Is San Francisco still swinging?

Forty years after the Summer of Love peaked in San Francisco, Mike Higgins visits the city to find out if anything remains of the hippie dream

To listen to people who were there, you'd think the Summer of Love was over before it began. The Love Generation infused the neighbourhood around Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco in the mid-Sixties with its revolutionary ethos of peace and love, hash and acid. No sooner had it done so, however, than some of its prime movers seemed to take perverse pleasure in pinpointing the exact moment when their high political and social goals tipped into, well, just getting high.

The "Death of the Hippie" funeral procession made its way through the district in October 1967, interring its groovy effigy in Buena Vista Park. As early as April 1967, the now-infamous remark made its way round the neighbourhood that "rape is as common as bullshit on Haight Street" . When the Beatles' George Harrison visited in August of that year he was instantly disillusioned, finding it to be full of "hideous, spotty little teenagers". Perhaps the rot had set in with the Life and Time magazine articles about "the scene", or with the legislation against the sale of LSD in October of the year before.

Forty years later, it's hard to tell whether those remarkable few years in and around San Francisco – a period that culminated in the Summer of Love in 1967 – made any actual difference to life in this city, or whether the changes, like the San Andreas fault, are so far beneath the surface that nobody takes much notice. Certainly, there's nothing so simple as a museum of the period to help you figure it all out. In a city of cultural institutions as elegant and diverse as the De Young, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the excellent Cartoon Art Museum, such an absence would seem to be no accident.

So what happened to the hippies? To wander round the Haight now or, as I did, take a walking tour, is to be struck by how similar Haight-Ashbury is to, say, Greenwich Village in New York or Soho in London. It's an area living off its faded reputation, the wide streets tidy and patrolled by yuppies with three-wheeler prams. The only long-hairs are the old, homeless ones politely working the tourists for change on street corners.

The Bound Together Anarchist Collective Bookstore is still there on Haight, as is The Booksmith. But other shops of freaky yore – the Mnasidika clothing store, Blind Jerry's health food shop, the Blue Unicorn coffeehouse and The Psychedelic Shop with its roach clips, Lava Lites, Ravi Shankar and Coltrane – are long gone.

In their place, thankfully, are not Gap or Starbucks; the local residents have resisted the big chains. Instead, there are sneaker shops, record shops and hippyish knicknacknariums.

The tour is fun. Our guide, Izu, in an incongruently broad New York accent, points to a place where Jimi Hendrix once hid to avoid getting busted. She indicates the "phone pole" on the corner of Cole and Waller streets, a telegraph pole pitted with old staples where locals pinned up messages for friends, colleagues and family to read in their own good time.

Around the corner is Recycle Records, where Alan Cohen ran the San Francisco Oracle newspaper. There's the apartment where Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev insisted on getting busted to show solidarity with some kids in 1967; here's 710 Ashbury, the one-time home of the Summer of Love's talismanic band, the Grateful Dead. (It is also, incidentally, an example of the tendency to tart up the city's semi-detached wooden "Victorian" houses to within an inch of their leases.)

"See dat house over dere?" says Izu, pointing down the street. "Fifteen thousand somebody orffered dat to me fwor in 1975. Now? Three point two million. Sheesh..."

In the late Fifties and early Sixties, the Haight-Ashbury area was home to a black community, a Russian community and a lot of students.

Into this already rich mix came the self-confidence earned by successful protests in favour of civil rights and free speech in San Francisco and neighbouring Berkeley. This was further augmented by the individuality of the North Beach beatniks, not to mention the ready availability of hallucinogenic drugs. The result, as Hunter S Thompson put it, was "a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that ... our energy would simply prevail".

This energy, at its most altruistic, drove groups such as the Diggers to set up free-food programmes. The venue was the Panhandle, a narrow, leafy extension of Golden Gate Park a couple of blocks north of the Haight. Far more spectacular, though, were the freewheeling, anything-goes events, the "happenings" and "acid tests". The first of these was the chaotic three-day Trips Festival at the Longshoremen's Hall, a 15-minute drive north of the Haight, in January 1966. A year later came the Human Be-In in the Polo Fields of Golden Gate Park, at which poet Allen Ginsberg chanted mantras and Timothy Leary famously urged 10,000 people to "turn on, tune in and drop out".

Don't expect to hear too much rock'*'roll round the Haight today. The dotcom millionaires have driven all the noisy music venues out of the neighbourhood. To tour what remains of venues such as Fillmore West is to realise that the Summer of Love took place between the ears as much as it did on the hilly, seductive topography of San Francisco itself.

