to the tents of hippies for their "summer of love." Haight-Ashbury Assemblyman Willie Brown, in a letter to the Supervisors, placed in perspective the nature of the conflicting forces: "It appears to me that you are in danger of making a very fundamental mistake concerning both your own identity and that of the young people who are coming to us. They are not some horde of invading foreigners. They are our children, yours and mine, exercising their right to move freely about a country which will soon be very much their own. You for your part are not some select group of medieval chieftains who can, at will, close up your town and withdraw behind the walls of your own closed society. The City of St. Francis deserves better from you. Whether we like or dislike, agree or disagree with the 'Hip' community is not the issue here. The issue is whether you can by fiat declare a minority unwelcome in our community. If you declare against these young people today, what minority is going to bear the brunt of your discrimination tomorrow?"


Somewhat forgotten among general fears was the hippies' unwavering adherence to the ideal of nonviolence. Miraculously, they retained it in a community and in a world whose easiest tendency was guns. For that virtue, if for no other, they valuably challenged American life. If they did not oppose the war in Vietnam in the way of organized groups, they opposed it by the argument of example, avoiding violence under all circumstances. They owned no guns. By contrast, the manner in which the major Establishment of San Francisco approached the hippies chillingly suggested the basis of American failure abroad: never questioning its own values, lacking the instinct for difficult dialogue, it sought to suppress by exclusion; exclusion failing, it was prepared to call the police.

The trouble on the visual scene was drugs, and drugs brought cops; the trouble was runaway children (some as young as ten years old) lost among hippies, and runaway children brought cops; dirty books brought cops. The trouble was hazardous housing, which brought the health department, and in the wake of the health department, cops.

The trouble with the police, from the point of view of the hippies, was false arrest, illegal arrest, incitement to arrest, cops with swinging clubs, obscene cops diseased by racial hatred, and the tendency of any appearance by police to stimulate excitement where none had been. They accused cops of accepting bribes from drug peddlers and then arresting users, and they singled out a few officers whose zeal for the enforcement of standard morality exceeded reason. The cop was the enemy visible in a marked car, whom hippies viewed as the living symbol of all the vice and hypocrisy of the Establishment.

The San Francisco cop had never lived in Haight-Ashbury. Now, by and large, he lived in the Richmond, the Sunset, or within the thirty-mile suburban radius established by law, in a house with a patch of grass and a garage with an oil-proof floor he might live long enough to pay for. He earned $9000 for a forty-nine-week year, and he would receive a pension at age sixty-five, or after thirty years of service. He read his Hearst newspaper and watched television, and went to church and Candlestick Park. He hated the sound of sirens: his occupational hazard was heart failure at an early age from too many surges of adrenalin.

For the San Francisco cop the sixties had been, said one, "the age of riots," not food riots, not labor strikes, for objectives or upon principles he understood, but disorders emanating from obscure causes and upheld for their justice by those elements of the community the cop had always associated with normal process and quietude. Said the same cop: "I am caught in the bind of history."

The first significant confrontation of the decade between police and the new antagonist occurred on Friday, May 13, 1960, in the rotunda of city hall, where several hundred persons had gathered to attend, in a spirit of protest, a hearing of a House Committee on Un-American Activities. Denied admission to the hearing room, the crowd sang, chanted, and appeared to represent potential violence. Four hundred policemen, a contingent larger than the gathering itself, dispersed the crowd with clubs and fire hoses, jailed more than fifty persons, brought one to trial (a Berkeley student)—and failed to convict him.

But to the astonishment of the cop, in so clear a case, instead of commendation from a grateful public for having quelled a disorder, he was abused for his "brutality." The next day thousands of persons gathered at various points of the city to protest not only the continued presence of the sub-committee, but also the cop, the two causes becoming one. In the years which followed, all issues were to be repeatedly merged with the issue of police action: the cop himself became an issue.

The San Francisco Police Department, between 1960 and 1967, undertook liberal reforms never dramatic enough to please its critics. Its leadership had always been proud of the department's flexibility, its openness to innovation. It was the servant of the city. Now, in a new climate, it intended to acquaint itself with new problems, especially the problems of racial or temperamental minorities.

The creation in 1962 of a Community Relations Unit, which grew from two members to thirteen, was an experiment of remarkable promise and frequent achievement. Its goal was to anticipate commotion rather than to react in panic, to understand the aims of dissident groups, and to survey rather than to arrest. The role of the unit was to provide "feedback" between police and public, often by sponsoring or attending public meetings where dialogue might ensue between citizen and cop, who had never before met.

The unit wore no uniform, made no arrests, and identified itself wherever it went. Honorably, it never carried back hard information to the department. It had somewhat the aspect of the intellectual wing of the police, asking why, never who, though the position was relative, and in the short run it was a long way down the line from the new, informed, even theoretical cop to the rank-and-file cop in the car, riding scared, feeling himself surrounded by alien and sinister forces, feeling eyes of contempt and hatred upon him, anxious for his own safety, and moved finally to rely upon the same old weapons he still treasured above all sociology, all theory, and all goodwill.

He was a better-informed, more feeling cop than he had been eight years before, but he could never quite remain abreast of history. He had learned to accept the aspirations of Negroes, but he was now confronted by hippies, who were patently and undeniably breaking laws for reasons beyond the cop's comprehension. The Beats, who were the forerunners of the hippies, had obstructed the sidewalks of North Beach and offended cops by their strange untidiness, but they had gathered in a traditional bohemian quarter, and they were beat, they admitted it, prepared to flee.

The instinct of the cop was ancient: break the law, be punished. Typical of the citizenry of San Francisco, his heart the repository of all populist values, the cop would uphold the law at every stage of its interpretation. In the main, he transcended his emotions. He waited to see whether the hippies would triumph over their visual scene, whether their shift from street to community would occur before the Haight-Ashbury or the city beyond arrived at last at disenchantment. If the Haight-Ashbury abandoned the hippies the mood of city at large would be released in the direction of his own gut responses. Then the anxiety of the cop would be shared by all powers, the nervous system of the cop, the city, and the Haight-Ashbury would vibrate upon one note. Then the directive of the cop would be clear. Then the cop would move in.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In