Wes Leslie, co founder of Wild San Francisco tours, is offering Haight-Ashbury Walking Tour: A Musical Trip of The 60’s for free during the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
By Karen Rubin
My, how time flies!
It’s the 50th anniversary of San Francisco’s Summer of Love, when, in 1967, nearly 100,000 young people converged on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, turning San Francisco into the epicenter of a cultural phenomenon known as the Summer of Love. During this transformative time, music, fashion, art and new ideas flourished and there was a feeling that everything was possible.
The city of San Francisco was a magnet for musicians, artists and social rebels in the mid-to-late 1960s. They created a counterculture bound by leftist politics, tribal spirit, music and art. Long stamped a literary bohemia, attracting nonconformists like the Beat Generation writers of the Fifties, it was a natural progression for free-thinking San Francisco to give birth to a radical new movement eventually embraced by the rest of the world.
The 50th Anniversary Celebration – with some 60 different events, special tours, concerts – is already well underway in San Francisco and I’m guessing that tens of thousands of Baby Boomers will grab their tie-dye t-shirts, bell-bottom jeans, and put a flower in their hair and join in for a mind-blowing time-travel blast back into the past.
I’ve just returned from my magical mystery tour – more precisely, Haight-Ashbury Walking Tour: A Musical Trip of The 60’s, a musical Summer of Love walking tour with Wes Leslie of Wild San Francisco Tours – when I was stunningly, and eerily transported back to my past.
Let me say at the outset that I can’t recall taking a historical tour where I personally lived the history.
Wes (he jokes that he is called “Wild Wes”) is perfect to lead this tour, using his guitar at opportune points – in front of the homes where the Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Country Joe (of the Fish) and others lived – to recreate the iconic music of that era. What is more, in keeping with the spirit of the Hippie Movement, the tour during this anniversary year is “free” (you pay a suggested donation at the end).
Though I lived through that era – memories came flooding back with Wes’ narration – there is so much more of the inside, behind-the-scenes, backstage stuff that I hadn’t known. It is kind of like sitting around a table with relatives and finding out inside scoop you hadn’t realized went on.
Wes’ anecdotes and folksy style make the tour as entertaining and fun as it is informative from a historical and cultural point of view.
Indeed, what I come away with is a realization that the Summer of Love would not have happened without The Pill and how that spurred cultural changes – most significantly a willingness to challenge the entrenched White Patriarchy and Power Structure. I come away with is a new appreciation of how the Women’s Liberation movement actually fueled the Hippie movement, which, through its counter-cultural, anti-establishment, anti-institutionalism, then paved the way for civil rights, gay rights and peace movements – methods and organizations and themes which are eerily resurgent today.
During this Wild San Francisco walking tour through Haight-Ashbury (with music!), I learn about the rise – and fall– of the Hippie Movement that reached its pinnacle during that Summer of Love, when some 100,000 descended and overwhelmed San Francisco (consider that the city has a population today of 800,000), much to the horror of local Hippies who decried that famous song, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear flowers in your hair.”
The very “success” of the Summer of Love proved the undoing of the Hippie Movement, much to the delight of Mayor Shelley at the time, who went after the hippies with such vengeance that he told area hospitals not to help young runaway teens who OD’d, and told the police to stand down so that chaos would reign. It is a complete surprise to me to learn about how brief this movement was in Haight-Ashbury – like a brief, shining light.
The Hippie Movement, which emerged 1965-1967, was aimed at overturning the 1950s culture of uniformity, conformity and obeisance to The Man (whether that is the Capitalist or the Authority of the white patriarchy power elite). The “Hippies” (named because they were the next-gen Beatniks but not quite the Hipsters the Beatniks were, according to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen who coined the names for both) renounced capitalism and embraced everything “free” (free food, free concerts, free health clinics, free love), which is why they were considered so dangerously radical (Communists!) and vilified by The Establishment. After all, America was still in the throes of the Cold War.
The social, political ideologues shaping the movement were The Diggers, Wes explains (a group I had never heard of before even though I lived through this era) and must have been news to the other people on our tour, who hailed from Wales, Australia, Hungary, Berlin and Los Angeles (that fellow had taken two other tours with Wes).
The Haight-Ashbury district, where the Hippies were concentrated, today seems an odd locale for these counter-culture radicals, because this district is dominated by the most magnificently preserved (expensive!) Victorian-era homes, some dating from the 1890s, surviving the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire which destroyed 80 percent of the city. Wes explains that by the 1960s, the district was run-down and cheap to live in after white flight to the suburbs. Back then, you could rent an entire Victorian house for $175 a month and divide that among 10 people (amounting to $80 a month per person in today’s money, compared to the $3400/month rent for an apartment the district now commands). So naturally, it attracted artists, writers and musicians.
