The small and dense Haight Ashbury neighborhood is located two miles west of downtown San Francisco, at the eastern entrance to Golden Gate Park. “The Haight” spans no more than eight blocks bordered by Divisadero Street, Buena Vista Avenue, Stanyan Street, and Fulton Street.
The Haight was primarily sand dunes claimed by squatters until 1865, when Frank McCoppin spearheaded the development of what is now Golden Gate Park. The development of the park, the creation of a cable-car line along Haight Street, and the opening of an amusement park along the oceanfront, all drew people out to what was then the western edge of town. By the 1890s the Haight was a thriving middle-class neighborhood with the Panhandle section of the park forming a tree-lined promenade through the center of it.
Of the more than 1,500 individuals and companies building, moving and remodeling houses in San Francisco in the 1880’s and ‘90’s, only about a quarter of them were high art architectural practitioners (and even they were primarily self-trained architects) who designed unique homes for specific clients. Low art architectural practitioners (including builders, contractors and developers) who purchased multiple lots and constructed clusters of two or many homes, identical in plan, to take advantage of mass-production and offer low prices were actually the most important force in shaping San Francisco’s built environment during the 1880’s and ‘90’s, the decades of intense building. Initially all houses in a cluster were built to look alike, but soon this became undesirable and builders began to offer minor choices in exterior detail and paint color to the prospective buyer. Eventually all houses varied at least slightly. Owners-builders – as several hundred people described themselves – were another important influence on Victorian era construction; the majority built only the houses in which they lived, but a few became real estate developers.
The contracting firm of Cranston and Keenan built several clusters of houses in the neighborhood, including a rare grouping of tower houses at 1214-56 Masonic Street. In an extant house on Buena Vista East, an owner recently found a business card when the interior stairway newel post taken apart to be stripped of paint. “Built and finished by R. D. Cranston for L. G. Lander, July 21, 1899” was written on the card.
Since most records were lost when city hall burned in the 1906 earthquake and fire, we do not know who designed and built many of the city’s Victorian era structures, or if indeed anybody did design them as we define that term today. The fact that some of the buildings did, indeed, have architects is today almost incidental; it is not in their origins that value exists but in the fact that they survived the 1906 earthquake and fire and, in many cases, misguided improvements, years of neglect, and looming demolition for newer construction.
The Haight survived the 1906 earthquake and fire relatively unscathed. During the Depression of the 1930s, many of the respectable Victorian era homes were turned into low-rent rooming houses. During the 1950s, students from San Francisco State College (which, at the time, was nearby) began to move into the neighborhood, creating a local youth culture. The Haight emerged in the 1960s as the focus of the countercultural scene, free love and anti-war movements, making it perhaps the world’s most known neighborhood.
The first hippies were an offshoot of the Beats, many of whom had moved out of their increasingly expensive North Beach dwellings to the affordable, large, rundown Victorian era houses of the Haight. Where Beat philosophy had emphasized self-indulgence, the hippies embraced such concepts as “universal truth” and “cosmic awareness.” The post-Beat bohemian culture that developed was more along the lines of Eastern religion and philosophy. The hip became “heads,” the others “straights.” The heads challenged authority and dropped out of the social and political establishment. Pop Art found mass appeal, light shows became legion, dress became flamboyant, and money became a dirty word.
Experimentation with drugs, especially psychedelics, was seen as an integral, and positive, part of the movement. LSD, which was legal, was pumped out in private laboratories. It was touted as an avant-garde art form, consciousness-raising in its effects. But its effects were just being discovered, despite an esoteric following in psychoanalytical circles for decades before.
In January 1966, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters hosted a “Trips Festival” in the Longshoremen’s Hall at Fisherman’s Wharf, attended by thousands. Timothy Leary prescribed “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead (who lived in 710 Ashbury St – site of a famous drugs bust in 1967), Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company became popular entertainers. Bill Graham took the psychedelic music scene nationwide.
The corner of Haight and Ashbury was perhaps the most famous intersection in the world, a place where young people came from all over the world in search of free food, free drugs…and free love and peace. By the time of the massive “Be-In” in Golden Gate Park in 1966 and the “Summer of Love” the following year, the intersection had attracted more than 75,000 transitory people.
But along with all the middle-class kids who simply wanted to get stoned came the unsavory characters and organized crime. Charles Manson recruited much of his “family” in the Haight. Hunter S. Thompson researched and wrote his book Hell’s Angels from his apartment at 318 Parnassus Street. He was notorious for inviting Angels to parties that were noisy, long and sometimes even dangerous due to his penchant for firearms.
While real Summer-of-Love generation hippies and their psychedelic vans may be hard to find today, the district still has one of the highest concentrations of eccentrics of any neighborhood in the country. Young people, often dreadlocked, skin-headed, pierced and tattooed, and sometimes skateboard-crazy continue to come to the Haight to break boundaries.
The neighborhood is a great place to shop for “alternative” clothing, books and music if you are willing to contend with persistent panhandlers and plenty of tourists purchasing their flower-power, peace-and-love souvenirs, tie dye t-shirts or a bong. There are dozens of laid-back cafes, restaurants, nightclubs and pubs along main commercial artery, Haight Street, from Masonic to Stanyan streets. The Lower Haight has experienced a renaissance and is a haven for young artsy types with its chic bars, restaurants, and boutiques.
Nighttime can be a bit edgy, especially near the entrance to Golden Gate Park, where the street’s long association with drugs has kept the number of people seeking, selling, and using them here disturbingly high. An abundance of homeless campers line the edge of the park.
Since most of the neighborhood was built up during the late Victorian era, gables, plasterworks and towers with finials dominate the architectural landscape. In 1976 about 1,160 Victorian era structures remained in the Haight-Ashbury, roughly three-quarters of them in the Queen Anne style. Today many of these homes are being restored from the neglect and misguided alterations of the “flower children.” And, with the eccentric neighborhood now supplemented by a blend of culturally diverse singles and families, many of the homes have gone up market.