This article is written by BerkOp's English Columnist Christine Lee.
The History Surrounding Haight-Ashbury;
A Destination You Must Visit in San Francisco
Forty-nine years ago, 100,000 people gathered on the intersection of Haight-Ashbury to take part in a full-blown counterrevolution. Today, all that is left of this enormous movement are shops catered to tourists and some hippie themed hotels and theatres. Without the knowledge of Haight-Ashbury and its historical events, the intersection is merely another street in San Francisco. With more knowledge, the intersection becomes a place of awe and inspiration, a place where the youth had once tried to change the world.
A Return to Conservatism in the 1950’s
The Second World War brought the United States into prosperity in the 1950’s. It marked the era of baby boomers, rapid suburbanization, and reversion towards conservatism. These conservative values were not only a result of America’s post-war prosperity, but also a result of wanting to return to normalcy and peace after social chaos throughout the six years of war. Conservative family values became encouraged, women took on more traditional roles as opposed to the ones they had during wartime, and any dramatic change was unwelcomed. Many people also chose to seek peace through religion and, therefore, religion spread its influence into popular culture. For the first time, President Eisenhower added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.
The 1950’s were generally a time in search for stability. Goods were mass-produced, and the middle class grew. There was a sense of conformity. People dressed in more conservative clothing and presented themselves more formally according to societal standards. Beginning with Eisenhower’s proposal of “dynamic conservatism”, not only politicians but also various philosophers came forward with conservative ideas of respecting tradition and resisting change and modernist culture. It was a tranquil time, with much less radical expression and reform than before. However, one can perceive the negative effects of repression from the return to the more traditional Victorian values and mass compliance.
Social Conflicts in the 1960’s
After a relatively tranquil decade following World War II, the Cold War presented new chaos to the American people. In the beginning of the decade, the U.S. sent troops to Vietnam to fight Chinese occupation. Throughout the next several years, the U.S. would send more than 9,000,000 American troops into Vietnam and almost 60,000 men would be killed, with 61% of them age twenty-one or younger.
At the turn of the century in the global community, the Berlin Wall was beginning to be built. “The Communist East German authorities built a wall that totally encircled West Berlin. It was thrown up overnight, on 13 August 1961.” This became a source of disbelief for much of the Western world that had just fought for a world of democracy. The wall was seen as a way of trapping people in - and it was to a certain degree. “During the history of the Berlin Wall, nearly 80 people would be killed trying to cross from East to West Berlin. In the nearly 30 years that the wall existed, however, no one was ever shot trying to enter East Berlin.” Across the world, Communist regimes seemed to be stealing people's innate liberties through tactics such as violence and fear.
Furthermore, in the domestic sphere, the young, heroic U.S. President John F. Kennedy was suddenly murdered in 1963, leaving the country in great shock. Five years later, this was followed by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had made a huge impression throughout the 60’s with his peaceful but impactful demands for racial equality.
The chaos of the Cold War and domestic tragedies caused many Americans to enter a state of disillusionment.
Rise of the Youth
Throughout the sixties, the younger generation began to react towards problems they encountered in society. They challenged the conservative ideals of their parents. Students stood up for their beliefs and found diverse mediums to express their opinions. The greatest problem confronted by the younger generation at this time was the Vietnam War Draft. Students just approaching their twenties suddenly found themselves losing their friends to war efforts too early, for a cause that was unclear. Students found themselves having to risk their lives carrying with them too many dreams and hopes for the future, for a purpose that was at best superficial. Rather, “Americans compared communism to a contagious disease. If it took hold in one nation, U.S. policymakers expected contiguous nations to fall to communism, too, as if nations were dominoes lined up on end.” This was called the Domino theory; however, students were able to see, through the power of media, the devastating effects US weaponry and warfare had on the innocent and powerless civilians of Vietnam. The highly ideological rationale behind warfare and wasteful deaths of young, healthy citizens enraged the youth.
Students expressed their outrage throughout the sixties, bringing an end to tranquil conservatism that had been more apparent in the past decade. In March of 1965, 2,500 students protested at the University of Michigan. Thirty-five campuses shortly took part in similar protests and made their voices heard. These protests were directed towards the government and their lack of transparency. They were also to bring peace to both Vietnam and the U.S. The government was regarded as imposing violence, and the students peacemakers fighting such violence. This impression deepened when at the end of the decade, members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine students. Students all over the country, as well as the international community reacted with anger towards such uselessly violent authority, and immense pressures grew to withdraw from Vietnam. Student protests and their demands for peace gave birth to a new political and social atmosphere, and a culture of peacemaking grew prominent.