In the 1960s, half the American population was under 25 years old. These were the Baby Boomers and they were coming of age, disillusioned with income inequality, segregation, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“Maybe they hadn’t figured out the solutions but they wanted whatever was furthest from whatever set those things into motion,” Wes tells us as we face one of the most magnificent Victorians, known as “Hippie Temptation”, so they reclaimed the derelict urban cities, swore off capitalism, and embraced drugs that were emerging and love and a philosophy of individual discovery and expression.
They picked up where Jack Kerouac (“On the Road” was a handbook for the Beat Generation) and Alan Ginsberg (“Howl”) left off.
The emergence of drugs (and the drug culture) was a significant element that led to the rise of the Hippie Movement– like LSD (which was legal), which led to the rise of “psychedelic” experimentation and provided the subtext for culture of “seeing the world in a new way” and a devotion to individual expression, rather than conformity. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” declared Timothy Leary.
The Diggers, Wes explains, took their name from a 17th century group of anarchists in England who would take over unplowed fields and would give away the harvest to end inequality.
San Francisco didn’t have farms, but it did have food waste, so the Diggers would go dumpster diving and brought the food to All Saints Parish Church (where we find ourselves standing) and would make a pot of Hippie Stew which they would bring to Panhandle Park (where our tour began, named for the shape, not for handouts), to distribute for free. (The church still gives away food weekly.).
One day, The Diggers gave away free food on the steps of City Hall, which enraged San Francisco’s mayor. “’We are not a charity,’ the Diggers declared,” Wes tells us. “’We are an anarchist organization doing what government should do’.” (a philosophy that is reemergent with the anti-Trump activism) It was the act of it, in contrast to the liberals at Berkeley, the intellectual kids, who were theorizing.
Wes traces the actual beginning of the Hippie Movement that led up to the Summer of Love to “The Death of Money” March the Diggers put on. The Diggers, he says, were the activist branch of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a political satire and theater group.
Hundreds came out wearing dark clothing and carrying a coffin filled with cash and coins – “50 years before the Occupy Wall Street movement and Bitcoin.”
They opened a free store, stocked with contributions from shopkeepers and what they could scavenge. Tie-dye? That gender-bending fashion innovation developed, Wes says, because the Diggers would get contributions of white shirts and would die them.
Interestingly, Wes points out, there was a revolution within the Diggers because the men were writing the manifestos but the women were actually doing the work.
Ultimately, he relates, “the structure of the Diggers – who eschewed “leadership” (they were anarchists) – falls apart.” But they will be forever remembered for coining the famous phrase: “Today marks the first day of the rest of your life.” And for providing the template for social innovations that followed.
By now, we are standing in front of the most famous house in Haight-Ashbury: the “crash pad” for the Grateful Dead, the most beloved group in San Francisco, “hallowed ground for Haight-Ashbury.”
As Wes is talking, a 60ish man in long white beard, long flowing hair, wearing a tie-dye shirt and bright colored vest comes out of his bright colored house and into his red car, looking every bit the part.
Wes regales us with stories about Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead, the Hells Angels, Country Joe and the Fish, Janis Joplin as we visit their houses and important landmarks.
The Hippie Movement had its “greatest moment” not in the Summer of Love, but in January 1967, with a Human “Be-In” in Golden Gate Park. It was supposed to attract a few hundred people. Instead, some 20,000 turned out. The Diggers provided free food; the Hells Angels provided child care, Wes says. (Photos of the event are on view at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, which this season has a special “Summer of Love Experience” exhibit.)
Kids 12 to 14 years old were running away from home to join the Haight-Ashbury scene, and they were overdosing on the ubiquitous drugs.
Dr. David Smith, who was then a 28-year old medical intern (he still lives here), decided to do something and opened a free medical clinic in June 1967, which despite Mayor Jack Shelley’s efforts to shut it down, actually still exists (as we discoverthat we are standing in front of it) and has served as the model for some 2,000 free clinics since.
As the Summer of Love event approached, the city was freaking out at what would likely be an invasion of some 50,000 (the museum says 100,000 came). Mayor Shelley shut down the clinic and the police, hoping people would be turned off from coming.
Instead, the locals who occupied those Victorian houses turned over their keys to The Diggers, so that the visitors would have some place to sleep, and left town themselves. The Diggers opened “The Switchboard” putting visitors in touch with apartments (sounds like a forerunner of Air BnB), with jobs, and provided a central place for parents to send messages to their runaway kids.
