Deep inside Golden Gate Park the soundtrack of modern day San Francisco – the frenetic patter of laptops in techie-filled coffee shops, streets rolling with Uber traffic – seems far, far away. A more primal sound beats out near the Conservatory of Flowers, the park’s Victorian-era greenhouse. On this spot known colloquially as Hippie Hill, drum circles congregate in a fug of marijuana smoke most days. One afternoon, a lone musician is tapping out a rhythm on a homemade drum, fashioned from PVC piping and emblazoned with the words ‘Waste not, want not’. Reclining on the slope, he soaks up the last light, the golden Californian rays playing on his long hair and beard.
Fifty years ago, Golden Gate Park and the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood next to it became the epicentre for a movement that would change the world. The Summer of Love sprung up in 1967 like a field of wild flowers. Tens of thousands of young people from across America descended on this area of less than a square mile. Casting off the corseted fashions and attitudes of their hometowns, they came to embrace the liberated atmosphere. Sitting cross-legged and catatonic on the grass, or dancing and swaying, they listened to bands like Jeffers on Airplane hold free open-air gigs in the park.
At the foot of Hippie Hill, the tree where Janis Joplin serenaded onlookers still stands. While much of today’s San Francisco would be unrecognisable to Janis, this area remains a time warp. A mint-green VW campervan pulls up next to the Conservatory of Flowers. Out steps local Mark Souza, wearing a ’60s rock band T-shirt and a velvet jacket, joined by his partner Michael Grauer and their four Australian Shepherd dogs, ‘We came to appreciate the dahlias and the sunset,’ says Mark, ‘We like to be free, and the van means we can hit the road – all six of us – whenever we like.’
A short amble away, Haight Street, lined with record stores and shops selling bongs, rock crystals and hand-dyed psychedelia, is similarly full of bohemian romantics. Holding a guitar in one hand, Kaveh Mahdavi is on his way to band practice when he stops for a smoke beside a mural to Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia. Kaveh used to work for IBM until, like so many generations before him, he dropped out and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco. ‘I was attracted to the neighbourhood because it’s a little weird around the edges,’ he says. ‘People talk about the energy of certain places. Something drew me here.’
The hippie dream was meant to have died with the Summer of Love. The promised paradise of free love and free thinking soon turned sour. Overrun by dropouts, Haight-Ashbury became a dystopic muddle of crime, drug addiction, sexual disease and disaffection. In October 1967, local activists even staged a mock funeral down Haight Street, pronouncing ‘The Death of the Hippie’. But half a century later, many of the hippies’ values, from respecting the environment to celebrating creative individuality, have seeped into the mainstream. And nowhere are these ideals more alive than in California’s Bay Area.