San Francisco, 50 years after the Summer of Love

In his 1967 piece for The Atlantic, Mark Harris, who lived in San Francisco, said hippies believed their movement “might, by resurrecting the word “love,” and giving it a refreshened definition, open the national mind, as if by the chemical LSD, to the hypocrisy of violence and prejudice in a nation dedicated to peace and accord.” I’m a child of the 1970s, brought up on the music and culture of my parents’ generation. I spent a lot of time as a kid in front of the family hi-fi, listening to the psychedelic counterculture music of the hippy era that challenged norms and spoke truth to power. I had always bought into it, the hippy thing. I never really questioned the authenticity of what it stood for or its enduring effect. But for the most part, from Kennedy to Kent State, it was all in the abstract, channeled through the psychotropic haze of music I love. When I saw, first hand in San Francisco, the intersecting fault lines of raw American wealth disparity, drug addiction, racism, and a migrant mother and her children at a crucial moment in their desperate flight from indiscriminate violence and poverty, I paused to reflect.

In the summer of 2017, the City of San Francisco celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love and all things hair, peace, LSD, and hippy counterculture. The late ’60s were a defining moment in the city’s history, right up there with the 1906 earthquake that levelled it. The Summer of Love celebration was anchored in an exhibit at the de Young Museum, in Golden Gate Park — ground zero for much of the hippy movement in 1967.

Donald Trump had been in the White House for about a year, and the spirit of profound cultural change from the ’60s was at odds with what was happening across the country: ICE raids; Muslim travel bans; social media’s transformation into a global platform emboldening subterfuge, fake news, and thinly veiled hate; white nationalist marches in Charleston; ceaseless vulgarities, lies, and open misogyny from the president. The United States was torn by rabid partisanship, just as it had been in the late ’60s, except now there was no counterculture movement — or at least not an effective one — to push back in any meaningful way.

My wife Jesica and I flew to San Francisco that July, on a trip she secured through work, to explore the city and visit the headquarters of Cisco Meraki, which was one of her company’s tech partners. Jesica had never been to San Francisco and I hadn’t been since 2001. The country felt divided back in the early aughts, but in a different way. For the most part, 9/11 had brought the country closer together, and the era of subprime loans and credit default swaps still had a few years of fraudulent success ahead of it before the 2008 global market crash exposed a disorientingly evil Wall Street con, fuelled by bottomless greed. 16 years later, the widening fault lines of American wealth, politics, and social cohesion had become visible in the streets of San Francisco and you couldn’t look away.

Absurd Silicon Valley wealth was everywhere. It flowed through restaurants, where the bill for dinner with friends, prepared by rock star executive chefs, was more than a monthly wage for service industry workers, many of whom had lost their rent-controlled apartments in the booming real estate market and now lived in their cars in Wal-Mart parking lots. You could see it in the grotesque juxtaposition of futuristic Teslas and the cardboard boxes for massive flat screen smart TVs that had been repurposed as shelter by the city’s ever growing homeless population. It had also transformed areas like the Haight Ashbury and Castro districts, as gentrification displaced the lower-middle class and the working poor, squeezing the cultural soul from communities, fracturing them and leaving them to disparately reassemble elsewhere, if at all.

Our first morning in San Francisco, Jesica and I walked to a Starbucks down the street from our hotel, to grab breakfast and coffee. The Pride Parade was a few days away. Rainbow flags adorned street lights, and storefront windows were colourfully painted in solidarity. The coffee shop was full of young professionals, most of them listening to earbuds and staring at their cell phones. Hits from the Summer of Love played, mixed with the screech of steam frothing milk and baristas shouting names written on paper coffee cups. The Youngbloods’ 1967 hit “Get Together” came on the stereo:

“Come on people now/
Smile on your brother/
Everybody get together/
Try to love one another right now”

Outside the coffee shop, a young homeless man with junkie eyes sat on the sidewalk. We had seen him on the way in. He had a cardboard sign, with a message scrawled in black marker, begging for money. A filthy hat in front of him had a few dollar bills in it, but mostly people walked by, trying not to make eye contact. Eventually the manager asked him to move along. Maybe he didn’t hear the song, I thought to myself.

