Summer of Love in San Francisco

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August 3, 2018

Experience The Summer of Love in San Francisco

In 1967, change was in the air in San Francisco. That year, nearly 100,000 young people converged on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, turning the city into the epicenter of a cultural phenomenon known as the Summer of Love.

Drawn here in search of the “strange vibration” described by singer Scott McKenzie in his 1967 anthem, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair),” these budding hippies imagined a more just society where love reigned and individuals were free to be themselves. During this transformative time, music, fashion, art and new ideas blossomed, and there was a feeling that everything was possible.

More than 50 years later, that feeling still hasn’t left the city. From music venues to bookstores to one very famous intersection, here’s how you can experience the Summer of Love when you come to San Francisco.

A CITY OF NEW IDEAS

The Summer of Love actually began in the winter of 1967, with the Human Be-In, a massive “gathering of the tribes” in Golden Gate Park led by counterculture icons including Timothy Leary (who delivered his famous “tune in, turn on, drop out” speech), Gary Snyder and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. It wasn’t the city’s first boundary-breaking social movement, nor would it be the last.

A decade before the hippies, the Beats arrived in San Francisco and planted the seeds of change that would blossom in 1967. Rebelling against the conformity of postwar America, writers like Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Michael McClure captured the Beat Generation’s disaffection and bohemian lifestyle in electrifying texts such as Howl and On the Road. North Beach, with its bawdy nightclubs and espresso-fueled café culture, was the Beats’ playground. Their “mad to live” ethos still courses through City Lights Bookstore, Caffe Trieste and other must-see Beat Generation hangouts that have barely changed since their 1950s heyday. You can also drop by the Beat Museum at 540 Broadway to discover more about the importance of their movement.

One neighborhood over, Chinatown has been a cultural hot pot since San Francisco’s earliest days. Hungry for new perspectives, beatniks and hippies flocked here to sample interesting foods and learn about Eastern philosophies, from Taoism and Tai Chi to acupuncture and other forms of healing. Beat writers would hunker down at Sam Wo, a venerated Chinatown restaurant where you can still fill up on late-night noodles and dumplings. From distinctive history to delicious dining, read more about why everyone needs to experience Chinatown on their first visit to San Francisco.

Three years before the Summer of Love, Life magazine dubbed San Francisco the “gay capital of America.” For decades, the City by the Bay had fostered a sizable queer community, and Beat writers (including the openly gay Allen Ginsberg) became outspoken supporters of gay rights at a time when the subject was highly taboo. The groundswell of radical change that began in the 1960s paved the way for what would become the gay liberation movement, and as sexual and social mores continued to loosen, San Francisco became the site of many LGBTQ milestones in history, from the first-ever pride parade to the creation of the Rainbow Flag by local artist Gilbert Baker.

A MUSIC REVOLUTION

The world was never the same after the Summer of Love, and neither was music. Gone were the squeaky-clean harmonies of yesterday, as bands like Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service literally rocked the airwaves with that unmistakable, revolutionary San Francisco Sound. It came complete with bone-rattling bass guitar, explosive live performances and psychedelic lyrics that spoke of sex, drugs and social change.

In 1967, Haight-Ashbury was the center of gravity for the San Francisco music scene. You could stumble onto free concerts in The Panhandle or Golden Gate Park by artists who would soon become legends. Jimi Hendrix was one. During his influential time in San Francisco, Hendrix resided at the actual corner of Haight and Ashbury streets. Take the Jimi Hendrix tour of San Francisco and experience the neighborhood as he once did.

Members of the Grateful Dead, including Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, shared a purple Victorian house at 710 Ashbury St., where they hosted some very far-out parties and performances. You can still see their old stomping grounds on a Grateful Dead tour of San Francisco.

Janis Joplin was another unforgettable voice of the Summer of Love. As lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the “first lady of rock and roll” belted her soulful songs at the Avalon, the Fillmore and other venues where you can still experience Janis Joplin’s San Francisco. Other Bay Area bands that emerged during this time included Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Country Joe and the Fish and the Steve Miller Band.

As you explore the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, cue up our essential Summer of Love Playlist, featuring iconic anthems like “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas, “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, “Get Together” by The Youngbloods and other songs that changed music forever.

ETHICAL EATING

In the 1960s, palates expanded right along with minds. So much of what we identify as quintessential San Francisco cuisine today—sustainable farming, local sourcing, health-conscious options—grew from the Summer of Love’s ideals of living more in harmony with the natural environment.

As some of the original locavores, hippies embraced food trends such as macrobiotics, which helped make vegetarian and vegan eating more commonplace. The Wonder Bread and TV dinners of the 1950s were replaced with tofu, grains and abundant California produce (avocado toast, anyone?). These days, you can find plant-based options in just about every major city in America, but San Francisco’s globally influenced variety of vegetarian eateries remains unmatched—from farm-to-table cuisine to Burmese food. (Check out some of the best spots in San Francisco for vegetarian dining as well as vegan restaurants you have to try.)

