Haight-Ashbury: The Ghost of Hippies Past

Posted: January 5, 2012 in Travel
Tags: , , ,

At last, I’m in a comfortable place.

Last weekend was intense. Many emotions, many discoveries; some pleasant, others jarring. San Francisco is not a good place to be on a night like New Year’s Eve. It’s a ravenous, spastically violent city that is unapologetically loud, and always seemingly on the verge of a total psychotic break. For someone who is usually a casual observer, it had quite a profound effect on the typical camoflauge I use when blending into new surroundings.

I have been to San Francisco many times. Growing up in Sacramento, it was pretty hard to avoid a weekend trip there with family or friends, just for a change of scenery if nothing else. Downtown has plenty to do and plenty to see — Union Square, the waterfront, Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 — but that just seems to be the disguise the city shows the tourists. There might be some lingering curiosity about places like Haight-Ashbury that still draws in some lingering interest from those familiar with its roots in the middle 60s, but any trace of true wonder that the once-iconic pillar of counterculture had is now gone.

It’s a sad sight to behold. Somewhere between the peaceful Hippie-fronted social upheavel of the 60s and the New Digital Frontier of the current millennium, Haight-Ashbury descended into a crime-ridden slum. None of the love, peace and feeling of unstoppable unity that once defined the district is present anymore. It’s now home to a host of street kids who prey on unsuspecting tourists like vultures circling a freshly-mauled bison carcass. They’ll pick your pocket while you’re busy taking a cell phone-camera picture of the “Haight Ashbury” street sign or hustle you for so much as asking for directions. The tye-dye patterns and head shops that were paramount to the area 40 years ago are still there, but they now only serve as a grave to what once was.

While my recent visit there was only a few hours long, I witnessed what would not have been tolerated there in its prime — a group of white street kids and turf-defensive Asians got into a full-on brawl in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, in full view of the public in broad daylight. There had been some tension brewing as I stepped out of the neighboring Amoeba Records, but I didn’t immediately think the situation was imminently exploding.

“You got a fucking problem?” asked the skinny Asian kid to the white teenage street kid. “What’re you doing, steppin’ to me?”

“Dude, fuck you,” said the white kid. “Get the hell away from me.”

There was a flash of more raised voices and scattered movement, and then the swinging started. The Asian chased the white kid while both were swinging and frantically grabbing at each other; neither clearly knowing how to fight. The white kid’s friends, who were standing at the bus stop we were waiting at, jumped in and managed to separate the combatants. A crowd of people stopped and watched, but nobody said anything. in a situation like that, there isn’t much anyone can do if two conflicting groups are involved. Some were shocked, some stood and gawked with morbid curiosity.

The two groups were eventually separated by members of both trying to maintain peace, but the damage had alreay been done. It was enough to fuel the fire of the white kid’s friends, who were suddenly crazy with bloodlust.

“Where the fuck are they going?!” shouted one of the dreadlocked white kids with a pit bull on a leash. The dog had gone almost hysterical during the exchange of blows, making ferocious sounds that you’d likely hear from behind a fence adorned with a “BEWARE OF DOG” sign.

“I don’t know, but we’re finding them. He fucked with me out of nowhere, and next thing I know, he’s swinging and I’m on the ground,” said the combatant.

With that, the troop of about six or seven white kids tromped off around the corner, in search of the offending Asian gang.

“Jesus…” whispered Kathryn, my friend I’d come to visit over the new year weekend. “We should really get out of here. I’ve had enough of this place.”

I agreed. This was not the Haight-Ashbury I had heard so much about. What was once a haven for those seeking freedom at 10 bucks a hit had been turned into a slum. It was a sad sight to behold.

Once the bus finally came, some of the street kids also jumped on board, bringing their mildly-infuriated pit bull with them. They appeared to have gone elsewhere, but that wasn’t the case after all.

They sat in the back, still talking angrily about “those wack-ass Asians” who had apparently instigated the earlier confict. My hope of escaping the situation and not having to hear about any of it wasn’t happening.

At the next stop, the bus driver turned around as more passengers were getting onboard, looked towards the back and said mightily, “GET THAT DOG OFF OF MY SEAT!”

“It’s a plastic seat,” said the owner. “Why the hell should I get my dog off of it?”

“Get your dog off the goddamn seat,” the bus driver repeated. “The hell you think you’re doing?”

“I don’t need to hear no bus driver authoritarian crap from you,” said the kid. “Fuck this.”

The dog had been moved to the floor, but that didn’t stop the owner and the group of kids from having an awkward cliche’ of a conversation about “the man bringing me down” and “this isn’t a democracy anymore, man.”

Those words were the closest thing to what I remember hearing about the “true” Haight Ashbury. But even those came across as immature and misguided. It was like the kids had a script they kept in their pockets, but hadn’t rehearsed it very much. Or as if they were trying to breathe life into a 40-year-old corpse.

Nobody is nice to each other here anymore. Even in the shadiest parts of Seattle, people are still usually decent to each other. There’s assholes anywhere, but for an area that once was a so-called hub of peace and understanding, this was quite a departure.

Haight-Ashbury can now be called The Hippie Graveyard.  It has cannibalized itself completely, and there is no end in sight. Maybe it started slowly, after the acid wave of the 60s dissolved and made way for “Just Say No” in the 80s. Or maybe it happened because the tourists became too curious and the locals were eventually driven out. Whenever it started, the results are there. I’d say visit for yourself, so you can see it with your own eyes….but I don’t recommend it.

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