Love and Haight

The bohemian spirit of the sixties still survives on Haight Street. Forty years after the Summer of Love brought the epicentre of American counter-culture to San Francisco, the neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury manages to evoke the colours, sounds and sense of freedom that characterised "flower power". In spite of mainstream commerce's attempts to infiltrate the area, a leisurely walk south of the Panhandle reveals many delightful surprises-- ethnic boutiques, used book and record stores, colourful murals, flowing dresses, and elaborately designed Victorian town-houses that survived the earthquake and fire of 1906.

Even though artists like Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane can all trace their roots to Haight-Ashbury, it was the hippie movement that is the district's main claim to fame (or notoriety, depending on your perspective). San Francisco had been a fertile ground for youthful angst and avant-garde creativity since atleast the mid-fifties when the beat generation of poets, led by Allen Ginsberg, began settling in the Haight. The hippie counter-culture was born with their blessings (and the support of The Oracle, the city's underground newspaper) when a Human Be-In event in January 1967 brought together the Bay Area's top bands and a 20,000-strong audience at the Golden Gate Park. The revellers were quick to form a strong sense of fraternity through their common anti-establishment stance (provoked in part by the Vietnam War) and experimentation with mind-expanding drugs (hallucinogens were still legal and freely available). As word got around, like-minded non-conformists started descending onto the Park (galvanised by the war draft introduced in March), which quickly became a haven for communal living, free love and psychedelic journeys that challenged the existing boundaries of music.

Despite their belief in simple living and high thinking, intellectual curiousity and individual rights (often through draft-burning and bra-burning), the contribution of the hippies is usually underestimated (as my friend says, since much of their visions were drug-induced, they are dismissed just as easily as the bravado of a drunkard)-- besides their enduring influence on art and fashion, their political and social awareness have shaped much of the culture that we inherit today. Our acceptance of a woman's right to choose, of questioning the "my-country-right-or-wrong" dogma, of seeking life's answers through eastern mysticism and philosophy, of open-mindedness about sexual preferences, of accepting sartorial choices as personal, of ruling inter-racial marriages as legal, and of popularising environmental activism as a global movement-- all find their roots in the hippie counter-culture movement of the 1960s. This increased tolerance has had the unfortunate side-effect of strongly polarised political beliefs however, a trait that is all too evident among the American electorate today.

For those of us who missed the naïve optimism and promising possibilities prevalent during the era (born too late in a world too old, in the words of Schopenhauer), a walk down Haight Street is the nearest to experiencing a blast from the generation past.

For those who come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there,
In the streets of San Francisco
Gentle people with flowers in their hair.
Scott McKenzie, San Francisco

1 comment:

Sharada said...

Superbly written piece. I hope to experience Haight-Ashbury for myself soon enough!