My first blog post of 2018 is going to take a look back – not so much at the past year, but at the last half century. History unfolds in long slow pendulum swings and it’s important to step back and see a bigger picture every so often.
2017 marked the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love. With the possible exception of Woodstock, New York the spirit of the times was celebrated and remembered here in San Francisco more than anyplace else. In 1967 Timothy Leary proclaimed, “Turn on, tune in, drop out” to a crowd of 30,000 hippies at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. Smoking pot. Taking hallucinogens. Love ins. Communes. Haight Ashbury. Janis Joplin. Jimi Hendrix. It was the apex of the whole adolescent Baby Boomer counter culture extravaganza.
City institutions played up the anniversary with all manner of events that appealed to aging Boomers, tourists, and a peculiar brand of young nouveau hippies who romanticize the bygone age. Psychedelic tie dyed patterns were on every advertisement for the Summer of Love® Experience™.
Tours in nostalgic Volkswagen vans transport people around the city to historic destinations from the era. It’s all very colorful and fun and no doubt good for the local economy. It’s part of the mystique of San Francisco’s boisterous past.
I had guests over for dinner recently and one of the older women reminisced about her arrival to San Francisco in 1971. Haight Ashbury was completely dead. The majority of the shops were vacant. Huge old Victorian buildings were available at ridiculously low prices. Rents were at all time lows. The great middle class migration to new suburbs had left older inner city neighborhoods desolate and in steep decline.
An elderly friend (now no longer with us) described his neighborhood halfway between Haight Ashbury and the Castro at that time as being almost entirely “Negro and Oriental” when he bought his giant home for pennies on the dollar. Respectable white people didn’t want to be anywhere near the place. It wasn’t unusual to find a strung out hippie passed out on the steps with a needle in his arm. The grand house had been carved up into a warren of a dozen small ad hoc apartments starting in the Great Depression and continuing throughout World War II. It had seen nothing but deferred maintenance and benign neglect for decades like much of the city.
San Francisco, like nearly every other historic town in America, was in free fall in 1967 and it only kept getting worse through the 1970s. The Summer of Love turned sour as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix (in London) both died of overdoses – each at the tender age of 27 in 1970. A relentless series of disturbing events unfolded year after year in San Francisco, from the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the abduction of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army, the tragedies of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, and the random murders by the Zodiac Killer. The 1980s saw the emergence of AIDS and San Francisco became both the physical and emotional epicenter of the disease.
I have a personal connection to 1967. It was the year of my birth. My parents were teenagers at the time and I’m quite literally the product of the Summer of Love. San Francisco has completely transformed economically, culturally, and politically in my lifetime.
It’s important to remember that things play out in long slow cycles. San Francisco hit bottom fifty years ago. It’s likely at a peak at the moment. There will inevitably be a new period of decline someday. An earthquake. A market crash. Political upheavals. And then a new and surprising apex in the fullness of time as the cycles play out again in future decades and centuries.