Friday, April 4, 2008

Haight Ashbury 40 Years On

By Michael Ernest

Haight Ashbury is now the second most popular tourist attraction in San Francisco according to the city's hotel and visitor's bureau. Thus, it was not surprising most of the news reports on the 40th Anniversary of the Summer of Love made mention of the Haight turning into a place where the 1960s have become commercialized by t-shirt and poster shops or theme rooms at the historic Red Vic Bed and Breakfast.

While that might have been the easy angle to take for out of town reporters to take, in reality the Haight has always been known for being a shopping district. Even when the Psychedelic Shop opened in 1966, the first of its kind, it received complaints from those who thought mercantilism and hippie-dom should not co-exist. As for tourism, it began a year later when Grey Line ran two buses a day to the Haight for outsiders to see the hippies.

There are a couple hours in the morning when Haight Street is truly peaceful. The street is swept clean around 7 a.m. each day, giving it a chastity that lasts only until the shoppers arrive and the vagabonds make their way down from the park. As the day goes on, the atmosphere often becomes unpredictable, one turning the corner onto it not knowing what the mood of the street will be. The mood can change depending upon what element is present, be them street musicians, hobos or at times an even more colorful lot just being crazy in their own way.

Back when Jerry Garcia was still alive, one could always tell when the Dead were in town because the number of hippies would increase, the VW vans they camped in parked along the street. At times now, one can sense the type and quality and of the drugs around, although those contributing to the sketchier feel are often outsiders, coming to peddle their wares on the odd weekend afternoon, and not the usual suspects from the neighborhood.

Mornings, however, are almost always serene. Most stores don't open until 10:30 or 11 a.m., making the sidewalks easy to navigate and the coffee shops and breakfast places relatively empty. There are the occasional stray tourists, usually early-risers on east coast time who, despite their careful vacation planning, are not aware of the fact the stores open late.

It is shopping, tourism just being a contributor, that dominates the Haight Street economy. Still a favorite spot for those who prefer thrift store chic or vintage wear, the Haight's commercial strip boasts 48 clothing stores in just six blocks. There are a sprinkling of smaller chains - Daljeets, Crossroads, American Apparel - but many are tinier businesses. Among them are six that sell only used clothing, four that sell Tibetan accoutrement; three dealing in skate and surf wear; two exclusively dealing in lingerie; and two in hip hop threads.

Not counting the nine head shops, there are only three other stores that cater exclusively to the t-shirt or hippy crowd. Shoe stores, varying from sneakers to Dominatrix boots, are the newest trend on the street, having risen to six in all. For the most part, business is good. Buffalo Exchange's Haight Street store, for instance, is the largest money maker in its chain despite also having the highest theft rate.

Mixed in with the clothing stores are 16 restaurants not counting the seven coffee shops; nine bars; five tattoo parlors; four hair salons; three independent book stores, including an anarchist bookshop; two fabric outlets, one being an arts supply place; and several small markets and miscellaneous stores for the locals. To serve musicians, the Haight Ashbury Music Center remains a staple, having first opened its doors in 1972, its storefront a favorite for street musicians as well.

For those buying music, there are three record stores, two dealing largely in LPs, and Ameoba, which converted an old bowling alley into one of the largest record stores in the city. For movie buffs there is the historic Red Vic Movie House showing a combination of off-beat, artistic and commercial films, as well as the independent video store, Into Video.

What there is not on the street is a pharmacy. There was one once, a locally owned establishment that cried David to Long's Goliath when that chain store tried to move in at the corner of Haight and Cole. One night while still under renovation, someone broke in and burned the place down. Long's, realizing it was unwelcome, gave up the effort. Although the locally-owned pharmacy has since closed and the demand for a replacement is high, the drug store chains still won't come near the Haight.

The anti-chain feeling was at a particular peak at that time because in the mid-1980s, both The Gap and Benny and Jerry's offered above market rents to secure opposite corners of Haight and Ashbury Streets creating a rent shockwave up and down Haight Street. For several years afterward turnover of the small start-up businesses was high.

While Ben and Jerry's sold ice cream, something it is hard not to like, and became accepted as time passed, The Gap over the years did not fare as well with the locals, or shoppers for that matter. People did not come to the Haight in search of yuppie clothing and it proved the worst performing store in the company's chain, the illustrious address serving mainly as a corporate advertisement. The neighborhood collectively cheered when it finally closed in early 2007, the company also growing fatigued by a relentless graffiti campaign waged on its windows by various taggers over 20 years.

That spirit is just one element that remains from 40 years ago when the Haight was a community that shunned the rest of the world, if not thumbed its noses up at it, and lived by its own rules. While not bearing much resemblance to its 1960s days, the Haight has not changed that significantly in the last 25 years or so. One can still find hippies, druggies, artists and teenage runaways as well as well as families, professionals and students. The latter group gives the Haight a younger feel than other San Francisco neighborhoods, the result of both the UCSF medical school and the University of San Francisco being walking distance. San Francisco State, which in the 60s was also located nearby, is now just a bus ride away.

One of the more significant changes to the neighborhood has been the lack of affordable housing, something that once attracted people to the Haight but is now a scarcity everywhere in San Francisco. Much is made recently of the city being inhabited by rich people but, as any visitor can easily attest, poverty is widespread in San Francisco. There has been a effort by the upper classes to try to hide this fact, which result partly from practices they support, but when one has to make at least $11 an hour just to pay rent on a one-bedroom apartment let alone other living expenses, it shouldn't be surprising that some just drop out altogether and choose homelessness.

While overcrowding of apartments is not on the scale it was in the 1960s when the city's health department used to run sweeps of Haight Ashbury homes overrun with hippies, it is still not uncommon to meet a student who lives in a walk-in closet, living rooms being an especial luxury in many shared spaces. The cost of living also forces many to dumpster dive outside markets for fruit and vegetables, if not for clothing and furniture, America's college kids not all being privileged.

While gentrification is changing parts of San Francisco, the Haight still remains is a neighborhood with its character intact though. It is hard to live there for any extent of time and not get to know the shopkeepers, one's neighbors or even the panhandlers. With all the activity on the usually bustling street, it is still easy to recognize who lives there, who does business there or who is there to make trouble.

Those who move there seem to get caught up in the vibe of the place, either unable or unwilling to change it. Although some have tried, in the spirit of those who gave the neighborhood its identity in the 1960s, it refuses to be governed by one group - not the merchants, not the hippies, not the yuppies, not the hobos nor the druggies, and certainly not the anti-drug crusaders. All seemed destined to co-exist with no one group having an advantage. Perhaps that is why misfits and people looking to reinvent themselves are still attracted to the Haight. Just as during the Summer of Love, from the first week one arrives, they are as much a part of the neighborhood as anyone else.

Michael Ernest is a journalist living in Haight Ashbury

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