Kate Daloz | Longreads | August 2017 | 11 minutes (2700 words)
The posters began to appear around the city just after New Year’s, 1967. “A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-in…Bring food to share, bring flowers, beads, costumes, feathers, cymbal flags.” On Saturday, January 14, a crowd of young people began to form on the open fields of Golden Gate Park. Throughout the day, local bands — not yet famous — took turns on the stage: The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company. Poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder led Hindu chants to the bouncing rhythm of finger cymbals. Timothy Leary addressed the crowd, urging them for the first time ever to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Owsley Stanley, the rogue chemist credited with manufacturing the period’s highest-quality LSD, donated 75 turkeys for sandwiches — the bread was sprinkled lightly with crushed White Lightning acid. At one point, a skydiver descended gently into the crowd, borne by a white parachute.
The Human Be-In was perhaps the largest gathering of its time for people under the age of 25 — the crowd was estimated to be upwards of 20,000 — but by all accounts the day was peaceful, euphorically so. The Hells Angels, the notorious biker gang, entertained lost children until they were reunited with their mothers. “It was a religious rite in which nothing much happened,” remembered participant Helen Perry. “And yet it was a day that marked for me, at least, the end of something and the beginning of something else.”
Until the Be-In, it hadn’t been exactly clear how much the privileged youth of America hungered for this kind of “something else,” and how badly they wanted to accept the invitation to “hang your fear at the door and join the future,” as one press release described the gathering. TIME, Look, and LIFE magazines hustled their youngest, hippest reporters to California. The February 6 issue of Newsweek ran an article called “Dropouts with a Mission” (written by 24-year old Hendrik Hertzberg, who later became a staff writer for The New Yorker) that described the scene as “a love feast, a psychedelic picnic, a hippie happening” whose participants promised to bring radical change to the nation “by means of a vague regimen of all-embracing love.”
Suddenly, all eyes turned toward a neighborhood of bright-painted Victorian houses built after the 1906 earthquake, clustered around the intersection of Haight and Ashbury. The neighborhood had been one of the city’s most ethnically and racially diverse, and proudly so, but by the mid- 1960s, after the city decided to build a freeway nearby, the neighborhood’s middle-class population had departed en masse, leaving property values to crumble. Suddenly, whole houses, their large rooms perfect for sharing with a friend or seven, could be rented dirt cheap. A few months before the Be-In, in the last days of legal LSD, a new population had begun to arrive. As one newcomer explained to a friend, “The operating principles of this community — more than 20,000 people — are Love & Freedom.”
In 1967, the business district in the Haight looked like most mid-century American main streets: drug stores and barbershop poles, Coca-Cola signs in the window of the launderette. The exceptions swirled and flashed among the storefronts: The Psychedelic Shop, the Blue Unicorn Coffee House, Wild Colors Gift Shop, the I And Thou Coffee House, with its hand-painted, driftwood sign. Old-timers getting a shave and shoeshine at Phyllis House of Style could watch out the window at long-haired newcomers walking by, some in beads and bells, others in top hats and frock coats, velvet and flowers and fringe.
A few days after the Be-In, a group of counterculture merchants calling itself the Haight Independent Proprietors (H.I.P.) put out a press release scolding the police for harassing the neighborhood’s newest residents. Not only was this unfair, they argued, it was bad for the economy. If the police refused to take a softer approach toward their customers, H.I.P. threatened to sue the city. “The Haight-Ashbury represents a cultural renaissance and creative surge that is changing the bruted face of America,” they wrote. The booming neighborhood was “only one active manifestation of a world-wide youth revolution that has been infused with a revelation of the spiritual unity of all men and women of all races here and everywhere on all planets in all solar systems of all galaxies in the universe.”
For a neighborhood in decline, the Be-In supplied the community with new customers, new tenants, and a new brand of cool. Peter Coyote, a long-haired actor and activist, was living in the Haight then. Recently, he recalled the period bluntly. “I thought the Summer of Love was horseshit,” he said.
Coyote was a member of an anarchic collective of street activists called the Diggers. The group borrowed their name from a 17th century British anarchist collective, and they had arisen out of a confrontational, absurdist theater company called the San Francisco Mime Troupe. While it might have been hard for outsiders to visually tell the Diggers apart from other long-haired Haight denizens, as a group they disdained the self-seriousness of New Left student politics and the escapist impracticality of the acid-heads. They’d supported the Be-In, though it wasn’t precisely their style. Two weeks earlier, they’d held an event of their own: “A New Year’s Day Wail!” co-hosted by the Hell’s Angels. The chronicles of drug use show they tended away from LSD and marijuana, and more towards heroin and amphetamines.
