By Sal Maccarone
It has been many, many years since I have visited the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Known as “The Haight” to many, including myself, I found it to be remarkably frozen in time. I have actually visited twice during the month of July this year. First during my trip to preview the Peter Paul Rubens exhibit which I wrote about recently, and then two weeks later to take some pictures for this article. During my first visit on a Sunday afternoon the streets were so crowded it seemed like the 1967 “Summer of Love” all over again. We drove around for about 45 minutes just to find a parking space close by. That’s how crowded it was! After finally parking, I was fascinated to the point of vowing to return sometime soon so that I could wander freely, and really take a good look. This time I arrived early in the morning.
For this article, I would like to deviate from my usual format, and share a little personal history about my youth growing up in the Bay Area. During the late 60’s my band, The Prophets, was privileged to play at the Fillmore Auditorium a few times for Bill Graham. We played on the same bills as some of the great bands of the time, many of which were responsible for the then burgeoning “San Francisco Sound.” When our band was not on the playbill, we were still present listening to the other bands on many of the weekends. Consequently, my friends and I spent a lot of time around the Haight. During those few years in the late 60’s, we were eye-witnesses of the scene evolving from fun, to not so fun.
In the beginning, it was a very special time! Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead lived in a house at 710 Ashbury, and we would see those band members going up and down the many steps of their Victorian (pictured.) Janis Joplin lived just a few doors down from them for a while (at 635 Fillmore) so she also “hung out” in the neighborhood. Jimi Hendrix had an apartment at 1524A Haight Street very close to the corner of Haight and Ashbury. George Harrison even made a nervous visit to the Haight once in 1967 with his wife Patty Boyd. Of course, none of us thought about how iconic all of this was at the time. With the exception of George, to us, these were local musicians living close to where they worked.
This section of San Francisco is one of the few that was spared during the great earthquake, and resulting fires of 1906. Consequently, some of the buildings there were actually erected during the 19th century. Between 1959 and 1966, the whole area was slated to be demolished to make room for a freeway. The property owners there were up in arms and protested the proposed road that was slated to run right through the pan-handle of Golden Gate Park. During those years property values in that area were in complete disarray. With the outcome of the freeway project up in the air, the rents became low, and that is the reason musicians and artists gravitated there. A bohemian culture became the result. Needless to say, the road proposal was defeated, and the Haight-Ashbury district survived.
What struck me most during my recent visits, and where the art comes in, is how all of this history is preserved via the murals that are painted everywhere. Artists have gone through great lengths to keep the 60’s era alive and well. The now beautifully restored Victorian buildings are also a site to behold. Of course, today it is a total tourist trap, but from 1966 on it always has been. It is a simple fact that just about everyone who visits San Francisco wants to have a glimpse of where the counter culture of the late 1960’s had its beginnings.