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Haight-Ashbury: Well-Groomed, Brisk, and Alive

Haight Street looking east across Clayton Street, March 2, 1929. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, AAB-3953)

by Woody LaBounty

After the 1906 earthquake and fire, businesses in the Haight-Ashbury resembled those of 24th Street in Noe Valley, Irving Street in the Sunset District, or Outer Mission Street in the Excelsior. While businesses next to Golden Gate Park continued to cater to recreation seekers with bicycle rentals, horseback riding, billiard parlors, cigar stands, restaurants, and bars, Haight Street began to fill in with services for the growing neighborhood population: bakeries, bank branches, clothing stores, stationers, markets, hardware stores, jewelers, dentists, and drug stores.

The Haight Ashbury District Improvement Association formed one year after the earthquake and merged with a merchant association begun a couple of years before the disaster. The group’s self-assigned boundaries ran from Divisadero Street to the park, Fulton to Frederick Streets, and by 1913 counted more than 400 members. In 1913, the association crowed that “The Haight and Ashbury district has conscious pride. It cares how its streets look. It pays attention to the public service, and thunders out its complaints if complaints are justifiable. There is nothing slovenly about the community. It is well groomed, brisk and alive.”

North side of 1400 block of Haight Street west of Masonic Avenue, circa 1910. (OpenSFHistory/wnp27.1683)

The Haight and Ashbury district has conscious pride. It cares how its streets look. It pays attention to the public service, and thunders out its complaints if complaints are justifiable. There is nothing slovenly about the community. It is well groomed, brisk and alive.

The Haight Ashbury District Improvement Association, 1913

Most of the owners of Haight Street businesses were locals themselves. Simon Schweitzer owned Park Hardware and Plumbing at 1426 Haight and lived a couple of blocks away at 7 Belvedere Street. Samuel Caro sold crockery and glassware at 1434 Haight Street and lived across the street from his store at 1455 Haight Street. Phoebe and Sophia Nathan lived above their notions, stationary, and fancy goods store at 1422 Haight Street. Louis J. Takana and his wife, Fuji, lived half a block from their “Japanese Renovatory” cleaning business at 1394 Haight Street.

Cherry Blossom bakery at 1573 Haight Street in 1939. (OpenSFHistory/wnp26.1375)
Interior of Cherry Blossom bakery at 1573 Haight Street in 1939. (OpenSFHistory/wnp26.1377)

In the 1910s and 1920s the popularity of motion pictures spurred the erection of large movie palaces downtown while smaller but still impressively designed theatres opened in outlying neighborhoods. In 1907, the Haight-Ashbury had a nickelodeon (5 cents admission) at 1660 Haight Street. This 300-seat “Sunset Theatorium” was replaced just four years later by a 500-seat venue designed by architect Bernard J. Joseph and renamed the Sunset Theatre. Rechristened again as the Superba in 1918, the theater closed in 1924 and transitioned into a grocery store with the name of Superba Market. With its original and fantastic theater façade revealed, the building is today the home of the clothing store, Wasteland.

Wasteland clothing store at 1660 Haight Street, formerly the Superba Theatre and Superba Market. (SF Heritage photo)

After its opening in March 1910, the grander Haight Theatre at the northwest corner of Haight and Cole Streets quickly overshadowed the Sunset/Superba. A 1916 remodel expanded the Haight from 800 seats to 1,500 and in 1936-37 the theater got a Moderne style renovation inside and out.

The Haight Theatre behind a #7 streetcar in June 1948. (OpenSFHistory/wnp27.3845.jpg)

A “Successfully Integrated” Neighborhood

In the years after World War II, the Haight-Ashbury was one of the few neighborhoods where African American men and women could find housing. (Rental listings in 1950s newspapers often began with the word “Colored” to signal willingness to accept non-white tenants.) Black-owned businesses followed and opened on each side of the Golden Gate Park panhandle. The clientele came from one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, “a mosaic of races and nationalities unique in the City—Negroes, Filipinos, some Japanese, Russians, Czechs, Scandinavians, Armenians, Greeks, Germans and Irish.” Rents were cheap for everyone, with airy six-room flats available for as little as $100 a month (equal to roughly $928 in 2022).

The Haight-Ashbury was targeted for “urban renewal” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but a coalition of residents, which included many San Francisco State University students and faculty, blocked the Redevelopment Agency’s plans. Then, led by Shrader Street resident Sue Bierman, the neighborhood successfully thwarted a proposed “Panhandle Parkway” freeway meant to connect downtown with the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1965, when the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association (SPUR) offered to fund a planning study for the “successfully integrated” neighborhood, it found “the neighborhood feels that a Federal urban renewal project at this time is repugnant.”

Haight Street looking west from near Ashbury Street, November 11, 1944. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, AAB-3954)

Surviving intact, if a bit shabby around the edges, the diverse and affordable Haight-Ashbury began being seen a haven for revolutionary thinkers, artists, and beatniks escaping the increasingly commercialized North Beach neighborhood. A 1965 study (not funded by SPUR) rated San Francisco neighborhoods and described the Haight as “favored by middle-income professionals and cosmopolites with families as a sort of ‘fringe bohemia.’” Calling the schools mediocre and juvenile delinquency an ongoing nuisance, the report recognized in the Haight-Ashbury a “threat of social and physical change hanging over the neighborhood.”

Two years later, the Summer of Love brought 75,000 young people to Haight Street.

Sources

“Ten Years Work Gets Reward,” San Francisco Examiner, November 1, 1913, pg. 9.

T. A. Brown, “District Enjoys Many Advantages,” San Francisco Call, January 15, 1910, pg. 16.

“The Superba Theatre,” Bill Counter’s San Francisco Theatres blog: https://sanfranciscotheatres.blogspot.com/2017/08/superba-theatre.html

Michael Harris, “SPUR in Civic Hassle,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 20, 1965, pg. 2.

William Thomas, “Rating the City’s Neighborhoods,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 10, 1965, pg. 1.

Michael Fallon, “A New Paradise for Beatniks,” San Francisco Examiner, September 5, 1965, pg. 5.

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