The fog of the opioid crisis hung in the streets. Perhaps that explained this generation’s lack of resistance to the current political realignment. In the 1960s, mass experimentation with mind expanding drugs like LSD and psilocybin heightened consciousness and altered perspectives. Kaleidoscope highs and spiritual experiences spilled into the art, music, and ideas of the age, to the degree that cultural paradigms radically shifted. The drugs of choice in 2017 were pharmaceuticals like oxycontin, designed to numb and sedate. The resistance was asleep.

We called for an Uber to take us to the de Young Museum for the 50th anniversary Summer of Love exhibit. With so much of the flower power aesthetic concentrated in a single space, I could see how heavily it leaned on art nouveau, elements of Native American and Eastern culture, and music co-opted from African American blues and jazz, transformed into the sound waves of the psychedelic scene by artists like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin. We passed by hand-drawn gig posters, pin collections, mentions of Timothy Leary, mannequins outfitted in period wear, photographs of Wavy Gravy and other prominent figures, and Jerry Garcia’s iconic Captain Trips hat before entering a white room with psychedelic effects projected onto the walls. To our right, a silent film of the Velvet Underground & Nico played, while “Ball and Chain” by Big Brother and the Holding Company, carried by the gravel in Janis Joplin’s voice, came through speakers mounted high in each corner.

It was fascinating to see the era as artefact, especially since I felt I had lived it, at least by proxy, through my parents’ record collection growing up. The exhibit didn’t do a great job clearly stating the “why” of the counterculture movement, or plumbing its intellectual depths. It seemed to assume that people who cared knew, and curators opted instead for widely accessible visual appeal. Maybe there was no substantial “why.” Perhaps it was always mostly an empty gesture, as spiritually bankrupt as any pop cultural movement, distilled to its naked constituent parts: idealism, drugs, and music. It’s certainly how some saw it in its time, a sentiment Mark Harris captured on the ground in 1967: “It was easier to see than understand: the visual was so discordant that tourists drove with their cars locked and an alarmed citizenry beseeched the police to clean it out.”

I bought a mug and a print in the gift shop, then we had lunch in the museum cafeteria. After lunch, we walked through the park, on our way to Haight Street. An old Grateful Dead cover band played “Dark Star” for an audience of silver-haired boomers in tie dye. A small group of homeless folks took shade under a gnarled Monterey pine. Young men and women with air pods jogged along Nancy Pelosi Drive, while others walked dogs — chihuahuas, poodles, Labrador retrievers, and pit bulls with choke collars. A couple of kids casually smoked a joint, their skateboards and backpacks scattered on the grass. The park was busy and tourists with digital cameras documented the spectacle.

At Haight Street, we walked north east toward Ashbury Street, past the legendary Amoeba Records, keeping watch for other historical landmarks. Almost the entire strip was cashing in on the nostalgia bit, overplaying their hand on how cool their weed was, how organic their food was, or how psychedelically in tune they were. Everyone was trying to preserve a high that flamed out decades ago. Haight Ashbury had become a caricature of itself.

On our second day in San Francisco, Jesica and I were having an early dinner in the hotel lounge. It was a dimly lit space, with mostly forgettable decor. To our right, a drunk woman in her mid-to-late 30s slouched sideways on her stool, her head resting in her hand, held up by her elbow on the bar, as she spoke with a man who had had a lot less to drink than her. They were loud and garrulous, talking about past sexual exploits in an obvious build up to the two of them departing for one or the other’s hotel room. Behind the bar, spokes of light poked through piano windows in chiaroscuro patterns just in front of the bar patrons, like a moralizing Renaissance painting. She seemed vulnerable and incapable of good judgement. “Me Too” was still a few years away. I pretended to ignore them, while listening intently and doing nothing.

We sat in a booth with fake leather upholstery and a solid wood table, coated in a light stain that pronounced the grain. Jesica casually drank a $40 glass of wine. I had a $17 IPA from some brewery up the coast, the name of which I can’t recall. We ate a snack bowl of pretzels, peanuts and wasabi peas while we waited for our meals.

An African American woman — a caseworker with credentials pinned to her jacket and a leather-bound portfolio containing documents — escorted a young Hispanic woman and her three children into the lounge. They were seated at another booth, diagonally to our left. The caseworker’s job, as far as I could tell, was to process new migrant arrivals, helping them navigate the critical first few hours in what had lately been designated a sanctuary city. I have no idea how these people found each other, but I imagined it was by way of a support network, propped up by people whose perspective on the worth of all human life included helping those fleeing misery for the embrace of American values.

