Seeking Ghosts of Summer Past in San Francisco

A journey to discern the San Francisco of myth from the San Francisco of reality at a time when misplaced nostalgia is all the rage

By Scott Vogel July 18, 2017 Published in the August 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

When I meet Nick, a 23-year-old from northern New Jersey, he is wearing purple-tinted Lennon glasses, a suede vest, bellbottoms and jodhpur boots. It is June, and he has traveled 3,000 miles to Haight-Ashbury all so he can see the Grateful Dead’s house, hang out at the Drogstore Café, smoke pot on Hippie Hill and attend a Janis Joplin concert at the Geary Theater. Nick’s love for the Haight is boundless, unwavering. He does not care that the Dead have not lived there since ’68, that the Drogstore is now a gastropub or that the Geary is hosting not Joplin herself but A Night with Janis Joplin, a tribute show starring a young woman whose Janis is allegedly spot-on. On the plus side, smoking blunts on Hippie Hill is now easier than ever, thanks to the verdict of California voters in last year’s election. And while Nick acknowledges that no one will ever confuse the summer of ’17 with the summer of ’67, hints of revolution are once more in the air.

“I came here for a mind-altering experience,” he says, referring not to LSD but a simple change of mind. “This is the place where the last revolution began, and I’m here for inspiration so I can start the next one.” I tell him that both revolutions come as news to me, but he waves me off. “What the ’60s showed was that when people come together, no problem is too great for them to solve.”

He learned this lesson, he says, from a local guru named Stan whom he met on the Flower Power Walking Tour, which Stan leads.

“You gotta meet Stan,” says Nick.

On May 13, passengers arriving at San Francisco International Airport were greeted by United personnel wearing tie-dyed headscarves, dogs wearing glasses outfitted with peace-sign lenses, a performance by the city’s Gay Men’s Chorus and wax figures of Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia created by Madame Tussauds. The mayor had declared it “Flowers in Your Hair Day” after the song that had served as a clarion call for the 100,000 Americans, mostly teenagers, who descended on the Haight in the summer of 1967. The airport event was the opening salvo of a campaign aimed at tourists nostalgic for a time when “new music, fashion and art flourished and there was a feeling that anything was possible”—which is to say everyone.

The actual Summer of Love, as it came to be known, was a bit less idyllic. Building a counterculture turned out to entail shocking levels of squalor, filthy teens dropping acid and sleeping in the streets, and entreaties to “make love, not war” that led to epidemic levels of gonorrhea. But every subsequent generation has romanticized the hippies anyway, according to its needs. For this one, atomized by smartphones and weary of political infighting, the need is to believe again that America is a place of common causes, of masses taking to the streets and making change happen, of power to the people. And so, like Nick, they come to San Francisco to alter their minds. They are attitude-adjustment tourists, and San Francisco is welcoming them with love beads.

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The corner that started it all.

Image: Gemyu

"Why did the kids come to the Haight?” asks Stan. Three hours into the Flower Power Walking Tour, the balding, impressively bloated 60-something has come to seem like an emblem of hippie-ism—in other words, a dizzying swirl of success and failure, heroism and ridiculousness, innocence and cynicism. Which is surprising for a man who didn’t even live in the Haight until 1976, a place he moved to either before or after he became a “wizard” of some sort, as well as a stripper in Albuquerque (“for women”). Somewhere along the way he changed his name to Flouride—as in stannous fluoride—and proved an accomplished competitor on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Indeed, Stan would be 250 thou richer right now if only he’d chosen Taco Bell and not White Castle as his final answer. YouTube confirms that the mistake left the Millionaire audience in shock, as just minutes before he had demonstrated mastery of myriad topics, from soccer moms to peanut M&Ms. Ergo, Stan is the sort whose brain buzzes with trivia both fascinating and irrelevant, and while spending an afternoon with him you will learn many, many things—everything, in fact, save why a man would feel the need to name himself for a toothpaste ingredient, and why if he did feel that way, he would misspell fluoride.

