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What kind of community, upon what model? Hippies wore brilliant Mexican chalecos , Oriental robes, and red-Indian headdress. They dressed as cowboys. They dressed as frontiersmen. They dressed as Puritans. Doubtful who they were, trying on new clothes, how could they know where they were going until they saw what fit? They wore military insignia.
Among bracelets and bells they wore Nazi swastikas and the German Iron Cross, knowing, without knowing much more, that the swastika offended the Establishment, and no enemy of the Establishment could be all bad. They had been born, give or take a year or two, in the year of Hiroshima. Once the visual scene was ignored, almost the first point of interest about the hippies was that they were middle-class American children to the bone.
To citizens inclined to alarm this was the thing most maddening, that these were not Negroes disaffected by color or immigrants by strangeness but boys and girls with white skins from the right side of the economy in all-American cities and towns from Honolulu to Baltimore. Many hippies lived with the help of remittances from home, whose parents, so straight, so square, so seeming compliant, rejected, in fact, a great portion of that official American program rejected by the hippies in psychedelic script.
Even in arrest they found approval from their parents, who had taught them in years of civil rights and resistance to the war in Vietnam that authority was often questionable, sometimes despicable. George F. Babbitt, forty years before in Zenith, U. When hippies first came to San Francisco they were an isolated minority, mistrustful, turned inward by drugs, lacking acquaintance beyond themselves.
But they were spirited enough after all, to have fled from home, to have endured the discomforts of a cramped existence along Haight Street, proud enough to have endured the insults of the police, and alert enough to have identified the major calamities of their age.
They slowly became, in the word that seemed to cover it, polarized, distinct in division among themselves between, on one hand, weekend or summertime hippies, and on the other, hippies for whom the visual scene was an insubstantial substitute for genuine community. The most perceptive or advanced among the hippies then began to undertake the labor of community which could be accomplished only behind the scene, out of the eye of the camera, beyond the will of the quick reporter.
The Flowering of the Hippies
The visual scene was four blocks along on Haight Street. Haight Street itself was nineteen, extending east two miles from Golden Gate Park, through the visual scene, through a portion of the Negro district known as the Fillmore, past the former campus of San Francisco State College, and flowing at its terminus into Market Street, into the straight city, across the Bay Bridge, and into that wider United States whose values the hippies were testing, whose traditions were their own propulsion in spite of their denials, and whose future the hippies might yet affect in singular ways unimagined by either those States or those hippies.
From the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets it was three miles to Broadway and Columbus, heart of North Beach, where the Beats had gathered ten years before. The Haight-Ashbury district is a hundred square blocks of homes and parks.
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One of the parks is the Panhandle of Golden Gate, thrusting itself into the district, preserving, eight blocks long, a green and lovely relief unimpaired by prohibitions against free play by children or the free promenade of adults along its mall. Planted in pine, maple, redwood, and eucalyptus, its only serious resistance to natural things is a statue honoring William McKinley, but consigned to the farthest extremity, for which, in , Theodore Roosevelt broke the ground.
The Panhandle is the symbolic and spiritual center of the district, its stay against confusion.
On March 28, , after a struggle of several years—and by a single vote of the San Francisco Supervisors—the residents of the Haight-Ashbury district were able to rescue the Panhandle from the bulldozer, which would have replaced it with a freeway assisting commuters to save six minutes between downtown and the Golden Gate Bridge.
One of the effects of the victory of the bulldozer would have been the obliteration of low-cost housing adjacent to the Panhandle, and therefore the disappearance of poorer people from the district. But the people of the Haight-Ashbury failed of enthusiasm. The Haight-Ashbury—to give it its San Francisco sound—had long been a favorite residential area for persons of liberal disposition in many occupations, in business, labor, the arts, the professions, and academic life.
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It had been equally hospitable to avant-garde expression, to racial diversity, and to the Okies and Arkies who came after World War II. Its polyglot population estimated at 30,, was predominantly white, but it included Negroes and Orientals in sizable numbers and general distribution, and immigrants of many nations. Here William Saroyan and Erskine Caldwell had lived.
Here they could prove to anyone who cared, and especially to their children, the possibilities of racial integration. The Haight-Ashbury was the only neighborhood in the nation, as far as I know, to send its own delegation—one white man, one Negro woman—to the civil rights March in Washington in Wealth and comfort ascended with the hills, in the southern portion of the district.
In the low, flat streets near the Panhandle, where the hippies lived, the residents were poorer, darker, and more likely to be of foreign extraction. There, too, students and young artists lived, and numbers of white families who had chosen the perils of integration above the loss of their proximity to the Panhandle.
With the threat of the freeway many families had moved away and many stores had become vacant, and when the threat had passed, a vacuum remained. The hippies came, lured by availability, low rents, low prices, and the spirit of historic openness. The prevailing weather was good in a city when weather varied with the contours of hills. Here a hippie might live barefoot most of the months of the year, lounge in sunswept doorways slightly out of the wind, and be fairly certain that politic liberals, bedeviled Negroes, and propertyless whites were more likely than neighbors elsewhere to admit him to community.
The mood of the Haight-Ashbury ranged from occasional opposition to the hippies to serene indifference, to tolerance, to interest, and to delight. As trouble increased between hippies and police, and as alarm increased elsewhere in the city, the Haight-Ashbury kept its head. It valued the passions of the young, especially when the young were, as hippies were, nonviolent. No doubt, at least among liberals, it saw something of its own earlier life in the lives of hippies. Last March the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council, formed in to meet a crisis similar to the Panhandle controversy, committed itself to a policy of extended patience.
The chief has not distinguished among the many kinds of citizens who comprise the hippie culture.
We remember that regrettable history of officially condoned crusades against the Chinese population of San Francisco whose life style did not meet with the approval of the established community and whose lives and property were objects of terrorism and persecution. If any neighborhood in America was prepared to accomodate the hippies, it was the Haight-Ashbury.
On the heights and on the level rich and poor were by and large secure, open, liberal, pro-civil-rights, and in high proportion anti-war. Its U. Here the hippies might gain time to shape their message and translate to coherence the confusion of the visual scene.
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If hippies were unable to make, of all scenes, the Haight-Ashbury scene, then there was something wrong with them. The principle distinction between the hippies and every other endeavor in utopian community was LSD, which concentrated upon the liver, produced chemical change in the body, and thereby affected the brain.
Whether LSD produced physical harm remained an argument, but its most ardent advocates and users not always the same persons never denied its potentially dangerous emotional effects. Among the hippies of San Francisco, LSD precipitated suicide and other forms of self-destructive or antisocial behavior.
For some hippies it produced little or nothing, and was a disappointment. It could be manufactured in large quantities by simple processes, like gin in a bathtub, easily carried about, and easily retained without detection. In liquid it was odorless and colorless; in powder it was minute. More far-reaching than liquor, quicker for insights than college or psychiatry, the pure and instant magic of LSD appeared for an interesting moment to capture the mind of the hippies. Everybody loved a panacea. They therefore attached to the mystique of LSD the conviction that by opening their minds to chemical visions they were gaining insights from which society soon should profit.
Hippies themselves might have profited, as anyone might, from LSD in a clinical environment, but the direction of their confidence lay elsewhere, and they placed themselves beneath the supervision mainly of other hippies. Dialogue was confined among themselves, no light was shed upon the meaning of their visions, and their preoccupation became LSD itself—what it did to them last time, and what it might do next.