Summer of Love: a journey through San Francisco 50 years on

San Francisco was the epicentre of the Summer of Love, a movement intent on changing the foundations of American society forever. Half a century later, Tamara Hinson journeys through the city to discover how much of that hedonistic era still lingers. 

In Haight-Ashbury, a Bob Marley track blares from Amoeba Music, an independent bookstore. Nearby, fragrant clouds of smoke billow from an apartment above a street art-adorned smoke shop.

Modern-day hipsters are slowly replacing those in the neighbourhood with the closest ties to 1967’s Summer of Love. But look closely and you’ll still see reminders: in the tie-dye filled windows of Love on Haight, a glitter pot-filled store owned by Sunny Powers, a local woman whose motto is “Never be afraid to sparkle”. And in Jammin on Haight, an explosion of psychedelic T-shirts and Grateful Dead music posters.

The Grateful Dead’s former publicist, Dennis McNally, is the man behind On the Road to the Summer of Love, an exhibition helping refresh the memories of those with little recollection of that heady, marijuana-fragranced summer, 50 years on.

One of the stranger exhibits at the California Historical Society’s exhibition is a sheet of LSD. Its owner avoided prosecution by claiming his glass-covered sheet of class A drugs was clearly for display, not consumption.

It’s one of several events commemorating the 50th anniversary of 1967’s Summer of Love, when more than 100,000 activists, artists and entrepreneurs flocked to the city to change the world with music, art and positive vibes. They protested about the Vietnam War, set up organic food movements and sang about healing the world. And, as the LSD exhibit suggests, they got high.

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It was an artistic revolution. A political revolution in many ways, too. It was like a carnival

One of McNally’s favourite photos depicts a smiling policeman threading flowers onto string. It was taken at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. “Everyone’s wearing flowers, they’re all high and having a marvellous time,” says McNally.

“The head of security said he could have employed Kindergarteners. There simply weren’t any problems. It’s an amazing picture: the policeman’s just there, stringing his orchids. He knows he doesn’t have to work that day.”

The California Historical Society is close to Haight-Ashbury, the epicentre of the Summer of Love movement. Historian William Schnabel was 17 years old in 1967, and spent that summer hanging out in Haight-Ashbury, mixing with Diggers – the name given to the people most closely connected with the Summer of Love. They opposed authority, championed communal living and believed that everything should be free.

Schnabel recently wrote about his memories of Haight-Ashbury’s most colourful summer in his book, Summer of Love and Haight: 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love. 

“It was a cultural revolution,” recalls Schnabel. “An artistic revolution. A political revolution in many ways, too. It was revolutionary. It was like a carnival.

“Sometimes there were parades organised by the Diggers; a lot of them came from a theatrical background. Some of them had worked with the San Francisco mime troupe and a lot of them left because they wanted to do it in the streets, not on a stage.”

Haight Street’s Pork Store Café has been serving hungry locals for 40 years. Over hash browns, Haight-Ashbury local Amanda gives me an insight into the area. “It’s still a neighbourhood with a great sense of community, with people who’ve lived here for a long time,” she explains.

Amanda adds that the area’s famous Victorian, pastel-hued houses are being snapped up by wealthy tech entrepreneurs who’ve made their millions in nearby Silicon Valley. “Change is inevitable, although it’s important that the architecture is preserved,” she says.

But the Summer of Love wasn’t just about Haight-Ashbury. I cycle over to North Beach, a bay-side neighbourhood known for its parks and Italian community. The area borders Chinatown. I pedal past Italian flags painted onto lamp posts, as Italian opera blares from a deli.

Prior to the Summer of Love, North Beach had a thriving literary scene. Kerouac, Ginsberg and Snyder were some of the writers who moved here in the 1950s.

It was the heart of the beat scene, a literary movement started by authors whose work explored and influenced American culture post-World War II. The Summer of Love and the Beat Generation were intrinsically linked.

Beat poets championed values which fuelled the Summer of Love: communal living, political decentralisation and an awareness of the environment. North Beach quickly became a hub for those who shared these values.

At its epicentre was City Lights, still regarded as one of America’s best independent bookstores. Founded in 1953 by Peter D. Martin and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, this National Historic Landmark, which specialised in banned books, wasn’t just a shop but a meeting place and centre of protest. “It was at the heart of everything that happened in North Beach and it’s still there, as good as ever,” says Dennis McNally.

I finish with a visit to the Presidio, a beautiful park overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

With its manicured lawns and hiking trails, it’s a world away from the colourful chaos of Haight-Ashbury. But in San Francisco, reminders of 1967 are never far away.

The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia was a soldier for a short period of time and spent nine months at The Presidio, which was an army base for 218 years. In the recently refurbished visitor centre, lines on the floor represent the outlines of what were once tiny military cells.

“We were the ones the hippies were rebelling against,” points out the Presidio Trust’s Lisa Petrie as we walk past locals perfecting their yoga poses on the grass. “The Presidio was a military machine, dispatching soldiers to Vietnam. But just three miles away, you had all the hippies – a total counter-culture. I’ve heard former employees talk about how they’d ride the bus to work through all the hippie protests.”

But those days are long gone. Perhaps peace, love and unity won the day here after all.

Tamara travelled with Thomas Cook Airlines, who fly to San Francisco from Manchester, from £149.99 each way. Header image: Pixabay/CC0. Main body images from top to bottom (left–right): David Seibold/Flickr; Jennifer Boyer/Flickr; Vince Traveller/Flickr; Mattia Panciroli/Flickr; Jennifer Boyer/Flickr; Kent Kanouse/Flickr; Sswj/Flickr; Justin Kern; Flickr

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