You may be surprised to learn that nearly 50 restaurants and bars from the Summer of Love are still serving customers today. Play a round of pool at iconic LGBTQ bar Wild Side West in Bernal Heights, just as Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan once did. Order a stiff drink at Vesuvio Cafe in North Beach, a favored hangout of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and other Beats. There are more, too, from classy joints like Alfred’s Steakhouse to The Ramp, whose no-frills grub would have appealed to the modest budgets of Joplin and other struggling artists of the Summer of Love.

ART & IDEAS

As millions of Americans saw images of barefoot, bell-bottomed hippies broadcast on the evening news, the clothing they wore (or, frequently, didn’t wear) became symbolic of the new youth culture. From flower crowns to fringed robes, the fashions of today’s festival scene wouldn’t be possible without the hippie styles of the Summer of Love.

Borne from barely-there budgets and a rejection of the more conservative, confining styles of previous eras, the look of the day consisted of secondhand finds emblazoned with peace signs, wide-brimmed hats, loose-fitting dresses and tunic-style tops—or sometimes, no clothes at all. The aesthetic is alive and well in San Francisco’s many thrift stores, hippie boutiques and head shops.

Beyond fashion, the free-spirited ethos of the movement would have an irreversible impact on film, literature and the performing arts. Many of the era’s defining ideas were hatched at City Lights Bookstore. The North Beach institution served as a hangout and launching pad for writers of the Beat Generation, who experimented with forms and shocked audiences with “obscene” content. When Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other City Lights regulars read at the Human Be-In on January 14, 1967, their ideas reached huge new audiences. To learn more, pick up these City Lights staff picks for must-read books about the Summer of Love.

San Francisco was also the birthplace of the most important sketch comedy group you’ve never heard of, the Committee. Founded by members of Chicago’s Second City who came to San Francisco in search of a freer political climate, the Committee specialized in topical improv sketches sparked by audience suggestions. Their influence on comedy was tremendous, and notable members included Rob Reiner, screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, and Del Close, who went on to coach future Saturday Night Live stars John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Tina Fey, among others.

THE POLITICS OF CHANGE

The Summer of Love wasn’t just one big concert (although there were plenty of those). First and foremost, the hippie movement was a political one. In 1967, national politics were reaching a boiling point, and peace demonstrations became a regular occurrence in the Civic Center neighborhood. The hippies’ anti-war, anti-corporate ideology supported civil rights and equal opportunities for all, and many modern-day liberal policy points—affordable housing, marriage equality, free college—were first proposed during the Summer of Love.

More than 50 years on, it’s easy to forget how momentous the sexual revolution was, but in 1967, ideas like free love, non-monogamy and same-sex partnerships were earth-shaking. The desire to unshackle from the sexual repression of previous generations was a major driving force of both the Beat and hippie movements, whether their elders were ready for it or not. The Human Be-In was one of the major moments in San Francisco’s history of sexual liberation.

Ten years after the Summer of Love, Harvey Milk became America’s first openly gay elected official. He served just one year on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before he was gunned down, along with mayor George Moscone, at City Hall. Today, you can visit the bronze bust of Milk which stands in the City Hall Rotunda.

Civic Center remains a hub of not just politics, but also San Francisco's arts and culture scene, from the oldest professional ballet company in the U.S. to innovative theater productions and a world-class venue for live jazz.

EXPERIENCING THE SUMMER OF LOVE TODAY

If you’ve ever wished you could go back in time and experience the Summer of Love for yourself, there’s good news: many of the landmarks from that legendary summer are still around today.

Make a beeline for the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and immerse yourself in the place where it all began. Spread out a blanket on Hippie Hill, wander the colorful Victorian streets and flip through vintage clothing, records and other Summer of Love relics at neighborhood shops steeped in history (and incense).

For a guided trip through San Francisco’s hippie hotspots, choose from eight tours of Summer of Love history, from Flower Power Walking Tours of The Haight to San Francisco Love Tours, which aptly take place on a colorfully decorated VW bus.

Concert halls were the temples of choice for disciples of bands like Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company. The Fillmore and The Warfield are two legendary venues of the era where you can still catch a show. At the Golden Gate Park Polo Fields, site of the Human Be-In, you can practically hear the echoes of Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia, both of whom performed at the event. Explore these venues with this handy Summer of Love guide.

If you want to take an even deeper dive into the era, longtime San Francisco resident and counterculture historian Dennis McNally wrote the book on the era—literally—with his official biography of the Grateful Dead, Long, Strange Trip, as well as multiple biographies of Jack Kerouac. Stop by City Lights Bookstore to flip through more books by and about the major icons of the era.

In October of 1967, leaders of the Haight-Ashbury community staged a mock funeral to mark the end of the Summer of Love, urging young people to bring the revolution to where they lived rather than keep flooding into San Francisco. Though many more still came, that was precisely what happened. The ideals that defined the movement—social change, equal rights and individuality, not to mention the groundbreaking music that gave voice to them—eventually reached every corner of America. But nowhere is that spirit more alive than right here in the city that started it all.

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