We were stood on the corner of Waller and Stanyan, alongside the McDonald’s parking lot and opposite the historic Stanyan Park Hotel. It was 10.20 on a sunny if cool Saturday morning in April. The shops in Haight Street a block away were drowsily coming to life, and a gaggle of skateboarders and assorted “heads” were making their way over to Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park to hang out for the day.
After ten years of inexplicable resistance, we had finally decided to give the Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour a try. Having read our e-mail confirmation carefully we were confident that we were at the appointed meeting place. But the time was beginning to concern us. Whilst both our e-mail and the official website had expressly stated that the tour began at 10.30am, we had collected a leaflet the previous day quoting 9.30am.
As 10.25, 10.30 and 10.35 passed without anyone joining us, we began to speculate on what might have happened. Was it really a 9.30 start and we were horribly late? Had the tour been cancelled because we were the only participants (and if so why hadn’t we been informed)? Or was the guide merely delayed? I rang the telephone number quoted on the e mail with no success.
As frustration turned to irritation at 10.40, a balding, middle-aged man approached us and enquired whether we were on the tour. He had received a telephone call to say that the guide was running late due to a burst water main near her flat. A Kentuckian, he was accompanied by his 20 year old daughter, as well as his son and his girlfriend, both of whom were studying at San Francisco State University.
Five minutes later our ears were assailed by a cheery “good morning” emanating from behind us on Waller Street. On turning around we were greeted by a diminutive woman dressed from head to toe in black, apart from the psychedelic leggings flashing intermittently from beneath her huge coat, shuffling towards us. This was Izu, our guide for the next two and a half hours. My heart soared (I may have been alone in this reaction) – here was someone who had palpably lived and breathed the hippie dream in the sixties and, equally importantly, was still doing. This was going to be fun – and I was not to be disappointed.
Having made her apologies, referring, not for the only time, to “hippie time”, she squealed with delight at the sight of my Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” t-shirt. We were instant soul mates and, given my familiarity with the history and music of the era, she regularly sought my input, which, whilst being very gratifying personally, might have annoyed the remainder of the group who weren’t as well informed beforehand. The son’s girlfriend spent most of the morning hiding behind his back and when gently challenged on this by Izu, insisted that she was not feeling well. I’m not convinced she wasn’t just a tad intimidated by Izu’s earnest, energetic approach.
Izu’s credentials to conduct this tour were impeccable. She had lived in the Haight for a month during the Summer of Love, and despite returning home to New York immediately thereafter, had been resident in the neighbourhood for many years.
One of her most endearing traits was that she had retained her broad New York accent which, incongruous though it might seem, gave an added charm and piquancy to her feast of anecdotes. I particularly delighted in her repeated pronounciation of Haight-Ashberry, proclaimed in a manner that could be heard from several blocks in any direction.
Armed with our free gift of a Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour button badge we set off down Waller Street, pausing at the SFFD’s Fire Station 12 which, uniquely, carries the Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” logo on its engines. We learned too about the Human Be-In, the influx of young people from all over the United States and the invaluable social service provided by both the Diggers and the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic.
Whilst we stopped at properties that had been lived in by such counterculture luminaries as Janis Joplin (several), Country Joe and the Fish and Jimi Hendrix, as well as Charles Manson, the highlight for me was the Grateful Dead house at 710 Ashbury. Now, I have stood outside this pad many times but, with Izu at my side, I didn’t feel as uncomfortable, as much of a stalker, as I had done before. It helped that Izu knew both the current tenants and their neighbours – well, actually, she appeared to know everybody in the vicinity! We barely passed a shop, café or homeless center without her stopping to hail its occupants.
Whilst I went along with every photo opportunity arranged by Izu, I did draw the line at taking one of the Haight-Ashbury sign – been there, done that, not cool. I think we fell out briefly at that point!
Many San Francisco walks are more like hikes, especially when they involve negotiating its unforbidding hills, but this one is leisurely and laid-back. We barely walked more than 100 yards before Izu asked us to gather round to listen to her stories, not only of the music scene but also the general history of the Haight. She was aided by a canvas shopping bag, from which she intermittently plucked vintage photographs.
The tour culminated in a visit to the recently opened Haight Ashbury Museum of Psychedelic Art and History, a center designed to showcase the arts, music and creativity of the era. Depending upon your point of view, it was either impossibly cluttered or incredibly comprehensive. Izu alerted us to historic posters, photographs and newspaper extracts from the hippie Haight.
The slogan of the museum is The Hippies Were Right!, a mantra repeated by Izu throughout the tour. As the (larger) badges extolling this theory illustrated, this relates to concern for the environment, emphasis on organic products, peace and love rather than war, sustainable housing and fuel efficiency, and, capping it all, “more fun and less unnecessary work”. I for one find it hard to argue with any of that.
The tour ended with heartfelt hugs outside the museum and clichéd, but utterly necessary, poses for the cameras.
In summary, this was a relaxing and thoroughly entertaining walk. In fact, the word “walk” doesn’t adequately describe it. It was a “show” in which Izu, in her inimitably animated, slightly wacky style, conveyed a vast amount of information and observation on both what was arguably the neighbourhood’s golden era and how those ideals are being implemented today.
Anyone who is deterred by the prospect of becoming preached at on the virtues of free love and rampant drug taking should really not be worried. Whilst Izu, inevitably, relates stories of excessive LSD, marijuana and heroin usage, she takes every opportunity to explain her vehement opposition to drugs. Nor does she gloss over the many unsavoury elements of the period.
So go with an open mind and you will be rewarded. But first listen to some live Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane whilst you are searching for that old kaftan, transfer a few flowers from your garden to your hair, throw on any piece of jewellery you can find, get on the bus and make your way up to the corner of Waller and Stanyan on a Tuesday or Saturday at 10.30am (yes, that’s 10.30am hippie time).
And remember…………….the Hippies Were Right!