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Haight Street Renaissance

by Woody LaBounty

The worldwide attention on 1967’s Summer of Love created Haight Street’s reputation. Fifty-five years later, the name Haight-Ashbury and the commercial character of upper Haight Street remain synonymous with freedom of expression, drug culture, political activism, bohemian fashions, unconventional lifestyles, and some edginess. Businesses and brands seeking customers who relate to these characteristics still know that Haight Street is the place to be.

May Day demonstration at the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets, May 1, 1990. Doolan-Larson Building in background. (Greg Gaar Photography, OpenSFHistory/wnp72.16448)

Less than a decade after 1967’s Summer of Love, Haight Free Medical Clinic co-founder David Smith noted that he was “part of a nostalgia craze.”[1] The clinic and the Haight-Ashbury Switchboard were pretty much the only institutions from the Summer of Love to last into the late 1970s, but people still wanted to talk about flowers in one’s hair and the neighborhood of Peace, Love, and bell-bottom jeans.

But in the immediate aftermath of the Summer of Love, Haight Street went through a crucible of culture shock and disorder. The call for love drew hippies, but it also brought in hard drugs, violence, and crime. Once the Love of 1967 ended, the Strife of 1968 began. Robberies reported through the Park Police Station went up 300 percent, rapes by 25 percent, aggravated assaults by 150 percent.[2] After no murders in 1967, the neighborhood had three by September 1968 and five in the first half of 1969.

Opportunistic businesses that opened for the 1967 crowds quickly bailed in 1968—a dozen closed in just three months of the following year.[3] A San Francisco Examiner reporter counting 24 boarded-up windows and 15 closed storefronts on three blocks of Haight Street. Holcombe’s Jewelry in the Doolan-Larson Building on the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets (now owned by SF Heritage) was one of the street’s longest-operating businesses. Owner Alex Holcombe had no problems with the flower children but had to install steel gates across his windows when “the pimps and junkies moved in.”[4] From a vacancy rate of 4 percent in 1965, Haight Street was at 35 percent in 1971.[5] The vibe was not good. A health food store owner on Page Street gave up in 1969 after reportedly being robbed a dozen times in eleven months.[6]

A sign from Holcombe Jewelry preserved in the attic of the Doolan-Larson Residence.

Crime was up all over the city—overall, murders in San Francisco went up 126% for the first halves of 1968 and 1969—but the newspapers couldn’t resist latching on to any malfeasance committed in the former land of flower children. Typical salacious headlines were “Blood Flows in Haight-Ashbury” and “Thugs Terrorize the Haight.”[7]

Headline for a particularly sensationalist article on crime around the 1400 block of Waller Street: “Nightly, screams and the sounds of physical assault are heard by a diminishing number of tenants and home-owners left over from the period when this neighborhood was a wholesome middle class bailiwick.” (San Francisco Examiner, December 15, 1969, pg. 4.

Mendel Herscowitz, president of the Haight-Ashbury Merchants and Property Owners Association, also recognized the neighborhood’s new problems weren’t caused by “hippies or flower children [but] panhandlers and dope pushers.” In the business of selling house paints and linoleum since 1960, Herscowitz was ready to close his store when the hippies arrived and positively “shook up a neighborhood headed strictly downhill.”[8] He rebranded his business as Mendel’s Far Out Fabrics and became one of the neighborhood’s staunchest defenders and promoters.[9]

Herscowitz’s “Mendel’s Far Out Fabrics” is now “Mendels,” still operating at 1556 Haight Street. SF Heritage photo.

Beyond crime, doing business on Haight Street was an uphill battle at the dawn of the 1970s. Many insurance companies wouldn’t offer policies to businesses or residents of the neighborhood, and if they did, charged exorbitant rates.[10] The active and participatory citizenry of the Haight provided both valuable community resources and polarizing differences of opinion able to derail any plan or proposal. As an example, the old Haight movie house, rechristened the Straight Theater, never fulfilled its potential as a dance pavilion and concert hall. In 1974, more than 40 local organizations and the city’s art commission argued over how to make it a community center while the White Panther Party called them all “fascists and liberal hypocrites.”[11] The old theater was demolished in 1979.

