San Francisco has changed a lot in the last few years. It’s now the buzzing centre of America’s tech culture, and so expensive that most of the artists and iconoclasts who made it famous can no longer afford to live there.
But you’d be wrong to assume that the city’s lost its radical edge. There are plenty of locals working hard to keep San Francisco’s creative heart beating, and fighting to keep its revolutionary spirit alive. Rebecca Hallett went in search of the people keeping San Francisco weird.
“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”
I thought I’d hate nothing more than standing in a group being serenaded in public by a complete stranger. But this is actually pretty fun.
The man singing to us – tall, red-haired and wearing a jaunty baby-blue beret – is Wes Leslie, who co-founded Wild SF Tours with friend and fellow musician J. Jo.
We’re on the Free Love Tour, a pay-what-you-like musical journey through Haight-Ashbury’s psychedelic '60s, but Wild SF has a whole roster of different tours. As Wes explains, the idea behind the company is “to create meaningful jobs for creatives. So all of our guides are artists: musicians, actors, comedians, filmmakers, costume designers and drag queens.”
As we wander through the neighbourhood, Wes tells us about rise and fall of the hippie community, its bright and beautiful ideals but also its darker side. We stop for a Grateful Dead number in front of their former house, then walk down Ashbury Street to hear a poignant Janis Joplin song below her window, before heading to the chillingly unassuming yellow townhouse where Charles Manson lived.
Still, with all the headlines about gentrification, spiralling rents and tech bros taking over the city, I wonder if Wes doesn’t think things were better then, Manson Family notwithstanding.
“It’s a different city today, for sure. A lot of that innocence and carefree spirit has vanished, which is a result of a lot of things, notably the cost of living.” We eye up the beautiful houses of Haight-Ashbury, their colourful facades nestled together like hardbacks on a bookshelf. It’s clear there are no impoverished artists living here now.
As we stroll past head shops and bars, tourists and homeless kids, Wes touches on the tension of gentrification and the pragmatic approach Wild SF takes. “All our artist friends have money-making hustles, which is at odds with the anti-capitalist ideals of the hippies. In our case, we lead tours for the tech companies – get them excited about history, and point them toward the mom-and-pop shops that could benefit from their support.”
In the end, he’s philosophical about how the city’s changing:
“San Francisco has my heart. In spite of how it’s becoming less hospitable to the artist class, it’s still got a lot of soul. And those who haven’t left for cheaper pastures have dug in their heels and dedicated themselves to keeping culture alive!”
Right on cue, he starts playing his guitar again. By this point, it feels like we’re a group of friends, one of whom just happens to know a lot about the neighbourhood and has a penchant for bursting into song.
Grinning, he tells us that that’s the idea. “I’ve made great friends from these tours, and met up with them all over the world. One of our goals was to create a global community of travellers who can take that Wild SF spirit with them – and I think it’s happening!”
Strolling out of the Ferry Building, an unexpected sound cuts through the clatter of trams, calls of seagulls and chatter of tourists. An insistent tap-tap-tapping noise. Following my ears, I come across a young woman – dark hair pulled back, septum ring, look of deep concentration – sitting by the road, working at a beautiful red typewriter.
After a few more lines of text, she pulls out the paper and hands it to the customers. As they move away, excitedly scanning the page, I see her portable sign:
Poem Store: Your Subject, Your Price
This is Afrose Fatima Ahmed, an on-the-spot poet: give her a topic, she writes, you pay whatever you’d like. She’s been doing this for around ten years, but only recently in San Francisco, where she’s found people ready and willing to engage with her work.
“There’s definitely a creative community here,” she tells me. “A lot of institutions are interested in supporting artists, sometimes they invite me to write for their customers.”
Among others, Afrose has written at Homage, a farm-to-table restaurant in the Financial District, Red Bay Coffee in Oakland, and Rendezvous, a North Beach vintage clothing boutique. It seems like being an on-the-spot poet gives you a fast track to the coolest places.
I ask what she’d recommend in the area, and she enthuses about San Francisco’s easy access to nature, like Marin County and Point Reyes National Seashore, as well as a Berkeley tapas bar – “La Marcha, it has the best happy hour ever” – and Soul Motion Lab – “I go for… well, it’s called ‘conscious dance’, and it’s a little out there! I find it very liberating being in a space free of judgement and expectations.”
Noticing that most of these places are outside San Francisco proper, I ask if she spends most of her time out of the city. She pauses before replying, choosing her words carefully.