“Why did the kids come here?” he asks again. The tourists shake their heads in unison, exhausted. After three hours of walking, there isn’t a dust mote in the Haight we haven’t examined. We’ve seen the basement where Jefferson Airplane once rehearsed, a few of Janis Joplin’s six residences (six because, well, “she was on heroin and Southern Comfort, so not your most stable roommate choice”), and one of Charlie Manson’s homes, as well as the “first and last place the Grateful Dead ever lived together,” which is across the street from a former Hells Angel’s house and near the rooftop that Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn ran across while fleeing a drug raid, not far from the flat where the actress who played Buffy on Family Affair OD’d. (“That show with Sebastian Cabot and Brian Keith. Anybody remember her doll’s name? Mrs. Beasley.”)

The Flower Power Walking Tour also ticks off some contributions to world culture made by the Haight, a place Stan credits with birthing everything from soup kitchens to free clinics, car-sharing services to Craigslist. But the lingering impression is dystopic, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of carnage and confusion.

So when he finally tells us why the kids came to the Haight 50 years ago this summer—“We had the good heroin,” he says, smiling—no one smiles back. Perhaps this is because illicit drug use, never exactly a funny matter, is even less so these days, more Americans having died from overdoses last year than during the entire Vietnam War. But there’s something else disappointing about Stan’s punchline. Hearing “heroin” at the end of a day devoted to the Summer of Love is like hearing “rosebud” at the end of Citizen Kane. You’ve learned something but know nothing.

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Castro Street: not just for gay people anymore.

Image: Pius Lee

People have been drinking booze at 401 Castro St. since at least 1883, and for much of that time, it has been a bar with impressively large plate-glass windows on two sides, windows that the owners kept covered so that husbands could drink without fear of tipping off their wives. But in 1971, the bar was purchased by Mary Ellen Cunha and Peggy Forster, two lesbians with the then-radical notion of uncovering its windows and exposing patrons to the street, radical because the bar’s patrons would now be gay men at a time when homosexuality was still illegal and discrimination rampant, radical because no other gay bar in the nation had yet dared such a thing.

“We could see out and they could see in,” an old-timer tells me at the bar. It is Saturday night and Twin Peaks is packed. “It was like saying, ‘We are who we are. Take it or leave it.’” I tell him that this championing of self-acceptance and sexual freedom seems like an achievement we can thank the hippies for, and the old-timer agrees, sort of. “But pretty quickly, the gay hippie family tree split. The ones who were tired of the dashikis traded them in for hardhats and mustaches, the whole macho man thing, came over the hill and started the Castro. The ones who couldn’t pull that look off, or didn’t want to, stayed and became Radical Faeries.”

I am at the point of asking about the group, which Stan had described as a “gay pagan collective” on our tour, when an elegant woman in a little black dress steps between us, ordering a beer for her husband. “And I’d like a French martini,” she says. Paul the bartender nods, the woman steps back to find her husband, and the old-timer gives her a look from stem to stern. “What’s a French martini?” Paul asks another bartender. “I don’t know, just put some Chambord in it,” comes the reply. We ask Paul what percentage of Twin Peaks’ patrons these days are straight. “Twenty to 30 percent,” he says.

“So now, straight people can look through the windows and see straight people,” the old-timer dryly observes. “Isn’t that great?”

“Progress,” I say.

“Thank the hippies,” he mumbles.

High-end toast cannot be confidently traced to the hippies, but it may well be a feat of Bay Area culinary invention right up there with Crab Louie, Rice-A-Roni and fortune cookies. At The Mill, a popular coffee shop on Divisadero Street, one piece of whole wheat bread with jam goes for $6. It is delicious, if you’re wondering, and also a plateful of everything that is wrong with San Francisco, according to Karen Li, whose family emigrated to the East Bay from Taiwan when she was 10. Now 29, she still lives with her family, despite working for an internet start-up. In fact, everyone else at The Mill this day is apparently a 29-year-old San Franciscan working at a start-up and living with their family. Getting one’s own apartment in a good neighborhood would mean paying some of the highest rents in the country, which would presumably leave little money for toast.