Demolition of the old Haight Theater (renamed the Straight Theater in the late 1960s) on August 13, 1979. (Greg Gaar photography, OpenSFHistory/wnp72.6144)

The Haight-Ashbury had been a home of diverse residents and businesses before the tidal wave of white youth culture hit in 1966-67. Pushed out by redevelopment in the Western Addition, black families and business owners moved into the yet-again-transitioning neighborhood in the early 1970s. Newlester Cannon, owner of a business at 1672 Haight Street, organized Sunday morning cleanups of the merchant corridor.[12] Noted artist Raymond Howell ran an art supply and frame shop at the corner of Carl and Cole Streets and created the mural “A Place in the Sun” on the side of his shop.[13] And as San Francisco’s reputation grew worldwide as a haven for LGBTQ people, the Haight-Ashbury’s historical openness made it a landing spot for arriving gay and lesbian residents.

By the end of 1972, a 30-page report by the city noted that the Haight Street shopping environment was “noticeably more pleasant than a year ago.” The commercial vacancy rate fell from 35 percent to 24 percent in a year. And major crimes in the Haight-Ashbury had fallen below the citywide average.[14]

That same year, Haight-Ashbury residents fought for and won what was described as the largest down-zoning in the history of the city. Rallied by the new Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC), a coalition was able to stop large-scale developments from lining the Golden Gate Park panhandle. The crowd giving testimony to the Planning Commission was described as “a strongly unified mix of Haight residents, property owners and tenants, black and white, hip and straight.” Calvin Welch, a prominent voice in neighborhood affairs for half-a-century, noted at the time “The long-hairs are no longer passing through, they live here.” [15]

The Haight-Ashbury’s preserved architectural character from the turn of the 20th century began drawing interest from people with money. A reporter noted the renewed interest: “I can’t help thinking that there are indeed bargains to be found there, and the germ of a revitalized neighborhood.”[16] It proved true. A home bought for $35,000 in the early 1970s could go for almost $200,000 by 1980. (Don’t ask about today.)

Stylish new shops and antique stores began moving in on Haight Street. Real estate prices kept rising. The Haight’s diverse identity, described in 1975 as “blacks, whites, Filipinos, the old, the young, the straight, the hip, the gay, the middle-class, the working–class, the artistic,” was thought to be endangered by creeping gentrification only five years after the street was given up on by the media as a crime-ridden wasteland.[17]

Just as reporters loved the story of hippie-land in 1967, and one of apocalyptic hellzone in 1971, they latched onto Haight renaissance stories every year from the mid 1970s on. There was constant discussion about how Haight Street should or shouldn’t become the next Union Street. (The Cow Hollow corridor was frequently invoked as a cautionary tale of how popularity may plague a neighborhood with high rents, traffic, and noise issues.) In 1980, there were 33 bars or liquor stores within 1,000 feet of Clayton and Haight Street. The bar that is now “Hobson’s Choice” was able to receive a permit to open that year with the novel argument of providing a place for “straights” to patronize, as all other bars supposedly catered to blacks, gays or “special groups.”[18]

A night on Haight and Cole Streets, September 1985. (Greg Gaar photography, OpenSFHistory/wnp72.12504)

Haight Street didn’t become Union Street or Castro Street, but matured into its own unique merchant strip. To me, a young man in the early 1980s, the Haight-Ashbury was the I-Beam nightclub in the old Park Masonic Hall (dancing) and Double Rainbow next door (ice cream). Park Bowl bowling becoming Amoeba records browsing. Music at the Full Moon Saloon. An affordable breakfast at Pork Store Cafe, a late snack from Escape from New York Pizza. I would be whispered to, block after block, being asked if I wanted drugs. (I didn’t.)