Even a visit to Rancho Olompali, across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, is elegiac rather than inspirational. The Grateful Dead and their entourage lived here for a few weeks in the autumn of 1966 in a 26-room mansion built around an old Native American adobe dwelling. In his book A Long Strange Trip, Dennis McNally describes the time the Dead spent there hanging out, making music and baking bread to sell in San Francisco as perhaps their happiest in the Bay area. Today, the mansion is a sad sight: the building is condemned and sits, some faded graffiti on its walls, depressingly close to Highway 101.

Where did the hippie dream go? For guidance I turned to Joel Selvin, rock critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of a history of the Summer of Love. Selvin was involved with the Berkeley protests; he was in the Haight in March 1967. "I was very idealist," he says. "I'd seen over the hill, the end of racism... It was a huge moment for me."

But things soon changed, he says. "The streets were filled with flotsam and jetsam. It was like a human game preserve. There were 100,000 coming to San Francisco and people were thinking, how can we make a dollar from each of them?"

The Summer of Love in the Haight ended swiftly and sourly: drugs busts, busloads of tourists arriving from across the country to point at the hippies, hundreds of out-of-state kids too desperate for a job and a bed to search for the hippie dream.

In his basement, filled with rock ephemera from the era, Selvin reminds me how much the planet owes to hippies nonetheless – "gay rights, feminism, environmentalism, organic food – even artisanal cooking" .

And he's right. Alice Waters's Chez Panisse restaurant arguably began the global bourgeoisie's craze for "eco-gastronomy" three decades ago in Berkeley. The roots of feminism and gay rights are sunk in the sense of open-minded self-determination that the more thoughtful hippies practised. Environmentalism got its hair cut, put on a suit and has grabbed the world's attention. The Summer of Love even gave rise to the World Wide Web, at least according to John Markoff's book What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer.

"Do you know [Apple's] Steve Jobs is the only CEO of a major corporation to admit to taking LSD?" says Selvin.

Nevertheless, I tell Selvin I am keen to see a more tangible result of the Summer of Love. "There is no more counterculture," Selvin says. "It's just a niche, like everything else."

Then he pauses and smiles.

"There is Rainbow Grocery, though, at 1745 Folsom Street. Try that."

I hop on a bus and find the warehouse, crouching under a freeway flyover. Selvin had mentioned that Rainbow Grocery was a workers' collective, but I hadn't expected to find inside what I do: the supermarket of my dreams, with just about every organic delight I can imagine, super-helpful staff and every feature carefully and intuitively designed. The hour I spend there is one of the happiest I spend in San Francisco. Does that make me some kind of hippie? I hope so, man.

Traveller's Guide

Getting There

San Francisco is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0870 574 7747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) and United Airlines (0845 844 4777; www.unitedairlines.co. uk), all from Heathrow.

The writer travelled with British Airways Holidays (08702 433406; www.baholidays.com), which offers seven nights in San Francisco from £978. It includes return flights from Heathrow, seven nights' room-only accommodation at the Hotel Monaco and car hire with insurance.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

Visiting There

Haight Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour (001 415 863 1621; www.hippygourmet. com); every Tuesday and Saturday at 9.30am or Friday at 11am; $20 (£11.10).

De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park (001 415 863 3330; www.deyoungmuseum.org). Open Tuesday-Sunday 9.30am-5.15pm, Friday until 8.45pm; $10 (£5.60).

SFMOMA, 151 Third Street (001 415 357 4000; www.sfmoma.org). Open Monday, Tuesday and weekends 10am-5.45pm, until 8.45pm Thursday, closed Wednesday; $12.50 (£6.90).

Olompali State Historic Park, Novato (001 415 892 3383; www.parks.ca.gov). Open daylight hours; admission free.

Eating and Drinking There

Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café, 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley (001 510 548 5525; www.chezpanisse.com).

Rainbow Grocery, 1745 Folsom Street (001 415 863 0620; www.rainbowgrocery.org).

Further Reading and Information

Summer of Love: The Inside Story of LSD, Rock and Roll, Free Love and High Times in the Wild West, by Joel Selvin (Cooper Square Press; £12.99).

A Long Strange Trip: The Inside Story of The Grateful Dead, by Dennis McNally (Corgi Adult, £8.99).

San Francisco Tourism: 001 415 391 2000; www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com

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