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Change greets birthplace of hippie movement

There are signs of new times at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets, the San Francisco neighborhood that was the epicenter of the hippie movement in the 1960s.
Image: Haight Ashbury
San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district attracted thousands of hippies in the 1960s. More than 40 years later, hippies and non-conformists are outnumbered by middle-class shoppers, tourists and latte-sipping hipsters. Robyn Beck / AFP-Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

First, came a moratorium on the so-called head shops that sell pot-smoking paraphernalia. Then, neighbors turned out in force to support a new development that includes an upscale grocery store. And the local street fair banned open containers of alcohol.

There are signs of new times at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets, the neighborhood that was the epicenter of the hippie movement during the Summer of Love in 1967.

"It isn't drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll anymore," says longtime resident and neighborhood organizer Ted Loewenberg. "It's a different neighborhood."

Drugs and music have not disappeared entirely from the Haight, and judging by the baby strollers to be seen rolling along the sidewalks, sex has not gone out of style, either.

Still, you know this is not your father's Haight-Ashbury when one of the burning issues of the day involves whether a Whole Foods grocery store should move into the neighborhood.

"Haight-Ashbury is a wonderful, iconic place that wrestles with its past, present and future," says San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who lives in and represents the neighborhood.

A walk through the Haight illustrates his point.

'Death of the hippie'
Here are lovingly restored Victorian mansions, glorious with details accented with gold paint. Steps away is the slumbering form of a homeless man stretched out near the front steps of a public library. And, a "Tiny Tots" diaper-service van zipping up the street spells out the latest trend of the Haight — families.

On the main thoroughfare of Haight Street, wisps of the past are brought to life in gusts of patchouli oil wafting out of vintage clothing stores and vibrantly detailed murals painted on storefronts.

Interspersed along the street are more modern accents: bustling small grocers, upscale coffee shops and new retailers.

One of the newer stores on Haight Street is The Booksmith, an independent bookstore operated by husband-and-wife team Praveen Madan and Christin Evans.

More than two-thirds of Booksmith customers are locals who like browsing shelves that carry a wide range of titles. Naturally, there is a robust "counterculture" section. The rest come from all over the world, drawn by the lure of 1967, when thousands of young people came to San Francisco, with and without flowers in their hair.

It was not a long-lived moment. By fall, residents held a "death of the hippie" funeral.

But the legend proved hard to kill.

"The narrative of what happened in the '60s is so powerful people still come from all over the world, they come in here and want to know where the hippies are," says Madan. "Well, the hippies have been gone for 40 years."

‘It's a cool place to be’
On a recent sunny morning, 18-year-old Jacob Rivers sits at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets, trying to interest tourists in his geometrically detailed drawings.

Tanned and towheaded, he hails from a suburb of Minneapolis, drawn by something that happened years before his birth.

"We studied this stuff," he says. "It's a beautiful place. It's crazy to think of the legends that went down here, you know. Jerry Garcia. Jefferson Airplane. It's a cool place to be."

These days, there are fights, often at the city Planning Commission, over what to preserve and what to change to make the neighborhood more livable.

New neighbor: Whole Foods?
Take the proposal to bring in a Whole Foods Market as part of a mixed-use housing development on the site of a closed food store.

The Haight Ashbury Improvement Association supported the development. The Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, a group that traditionally has packed a powerful political punch, did not.

Calvin Welch of the council says he does not oppose a Whole Foods store per se, although he would prefer to see local grocers at the site. But he said the project as a whole, including the housing, was out of scale with the neighborhood and would have generated too much traffic.

The supporters, Welch said, are "emotionally, intellectually at war with the very nature of this neighborhood. They bring a certain suburban sensibility that everything should look like them, talk like them and be like them."

But Loewenberg, president of HAIA, says, "Nobody wants to have suburbia here. We just need to have a little bit more balance."

Holding on to an ambience
The project won approval from planning officials after supporters showed up at a key meeting with more than 100 people.

Since then, the proposed development has stalled due to the flagging economy but plans for a Whole Foods store are still alive, pending lease negotiations and city approvals.

Historian Joel Kotkin, author of "The City: A Global History," and a former resident of San Francisco, sees the fight over the heart of the Haight as quintessentially San Franciscan.

"San Francisco, in a weird way is the most conservative place in America," he says. "People went there for a particular ambiance and, even though it really is not what it was, they are desperate to hold on to it."