Jesica noticed them first. The migrant woman’s children were approximately the same ages as our children at the time — about 10, 6 and 2. She grew anxious as she overheard their conversation. The caseworker was on the phone, trying to find a translator. In spite of the little English the migrant woman and her children knew, she made it understood that her husband had been murdered in the crossfire of gang violence, and her desperate and dangerous three-day sojourn north had culminated in the restaurant lounge, a few feet away from us, in the early dinner hour of a San Francisco evening.

I had been following the migrant crisis closely for months at that point, and I had even spent time reading about its origins and the historical relationship between Mexicans, Americans, and their shared border and cultural influences. It wasn’t until the Nixon administration that US border agents were given a mandate to enforce illegal immigration with zeal. Prior to that, border crossings were largely a seasonal migration into states like Arizona and California, to find work picking fruits and vegetables. Historically, the number of migrants who stayed in the US permanently was insignificantly low, since most preferred returning to their homes, families, and culture in Mexico, flush with US dollars from a few months of work most Americans didn’t want to do. When the new directive to indiscriminately enforce the border was put in place, the stakes for migrant workers became too high to freely go back and forth. Migrants began staying illegally in the US, where money equaled a future, and entire families followed suit. Taking one’s chances with US immigration agents became a necessary risk, born out of economic desperation. Added to this was increased violence and poverty in other parts of Central and South America, causing many thousands to flee. What had never historically been an issue was a defining crisis in the American 21st century. There, kitty corner to us in the hotel lounge, were the human faces of it.

“Trav, we have to do something” pleaded Jesica, alarmed by the situation.

I felt it, too. So I got up and walked to an ATM near the washrooms. I took out $200, folded the bills and walked to the table where the caseworker sat with the migrant family. I asked the caseworker if the family needed money. She seemed exasperated, as if the gesture about to be made was classic white guilt, laid bare for my sake, not theirs. I wondered how she might’ve seen me through the lens of her African American experience, shaped by a history of human bondage, prejudice, and prolific racism that kept black America oppressed for centuries. Did she hate me? Was this even about me? Or was she simply overwhelmed by the volume of people she helped at a pivotal stage in their journey? Maybe it was all of it. Maybe it was none of it. The caseworker motioned to the mother, who looked up at me as I pressed the wad of bills into her hand. She thanked me in Spanish and began to cry. I mumbled something about not worrying about it, that it was no trouble, and I walked back to our table. Jesica and I finished our meal without saying much of anything.

After dinner, we made our way through the hotel lobby, onto the street for a walk downtown. We saw the case worker on her phone, presumably reporting back to her colleagues about the status of the migrant mother and her children. When she finished her call, I approached her and asked what would happen to the family.

“Honestly, I have no idea. I connected them with another organization that will help them find shelter tonight. Beyond that, I don’t know what will happen to them.”

“Are they going to be OK? Will they be able to stay in the US?”

“Sir, I have no idea. I’m sorry.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?”

“I’m sorry sir, I don’t have an answer for you.”

With that, she turned and walked away from us, taking another call. Jesica and I watched as she disappeared into the crowd.

50 years after the Summer of Love, what had been achieved? What had we lost? What of the peace, progress, enlightenment, and love for one another the counterculture fought for? Here in the city of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin; here at the origin of the anti-war movement, the Human Be-In, free clinics, Aquarian expositions, and Eastern mysticism; at that moment, in a city celebrating its past as the counter-cultural flash point and its present as a sanctuary city, things felt bleak and not really worth celebrating. We had failed, miserably and collectively, to maintain the embrace of “love” and keep the national consciousness attuned to the plight of others.

Meanwhile, as Jesica and I stood downtown in the shadow of the new SalesForce Tower — the Mission Street obelisk, totemic of sales funnels, leads, conversions, and unfathomable profit, the likes of which had made us financially comfortable — a mother and her children, with $200 to their names, seeking only safety, security, and a fighting chance, entered anonymously and precariously into the unfolding narrative of a deeply troubled nation.

A voice in the wilderness.

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