“Did you read The Guardian story?” Li asks. “They totally hit it.” The piece, published in May, seems to have perfectly channeled her anger at what the city has become. (Sample quotes: “If you’re going to San Francisco, by all means wear some flowers in your hair but be sure to bring a credit card and acceptance that the summer of love is history.” “Here, community is a euphemism for customers, disruption means starting your own company and free love means Tinder or Grindr. The San Francisco sound, which once referred to psychedelic rock groups, is now ‘ka-ching’—money.”)

“Everyone in tech is just chasing the next big thing, and it’s all about the money,” says Li. “The place is soulless.” We alert her to another journalist’s opinion of San Francisco, which goes in part: “Look around you. Nothing works. People in metal boxes going from job to job, frustrated. Life is and should be ecstasy. Being alive should be a joy, and it’s a drag for most people.” That totally hits it too, Li says. The words, we tell her, were uttered by a young newspaper editor in a 1967 documentary, The Hippie Temptation. Point being: Maybe San Francisco hasn’t changed as much as it thinks it has. Maybe another countercultural moment is at hand.

Li doubts it. “These people don’t want change,” she says, peering at the crowd at The Mill. “All they want is an apartment and a boyfriend.”

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Ka-ching goes the gift shop at the Summer of Love Experience.

A measure of the difference between then and now: Once visitors could OD at the Summer of Love; now they can OD on it. There’s The Summer of Love Experience, an exhibition at the de Young Museum, On the Road to the Summer of Love at the California Historical Society, Lavender-Tinted Glasses: A Groovy Gay Look at the Summer of Love at the GLBT History Museum, Love or Confusion: Jimi Hendrix in 1967 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, Flower Power at the Asian Art Museum, and, until recently, a collection of period works by noted rock ‘n’ roll photographer Jim Marshall on display at City Hall. Among the distinguishing features of this Beaux-Arts-opulent structure is a grand staircase, and posing on its steps seems to be a rite of passage for every just-married couple (bride-bride, bride-groom, groom-groom) in town. During my visit, photo ops entail a lengthy wait, and frequently wedding-gowned and tuxedoed types can be seen gawking at gigantic images in an adjacent room—of Jefferson Airplane strolling Haight Street, the crowd at a Grateful Dead concert, Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival, and more. It is a peculiarly San Francisco tableau vivant. 

The Summer of Love “was a spectacularly beautiful consummation of a vital tradition celebrating personal freedom and the right of peaceful protest,” reads a statement at the entrance to the Historical Society’s exhibition, which is devoted to examining the forces that made such a season possible, one of those being the Gold Rush. I’d always thought of the 49ers as enterprising ka-ching types whose rightful descendants weren’t the flower children but Li’s soulless techies. Not so. Rather than “dutiful servants of the Protestant work ethic,” says the exhibition, they were “scamps who left a heritage that cherished eccentricity to a degree unique in America.”

Much of the lovingly curated exhibition is devoted to hippie culture’s more immediate antecedents, from House Un-American Activities Committee protests to civil rights sit-ins, to, especially, the Beats, another generation San Francisco had a hand in creating. But it also posits various hippie legacies, from the personal computer, which it traces to a “psychedelic ethos,” to the organic food movement and California’s ongoing reign as conscientious Pied Piper of the nation. In the Historical Society’s gift shop, a print may be purchased featuring a grizzly bear next to a statement made by the state’s legislative leaders last year, one day after the presidential election.

“California was not part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keepers of its future,” it reads.