The old Park Bowl at 1855 Haight Street is today home to Amoeba Music.

These were the origin days for many of the legacy businesses and candidates that SF Heritage has focused on this month. The neighborhood’s earliest architecture and first business offerings represented by the Stanyan Park Hotel and American Cyclery were already institutions. FTC has amazingly grown to be a shrine known across the world. Alternative fashion boutiques like Piedmont (glamour and drag) and Cal Surplus (Burning Man/survivalist), wildly variant drinking establishments in Aub Zam Zam, Murio’s Trophy Room, Trax Bar, The Gold Cane, and Club Deluxe, head shops like Pipe Dreams, and homes for revolutionary expression like the Bound Together Anarchist Bookstore are all now stitched into the history of Haight–Ashbury retail.

Haight legacy businesses in our August 2022 voting contest.

All of the glories and all of the issues with Haight-Ashbury life post-Summer of Love are still with us today. It didn’t take much imagination at the height of the Covid pandemic to feel as if 1969 returned with empty storefronts, and some notable shootings. But with crowds on the streets and the community’s great love for local businesses evident in the massive response to our legacy business registry campaign, it seems like another one of those Haight Street renaissances is underway.

[1] James A. Finefrock and Carol Pogash, “Today’s Haight getting things back together,” San Francisco Examiner, February 23, 1976, pg. 6.

[2] Jerry Belcher, “Fear, Not Flowers,” San Francisco Examiner, September 29, 1968, pg. 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] James A. Finefrock and Carol Pogash, “Today’s Haight getting things back together,” San Francisco Examiner, February 23, 1976, pg. 6.

[5] John Keane, “Haight-Ashbury Study—A Revived Economy, San Francisco Chronicle, December 1, 1972, pg. 2.

[6] Charles Perry, The Haight-Ashbury: A History, (New York: Rolling Stone Press/Random House, 1984), pg. 295.

[7] Robert Patterson, “Violence Stalks Terror Terrace,” San Francisco Examiner, December 15, 1969, pg. 1 and 4; “Two Separate Murders in Haight,” San Francisco Examiner, May 19, 1969.

[8] James A. Finefrock and Carol Pogash, “Today’s Haight getting things back together,” San Francisco Examiner, February 23, 1976, pg. 6.

[9] Dick Alexander, “Hashbury Property Loan Plan Urged,” San Francisco Examiner, November 18, 1969, pg. 32; “Haight-Ashbury” (Letter to Editor), San Francisco Examiner, January 2, 1970.

[10] Susan Miller and Jay Bosworth, “Off Limits,” San Francisco Examiner, November 28, 1972, pg. 1.

[11] Dexter Waugh, “The Culture Conflict in Haight-Ashbury,” San Francisco Examiner, November 18, 1974, pg. 6.

[12] “Haight St. Sweeps in New Year,” San Francisco Examiner, January 1, 1973.

[13] Alexander Fried, “Artistic Rehabilitation,” San Francisco Examiner, July 6, 1971, pg. 33.

[14] John Keane, “Haight-Ashbury Study—A Revived Economy, San Francisco Chronicle, December 1, 1972, pg. 2; “Haight Strip Aid Plan,” San Francisco Examiner, December 1, 1972.

[15] Dexter Waugh, “The Haight Battles for its Identity,” San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle, February 27, 1972, pg. 4; Gloria Vollmayer, “Trying to Save the Haight,” San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle, California Living Section, May 21, 1972, pg. 8.

[16] Dick Nolan, “Dispelling One Rumor,” San Francisco Examiner, April 8, 1971.

[17] Beverly Stephen, “New Look in the Haight,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 26, 1975, pg. 20.

[18] Gale Cook, “The straights want rights: their own bar,” San Francisco Examiner, January 16, 1980, pg. 3.

Legacy BusinessesHaight-Ashbury

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