“With the tech boom and the changing demographic of the city, the culture of creativity isn’t as prominent in San Francisco itself. A lot of artists are having to move to the East Bay. I can’t actually afford to live in San Francisco, so I’ve been in Berkeley and Oakland. There are definite challenges to being an artist here, but there’s so much that’s amazing that it’s worth the struggles.”
I change the subject to something a little happier, and ask whether she’s had any particularly memorable requests. She laughs, and asks how rude she can be; I tell her Rough Guides readers are hard to shock.
“Last month at the Ferry Building, a man approached me. He was very polite and unassuming, and introduced me to the woman he was with, and in a roundabout way asked if I’d be willing to write a poem about… well, her vagina. I guess he just really loves it, in this worshipful, genuine way. She was into all this, finding it very amusing, so I said OK, I will happily write you a poem about your girlfriend’s vagina.”
We both break into laughter. “So yeah, I did it, and they liked the poem, and that was kind of it!”
She tells me too about the more painful poems she’s written – for people dealing with grief, loss, heartbreak – and of the personal tragedy which made her realise she had to focus on what she was passionate about.
“I do think that for some people it can be really healing to have a stranger reflect creatively back to you your struggles. Just to experience that process can be a wonderful thing… I love what I do in large part because of that. I get to see the full spectrum of human existence.”
She smiles warmly, telling me, “It’s really, truly been a gift. It’s changed my life, and the way that I interact with the world.”
Of course, I ask her to write a poem for me, and it is beautiful, funny, and well worth what I choose to pay for it. You can ask Afrose for one of your own on Instagram, or wait to stumble serendipitously on her tapping away on a typewriter some sunny San Francisco afternoon.
On the corner of Haight Street and Masonic Avenue is a large old building, the ground floor covered in intricate patterns, from hot pink to electric blue to vibrant green. In the windows, mannequins lean jauntily in sequinned bodysuits and tie-dye T-shirts. Inside, the ceiling is draped with fabric, and there are even tie-dye baby grows for sale.
This is Love on Haight, and reigning over the whole colourful kingdom is Sunny Powers. The embodiment of good vibes, she’s a captivating jumble of red curls, bright fabrics, a brighter smile, and always something sparkly.
As she explains to me, though, she didn’t always feel so positive about this place.
“This shop is on the corner where I met my first boyfriend, got my first tie-dye, smoked my first bowl, got my first Grateful Dead ticket, and mourned the loss of Jerry Garcia. Eventually I went to college and had a totally different life. After moving back I didn’t want to come to the Haight… it was not what I wanted it to be. But you can’t just complain; you actually have to get in there and do something.”
And do something she did. Sunny set up Love on Haight with friends, and as the shop’s success grew she started to reinvest her profits in the area. As she says, “It’s my business model – take care of the community and it will naturally take care of me.”
For Sunny, taking care of the community isn’t just an abstract concept. Ask her what her aim is, and she’ll tell you: “I would like us to fix our homeless problem.”
Putting her money where her mouth is, she’s started a nonprofit called Taking it to the Streets, which works with Haight-Ashbury’s homeless youth to get them housed and invested in the community. “I am a firm believer that housing solves the homeless problem and I hope my city can lead by example and find a solution to the housing crisis.”
On top of this, she works with City Hall to help shape small business policies in San Francisco. She seems to revel in how incongruous she must look, striding down the corridors of power.
“I love that I can wear tie-dye and glitter and be as active in politics as I am. It’s proof of how awesome San Francisco is!”
Between Sunny’s trips to City Hall and work with The Haight’s homeless population, she can take refuge in the bubble of love and happiness she’s created in the shop.
“There can be a lot of crazy stuff going on, but when people come into my shop they can feel the love and the magic. They can take with them the part of San Francisco that I love the most, the part where you can be you, whoever that is.”
The hippies may have left, but on this corner counterculture is still alive, something Sunny feels proud of.
“San Francisco is where change in the nation starts, and more often than not it starts in The Haight. Having the honour of being the caretaker of my corner means that I have to lead by example and be as good to San Francisco as it has been to me.”
As I leave the shop with a bag of sparkles, waft of incense and goofy grin, Sunny’s mantra lingers in my mind: “Never be afraid to sparkle!”
Rebecca flew to San Francisco via Reykjavík with Icelandair on their inaugural flight; flights from Heathrow have a lead-in price of £447.80, and passengers can to stopover in Iceland for up to seven days for no extra fare price. Rebecca stayed at Hotel Marina Iceland in Reykjavík and Hotel Zeppelin in San Francisco. Find out more on the San Francisco Travel website.
Header image: San Francisco streetcars © canadastock / Shutterstock