When the cab driver asks me what the minimum wage is back home, I say $7.25. It will soon be $14 in his city, about which he loves everything. The name on his taxi shield is Cha Cha, which seems improbable for a Turkish immigrant, and he has lived in San Francisco two years. He is dressed all in black, which is kismet, as he is taking us to North Beach, the spiritual home of the Beats.

At the Historical Society, I'd seen a beautiful black-and-white photo of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti—proudly standing before a window display titled BANNED BOOKS—at City Lights bookstore, which he founded in the ’50s, along with City Lights Press, which first published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. These days, the store seems less a rejection of American bourgeois values than a creature of them, although hints of the old anger and weariness may be detected here and there. The same is not true of another Beat landmark, Vesuvio Café, which is more saloon than café, and separated from City Lights by a narrow lane known these days as Jack Kerouac Alley. Gazing at the raucous bar and tiny tables below from the narrow second-floor balcony ringing Vesuvio, it is difficult to imagine Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs engaged in a conversation about anything besides the Golden State Warriors, and the only evidence of Kerouac is on the cocktail menu.

I find a stool at the handsome bar, sip my Kerouac, and try mightily to imagine a roomful of chain-smoking, self-serious poets in monochromatic dress, a mien both embraced and eschewed by their successors, the Technicolor-ecstatic hippies, with their psychedelics and tie-dye. Potent though it is, however, Jack’s cocktail of rum, tequila, and orange and cranberry juices is more bright than Beat. It looks like something a hippie would order.

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Preserving the past at the GLBT History Museum

“I could have sworn the ’60s sucked,” says a young woman to her friend, who laughs in agreement. “They didn’t suck. At all.”

“I know!”

Off and on, I find myself following the two women, both pushing strollers through the de Young Museum’s massive, 10-gallery Summer of Love Experience, easily the most monumental of San Francisco’s tributes to the turbulent season it played host to. I see them in room after room, thoroughly entertained by all the album covers and black-light posters and the psychedelic crocheted bedspread, the mannequins dressed in peasant skirts, the accessories of the period’s luminaries (Jerry Garcia’s hat, Janis Joplin’s handbag). I see them flinch and then laugh after a voice suddenly purrs “This is where it’s at, baby,” over a loudspeaker. I am there when they peek into an immersive documentary that purports to capture an LSD-fueled concert “from the point of view of a goldfish in a Kool-Aid bowl,” when they pose for selfies in a large gallery with a “kinetic light painting” bathing all four walls, and when they examine the large collection of pins demanding civil rights and clean air and ending the war.

It’s all a little overwhelming, not to mention bright, loud and nearly theme park–esque in its celebration of the period. In the de Young’s view, the hippie generation deserves much of the credit for creating “a way of life in the West that would have been unimaginable to all but the surest of sixties visionaries,” according to a sign in the last gallery. But as the women pushing strollers depart the de Young and return to their unimaginable way of life, I detect feelings less of gratitude than longing. 

“I just like the fact that when people saw a problem, they did something about it,” says one.

“We need to go back to that,” replies her friend.

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A citywide celebration: the nighly light show at the Conservatory of Flowers

If you're going to San Francisco...


The Hotel Zelos features well-appointed rooms in Union Square, a bustling tourist area with easy cable car access, along with lots of other transportation options. Rooms in August start at $350 per night. Equally charming but in a quieter setting is the Hotel Kabuki, which boasts easy access to great Japantown eateries. Rooms from $273.


In a city of almost unlimited dining opportunities, we liked Dirty Habit at the Hotel Zelos, where chef Thomas Weibull consistently turns out small plates both creative and delicious. (Ask for a table in the intimate, fairy-lit courtyard.) Kitschy but irresistible is the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill, a one-of-a-kind establishment dominated by a vast swimming pool ringed by tiki-style tables. Did we mention that a band performs on an island in the middle of the pool, and a faux rainstorm—complete with thunder and lightning—erupts every 30 minutes?


For an updated list of Summer of Love celebrations through the city, visit the official visitors website, at

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