The Diggers are credited with the phrases “Do your own thing” and “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” but their central philosophy was a theatrical exhortation to “create the conditions you describe” — to act as though the world you want is already here. The world the Diggers wanted was free — free of money, and of all the ways needing and getting money limit one’s personal mobility and spontaneity. Unlike the picture-perfect nuclear families eking out independent livelihoods in the suburbs, members of a Free community would take care of one another.
For months, the Diggers had been serving hot food daily in Golden Gate Park. The Digger women cooked soups and stews in big steel milk cans with donated grains, meat “liberated” from packing houses, and edible but unsightly rejects from the city’s wholesale vegetable markets — all secured for free. Borrowing a local church kitchen, they baked miniature loaves of whole wheat bread in empty coffee cans. Journalist Naomi Wolf remembered being brought there as a child by her mother: “There was an awe-inspiring compassion in the air as prostitutes stood alongside school kids; black, white, and Native Americans; gays, bisexuals, transvestites, and professors, all waiting for their food and quietly chatting under the swaying eucalyptus trees.” While the women served the food, the Digger men added a theatrical flair to the proceedings: To pick up a meal, you first had to walk through an oversized yellow wooden rectangle: the Free Frame of Reference. It was a unique but impractical touch for a group that had taken on the care and feeding of thousands. (One visitor recalled walking into a Digger kitchen in time to overhear the women complaining about the men. “They’re out fighting the fucking revolution? And we’re making goddamn dinner again?”)
At the Diggers’ Free Store — the motto was “It’s free because it’s yours” — people were encouraged to leave unwanted articles for others to take home. The Store also offered tie-dye lessons, medical check-ups, and legal advice. In February, noticing a new crop of homeless runaways sleeping in the park, a Digger named Tobacco rented an apartment at 1775 Haight Street to house them. Another Digger-rented crash pad at 848 Clayton Street soon followed. To provide this free housing, the Diggers would have to pay rent — or more often have it paid for them by one of their trust-funded benefactors.
By feeding people and caring for their health and safety, the Diggers felt they were meeting a community need. But in doing so, they were also actively stoking the myth of San Francisco as an urban utopia into which one could arrive penniless and alone and be welcomed with food, shelter and love. This privileged, childish fantasy — of falling into freedom without any fear of hitting the ground — had begun to draw young people from across the nation.
In the months after the Be-In, gorgeously eccentric handbills began to appear around the Haight. “We are strange brothers and sisters,” announced the Diggers. “Free food is good soup.” But as spring approached, the missives took on a more urgent tone. “The youth of America are on their way to the Haight-Ashberry, between 50 and 200,000 will cross our community and enter our lives,” read one. “When 200,000 folks from places like Lima and Ohio and Cleveland and Lompoc and Visalia and Amsterdam and London and Moscow and Lodz suddenly descend, as they will, on the Haight-Ashbury, the scene will be burnt down.”
It was a warning no one seemed to be taking seriously. San Francisco’s police chief announced that he’d handle the epidemic of teen runaways by calling their parents to demand they come retrieve their children. “The city government seems to be treating the situation with the caution normally used around bumblebees,” as one activist put it. “Leave them alone, maybe they’ll go away.”
But out on the front lines, the Diggers knew the needs of this incoming population would far outstrip what they could give. “The Diggers need places for people to sleep,” a broadside announced in stark type. “The Diggers need food to feed people. The Diggers need clothes to give people. This is the Diggers’ thing: no money; everything free. The Diggers are practicing the Cardinal Virtues because that’s the right thing to do.”
Joan Didion wasn’t so sure. When she arrived in the Haight “in that cold late spring of 1967,” she found the Diggers unnerving, if not frankly sinister. But she didn’t see anyone else doing much to help the “handful of pathetically unequipped children” who’d come to San Francisco in search of new lives. In her essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” she describes watching a Digger activist try to convince an official to contribute resources:
“We already got an emergency,” he says into the phone. ‘We don’t get help here, nobody can guarantee what’s going to happen. We’ve got people sleeping in the streets here. We’ve got people starving to death.” He pauses. “All right,” he says then and his voice rises. ‘So they’re doing it by choice. So what.”
In mid-March, colleges let out for spring break and the Haight’s streets filled to overflowing. When classes started up again, thousands didn’t bother going back. There were long-haired panhandlers hassling pedestrians on every corner no, and it was no longer unusual to come home and find a half-dozen strangers crashed out on the floor. Summer was still three months away — what would happen when schools let out?