The “success” of the Summer of Love was actually the undoing of the movement, which unraveled after that, Wes explains.
The Grateful Dead left, the Hippies moved to North Bay where they created a farming commune, the Diggers disbanded.
“The Last Hurrah was the ‘Death of Hippies’ march” paralleling the “Death of Money” march which initiated the movement. The Diggers, again wearing dark clothing, carried another coffin, this time with a Hippie inside, covered with flowers and incense.
The Hippie Movement, they said, “was killed off by fame,” adding, “If you care about this, take what you learned and radicalize it.”
Indeed, they did: the Hippies willingness to take on the Establishment unleashed the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, Gay Rights Movement and Peace Movement.
But Haight-Ashbury sunk further and further into decline, becoming an outright derelict and dangerous place, until the Dot.Com resurgence of San Francisco in the early 2000s, and tourism which has resurrected the colorfully decorated shops, including Earthsong, and Amoeba (which Wes says is the world’s largest independent record-album store).
Wild San Francisco’s other tours – such as “Radical SF”, a walking tour through the Mission and Castro districts – are focused on the people’s history and social movements (there is also a historical ghost tour for good measure).
Wild San Francisco’s co-founder Wes Leslie is a third-generation San Francisco Bay native (I admire his ring with the insignia of the Golden Gate Bridge and 3 diamonds, which he tells me was his grandfather’s, a transit driver for 3 decades). He makes “bedroom soul” music as Wes Leslie, the Bedroom Player (wesleslie.com) and fixes cocktails at Mrs. Jones on Market Street.
Special Tours Celebrate Summer of Love Anniversary
2017, the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love, is being marked with a year-long celebration of San Francisco’s counter culture with a 1960s throwback including some 60 exhibitions, performances, literary events, tribute concerts and recognition of significant moments in time.
While the Summer of Love remains a key moment in history, the free love movement can be experienced through a number of geography specific tours, neighborhoods and performances throughout the year. In addition to Wild San Francisco’s offerings, other tours include:
Flower Power Walking Tours: Walk in the footsteps of Janice Joplin and the Grateful Dead on the Haight Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tours touching on the history of it all, from rock and roll to art, fashion and architecture. (www.haightashburytour.com/)
FOOT! Fun Walking Tours: is presenting a special tour, Flashback: From the Summer of Love to the Winter of Discontent, from the highs of the summer of 1967 to the restlessness that followed. Follow in the footsteps of music legends like Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia with this walking tour in the iconic Haight Ashbury neighborhood. (www.foottours.com).
San Francisco City Guides Haight-Ashbury Tour: Explore streets, sidewalks, parks and vistas that tell the story of a Victorian era resort site subsequently developed by comfortable merchants, whose gingerbread homes still grace its streets. Offered most Sundays, see website for details. Somewhat strenuous. San Francisco City Guides offers free (donations welcome), volunteer-led tours of a variety of neighborhoods, landmarks and topics. To bring eight or more walkers to a regular tour, click here for information on private group tours. (www.sfcityguides.org, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Detour’s Walking Tour: Walk through the epicenter of the Summer of Love with Detour’s Walking Tour of the Haight, narrated by one of the activists who was at its center, Peter Coyote.( www.detour.com/san-francisco/haight-ashbury).
Avital Food Tours, Haight Ashbury: Did you know that local food co-ops were born out of this era? Delve into one of the world’s best food scenes to hear the stories of restaurant owners, chefs and industry experts for a culinary experience in San Francisco. Walking tours are available in iconic neighborhoods across the city including Haight Ashbury. (http://avitaltours.com/san-francisco/)
San Francisco Love Tours: Ride a VW hippie bus with San Francisco Love Tours and experience modern day San Francisco infused with the spirit of the 60’s. (http://sanfranciscolovetours.com/)
Magic Bus Experience: This two-hour+ adventure, “Time Machine to the 60’s,” is a “mind-bending” combination of professional theater, film, music and sightseeing that allows tour goers to travel back in time to the summer of 1967. The Magic Bus is an actual bus colorfully painted and filled with a sound system, micro projectors and screens that periodically lower over the windows making the bus into a moving movie theater. (http://magicbussf.com)
To help visitors plan their “trip,” the San Francisco Travel Association has launched a special website, www.summeroflove2017.com, which provides an ever-expanding guide to the whole groovy scene, including events and itinerary ideas.
Next: Special Events, Exhibitions Planned for San Francisco’s 50th Anniversary Summer of Love
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