In San Francisco, Where Flower Power Still Blooms
By DAN WHITE
HAIGHT-ASHBURY was once a place to buy psychedelic T-shirts, Jefferson Airplane posters and so-called tobacco-enjoyment products. Vagrants and panhandlers sat on the sidewalks, using their dogs as pillows or making peace signs on the sidewalk out of pennies. The bongs and beggars remain, but Haight-Ashbury, also known as the Upper Haight, is stepping out of its own shadow.
"There are 150 years of history on this street," said Betsy Rix, 57, a founder of the Red Vic movie house, a collectively owned Haight Street business. "And yet so many people want to focus on one year."
That would be 1967, year of the Summer of Love, when hippie culture was in its first flowering and this neighborhood was its national capital. Today tourists still cluster at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets, where a two-faced clock seems frozen at 4:20 and "high noon," winking references to marijuana culture. And you will still find hippies and 1960s rock fans paying their respects to Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia.
But the Haight is also a place to go on a self-guided tour of century-old Queen Anne homes, or to climb to the viewpoint in Buena Vista Park to see the sun sink down on the Golden Gate Bridge. Locals and outsiders crowd its pubs and cafes and line up outside high-end footwear stores where the clientele is so fervent that the management must employ bouncers on sale days. When the weather heats up, throngs gather at free concerts in nearby Golden Gate Park.
Those who seek edgier pleasures might lay down $5 for a "star map" showing where the neighborhood's famous and infamous residents once lived. Or they might browse through Kidrobot, a quirky chain store whose wares include a teddy bear with visible rib cage and viscera and a jackrabbit toting an automatic weapon. The tag says "Sniper Bunny, Regular Version."
One rainy night, a young reveler stopped by La Rosa Vintage Boutique, where items date from the hippie '60s back to the 1870s, when the area took shape. Preparing for a party, he tried on a blood-red dinner jacket from the '50s, worn over a puffy shirt that invoked memories of a Seinfeld episode. "Do you have cummerbunds?" he asked the manager. "And are they velvet?"
The Haight doesn't look like any other neighborhood in San Francisco because its houses survived the 1906 earthquake, which leveled most of the city. It doesn't even sound like anywhere else. Electric buses rattle down the street, almost drowning out the come-ons of a fortune teller sitting on a paisley carpet and the droning of a sitar player. The acoustics are uncanny. Some nights, you will hear bongos, cowbells and chanting from Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park when you're 10 blocks away.
At times the scene gets seedy, especially if you enter Golden Gate Park near the intersection of Stanyan and Haight Streets (you may prefer to enter the park two blocks to the north, on John F. Kennedy Drive). In parts of the neighborhood, you might even stumble across a man sleeping off a bender on a futon laid out on the sidewalk, or see harmless but determined dealers offering "sticky green bud," a potent form of cannabis, to everyone in sight.
But the great thing about the Haight is that these things are easily avoided; moving up one street from Haight Street to Waller Street, or making your way up Cole Street, is literally like changing a TV station. Suddenly the neighborhood becomes quiet and genteel, and you find yourself in Cole Valley, a tiny neighboring enclave where diners at Eos Restaurant and Wine Bar barely react if they feel tremors while they pick at their ahi tuna and avocado poke rolls. It's only the N-Judah train rolling in front of the restaurant.
One cold night in early winter, Tommy Netzband, a thoughtful, soft-spoken local resident, led tourists from Texas, Missouri and Washington, D.C., on a homespun Haight-Ashbury ghost tour, walking the group straight into a localized fog. The group stopped at an unassuming Cole Street house inhabited by Charles Manson in 1967 and passed through a field where a local musician named Buck Naked was shot dead while walking his dog. "People talk about being in the park at night, and hearing someone say 'here boy,' but no one is there" Mr. Netzband said.
In one of the Haight's endearing contradictions, this neighborhood that worked so hard to throw off the strictures of convention 40 years ago now works hard to preserve its past. Many houses look so well-tended they seem like museums, until you notice the Vespa scooters and Toyota 4-Runners in the driveways.
These century-old piles may be Victorian, but there is nothing repressed or prim about them. Some look like princess cakes slathered in white, pink, purple, lemon, lavender and orange frosting. Many are made of first-growth redwood. They have Munchkin-sized balconies, Corinthian columns, sunbursts, widow's walks, fish-scale shingles, gilt griffons, spindles, cupolas, dormers and pitched roofs with windows in every pitch. Sometimes the owners leave the curtains half-drawn and billowing; you can peer in to see high, rose-colored ceilings, century-old molding and wainscoting on the walls. Some of the most striking Victorians can be seen along Page and Ashbury Streets; 710 Ashbury was the home of the Grateful Dead between 1966 and 1968. Others are near the intersection of Masonic Avenue and Waller Street. The Abner Phelps house, at 1111 Oak Street was built circa 1851 and is said to be the city's oldest.
Even the businesses strike a balance between culture and commerce. Instead of Starbucks, there's Coffee to the People at the corner of Masonic and Haight, where patrons have been seen reading "The Epic of Gilgamesh" and decorated tables pay tribute to Emma Goldman and the Black Panthers. There's a McDonald's at the far end of Haight Street, but the lines are much longer for the Pork Store Cafe, where the weekend brunch is always a mob scene.
At the homey, one-screen Red Vic, the staff serves organic popcorn in reusable wooden bowls and seats some of its patrons on church-style pew benches padded with futon cushions. Before running the features, the theater shows an old homemade film in which one character gets doused with a bucket of water for smoking in the theater and another is pulled below the seats by a green monster after littering in the aisles. Movies are intense here, perhaps because the screen is so big and the room so small. During a recent showing of "No Country for Old Men," the entire audience was audibly whimpering.
Outside, public art lures people into stores: the shapely pair of oversized mannequin legs in fishnet stockings protruding from the Piedmont Boutique clothing shop, the purple-polka-dotted dinosaur beckoning shoppers into Shoe Biz II, and the mannequins staging a wild party in the window display at RVCA - part art gallery, part clothing boutique, part youth education center.
The 33-year-old Booksmith doles out free black-and-white baseball-style cards with writers' faces on them to promote appearances by authors like Chuck Palahniuk, Neil Gaiman and Linda Barry. Allen Ginsberg gave his last reading there. To celebrate its thousandth card, issued for the Bay Area-based bestselling author Mary Roach's latest book, "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex," the Booksmith threw a party complete with anatomically correct cakes - his and hers, with pink frosting.
The Haight is also a jumping off point to Golden Gate Park, a beautifully tended and mercifully level expanse of trees, statues, hidden waterfalls and attractions including the Conservatory of Flowers, a glass palace with storybook gardens and 1,700 species of plants; the newly reopened California Academy of Sciences, boasting a four-story rain forest and a live anaconda; and the redesigned de Young art museum.
When day is done, a Haight wayfarer could bed down at the Stanyan Park Hotel, where several rooms have unimpeded views of Golden Gate Park, or at Red Victorian Bed, Breakfast & Art, in a 104-year-old Haight Street building. The Red Victorian also hosts a nonprofit peace center and social organization in its downstairs cafe. Each of the 18 rooms has been designed by the innkeeper, Sami Sunchild, 83, who doubles as artist in residence. She even designed the rest rooms, one of them festooned with a real bird's nest.
"This is the center of the universe," Ms. Sunchild said when asked about Haight-Ashbury. "This is where it all began. This is a business built on love. We get people here who say, I was here in 1967, or my parents wouldn't let me come here in 1967, but now I'm a big girl and I'm coming here on my own."