Music promoters predicted three million kids would show up that summer ready to dance. The Fillmore prepared to stay open six nights a week. In early April, the Diggers announced a collaboration with other Haight cultural leaders to strategize for the coming onslaught. In naming itself in a press release, the group offered a brand-new title for the great migration now underway: The Council for the Summer of Love.
The council’s existence was an open rebuke to other San Francisco entities who’d failed to take the teenaged hordes seriously. A typed screed appeared around the Haight: “The HIP Merchants have lured a million children here recklessly & irresponsibly,” it read in part. “They don’t see hunger, hip brutality, rape, gangbangs, gonorrhea, syphilis, theft, hunger, filth. They walk in their own beauty down Haight Street & if they see the shit at all, they deplore it & say that Somebody should do something about it. Sometimes they complain about shoplifting.” Emmett Grogan, a Digger founding member who’d first had the idea of offering free food, wrote disgustedly: “Love is a slop bucket.”
A black-and-white newsreel from that spring shows a bus full of middle-aged white people peering through the windows at the wildly dressed youths crowding the sidewalks. Gray Line’s “Hippie Hop” was a tour advertised as “the only foreign tour in the domestic U.S.” “The hippie takes many trips. And the trip of the hippies is generally an unusual one.” the uniformed guide intones flatly. He hands out a glossary of hippie language — teeny-bopper, speed, stoned, weed — and carefully gives their definitions. The tours began the same day the council announced the Summer of Love: April 6, 1967.
On May 13, radio listeners across the country heard Scott McKenzie croon, “If you’re going to San Francisco / You’re gonna meet some gentle people there.” The song would eventually sell seven million copies. Two days after its release, Gray Line canceled Hippie Hop. The Haight’s streets were so congested that buses could no longer get through.
By the third day of the Monterey Pop Festival, after at least 20,000 people had seen Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar, and Otis Redding give history-making performances, and the crowd watched Jimi Hendrix kneel over his guitar and coax it into flame. Three days later, on June 21, another enormous crowd gathered in Golden Gate Park for a sunrise solstice celebration. The Summer of Love had officially begun.
Since the beginning of the year, the Haight’s population had increased five-fold — an estimated 100,000 young people now squeezed into a neighborhood only 25 blocks square, less than half a square mile. (The population density of a square mile in modern-day Manhattan is just over 72,000.) The Grateful Dead played free concerts on Haight Street — one reportedly gathered a crowd a mile long — and the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom were perpetually packed. On the first day it opened, June 7, the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic treated 250 hippies seeking relief from the clap, pneumonia, and hepatitis. They also sought help for malnutrition. After months of dishing out free food, free housing, and free love, the Diggers were overwhelmed and exhausted.
“We realized the area was poised to become unlivable due to the accelerated influx of new residents,” Peter Coyote remembered. For the Haight’s pioneering influencers, the Summer of Love was once again “the end of something and the beginning of something else.” The Diggers decided to reformulate themselves — not as an urban collective, but as a loosely affiliated group living in rural communes and caravans up and down the California coast. They dropped their name, changing it to the “Free City Collective” in July, and before the end of the year they dropped out of the Haight.
The Diggers were at the forefront of what would soon become a nationwide commune movement, thousands strong, whose legacy would include everything from food co-ops to organic farming methods, home birth practices, green technologies, recycling systems, and legalized marijuana. Even today’s internet culture, with its emphasis on user networks and information sharing, traces its history in part back through the Whole Earth Catalog to the cluster of communes that sprang up in the Southwest immediately after the Summer of Love. In this way, it wasn’t the summer itself that brought about some of the hippie era’s most lasting influences — it was the dispersal of its most original and ardent idealists.
But for the Diggers, there was one final act. On October 6, 1967 they staged a parade down Haight Street, a performance they called “Death of the Hippie.” They carried a motionless young man on a bier, trailing a coffin with the words “Hippie, Son of Media.” The pallbearers held up mirrors to face the crowd. The Diggers had offered them a utopia, and they took and took until there was nothing more to give.
Announcing the death of the hippie a full two years before Woodstock was perhaps premature, but as usual the Diggers’ action had more than one intended meaning. The parade condemned the dilution of their vision, but it was also an invitation: “We wanted to signal that this was the end of it” as one organizer explained. “Stay where you are, bring the revolution to where you live and don’t come here because it’s over and done with.”
Kate Daloz is the author of We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America. Her writing has appeared in The American Scholar and online at Rolling Stone and The New Yorker.