The Beats and Growth of Hippie Culture in the SF Area
During Eisenhower’s era of ‘dynamic conservatism’, a small community emerged in New York and moved into the North Beach area of San Francisco. They started the Beat Movement, which rejected conventional values, materialism, and authority and strove to find personal liberalization through experimentation and exploration instead. “Generally apolitical and indifferent to social problems, they advocated personal release, purification, and illumination through the heightened sensory awareness that might be induced by drugs, jazz, sex, or the disciplines of Zen Buddhism.” The original Beat Generation members, such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, wrote about this new lifestyle in literature. Such authors and members of the Beat Movement were later tremendously influential ideologically and socially to the spark of a greater hippie movement of the sixties, especially around the San Francisco area.
Hippie Culture in its Prime and the Spread of Hippie Culture
Gradually, some of the Beat Movement members moved toward the more affordable Haight-Ashbury area. The defining traits of those that settled there could be seen as a sort of rejection to material culture; expression of love and peace; exploration with various drugs; spiritual liberation; and a shared space for music, art, and creativity. While being somewhat of a hedonistic hub, young people shared a purpose in peacefully protesting against the conventional structure and loving without discrimination. There were free psychedelic houses with people sharing drugs and the experience. Psychedelic drugs are known for letting users overcome social inhibitions. One user stated after using psychedelic drugs: “I wasn’t any longer attached to my performance and trying to control things. I could see that the really good things in life will happen if you just show up and share your natural enthusiasms with people. You have a feeling of attunement with other people.” Likewise, psychedelics seem to have unifying and liberating effects on users.
Besides drug houses of psychedelics and marijuana, people started offering free housing; thus, communal houses were everywhere. Furthermore, free stores started opening up where one could donate or take anything. The freedom from a strict economical structure let people reassess their true values, while also putting the negative effects of competition and materialism into view. People were so much more happy and united without it, - at least temporarily in the early to mid-sixties. People talked to each other without barriers, and sexual interactions became more casual. Music festivals were constantly held with rock music by Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, etc. The neighborhood created its own unique rock genre with Scott McKinzie’s song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” peaking in mainstream culture.
The open mindedness of the hippie culture in the SF area captured the imaginations and wonders of young people everywhere around the world. “Hippy culture embraced foreign travel as a means to find oneself and communicate with others, and the first backpackers set off on what became known as the 'hippy trail', through Europe and the Middle East to India. They hitchhiked, traveled by public transport or used revamped double-decker buses and camper vans, always living as cheaply as possible.”
At its height, 100,000 people gathered at Haight-Ashbury as active participants in experiencing this sort of cultural utopia. This was called the Summer of Love.
However, soon after, the overwhelming population, drug use, and sexual activity started leading to homelessness, crime, and social chaos. Following the Summer of Love, the movement on Haight-Ashbury deteriorated, and a symbolic funeral for it was held. Mary Kasper, a participant of the hippie counter culture is often quoted, “We wanted to signal that this was the end of it, don't come out. Stay where you are! Bring the revolution to where you live. Don't come here because it's over and done with.” And the legacy of the movement lived on, still playing an important role in society today.
Assessing the Values of Hippie Life in Haight-Ashbury
The youthful generation’s part in counter culture and government protests demonstrates an attitude differing from that of their parents. They may have been frustrated with the conformity and lack of change they were forced to grow up with, submerged in the materialism of middle class suburbia. Traditional values and enforcements of social rules created desires to take part in revolution and rebel, which indicates the mainstream’s fascination with a counter culture so different in lifestyle and social beliefs. Young people were eager to leave their homes to participate in something that would stir a change in their stagnant way of life. They were eager to protest for social change in public areas.
Other factors that the youth yearned for in the sixties seemed to be unity and peace. Having grown up in the post-World War II era witnessing the divisions of the world during the Cold War, the youth seems to have wanted unity among humanity. Political beliefs, especially with the war against Communism, appeared as a dividing factor upon humanity when people shared values toward living in peace and happiness. Those in Haight-Ashbury disregarded individual political beliefs and worked towards national, world peace instead.
Finally, the youth took part in achieving freedom. The police regulated the area very minimally, and the hippies were able to take part in a sort of social experiment. The ability to disregard currency, use drugs without prosecution, and engage sexually without conservative moral restrictions gave people a feeling of freedom and liberalization that every human being craves to a certain degree.
Perhaps visiting this landmark that inspired and liberated thousands will spark something within you too.
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