This feature first appeared in Lonely Planet magazine in 2017

It’s been 50 years since the Summer of Love put San Francisco in the spotlight. But from organic farmers markets to open-air street parties, and a store where everything is free, the legacy of those golden days lives on across the Bay Area 

Set for San Francisco

DEEP INSIDE GOLDEN GATE PARK, the soundtrack of modern day San Francisco – the frenetic patter of laptops in techie-filled coffee shops, streets rolling with Uber traffic – seems far, far away. A more primal sound beats out near the Conservatory of Flowers, the park’s Victorian-era greenhouse. On this spot known colloquially as Hippie Hill, drum circles congregate in a fug of marijuana smoke most days. One afternoon, a lone musician is tapping out a rhythm on a homemade drum, fashioned from PVC piping and emblazoned with the words ‘Waste not, want not’. Reclining on the slope, he soaks up the last light, the golden Californian rays playing on his long hair and beard.

Fifty years ago, Golden Gate Park and the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood next to it became the epicentre for a movement that would change the world. The Summer of Love sprung up in 1967 like a field of wild flowers. Tens of thousands of young people from across America descended on this area of less than a square mile. Casting off the corseted fashions and attitudes of their hometowns, they came to embrace the liberated atmosphere. Sitting cross-legged and catatonic on the grass, or dancing and swaying, they listened to bands like Jefferson Airplane hold free open-air gigs in the park.

At the foot of Hippie Hill, the tree where Janis Joplin serenaded onlookers still stands. While much of today’s San Francisco would be unrecognisable to Janis, this area remains a time warp. A mint-green VW campervan pulls up next to the Conservatory of Flowers. Out steps local Mark Souza, wearing a ’60s rock band T-shirt and a velvet jacket, joined by his partner Michael Grauer and their four Australian Shepherd dogs. ‘We came to appreciate the dahlias and the sunset,’ says Mark. ‘We like to be free, and the van means we can hit the road – all six of us – whenever we like.’

A short amble away, Haight Street, lined with record stores and shops selling bongs, rock crystals and hand-dyed psychedelia, is similarly full of bohemian romantics. Holding a guitar in one hand, Kaveh Mahdavi is on his way to band practice when he stops for a smoke beside a mural to Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia. Kaveh used to work for IBM until, like so many generations before him, he dropped out and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco. ‘I was attracted to the neighbourhood because it’s a little weird around the edges,’ he says. ‘People talk about the energy of certain places. Something drew me here.’

The hippie dream was meant to have died with the Summer of Love. The promised paradise of free love and free thinking soon turned sour. Overrun by dropouts, Haight-Ashbury became a dystopic muddle of crime, drug addiction, sexual disease and disaffection. In October 1967, local activists even staged a mock funeral down Haight Street, pronouncing ‘The Death of the Hippie’. But half a century later, many of the hippies’ values, from respecting the environment to celebrating creative individuality, have seeped into the mainstream. And nowhere are these ideals more alive than in California’s Bay Area.

Back to Berkeley

WHEN SUMMER TURNED to autumn, most of the flower children returned to university or settled down in conventional jobs. But not everyone was ready to give up their newfound alternative lifestyles. Bob Bernstein was one of those who ended up on a commune in the Californian countryside. ‘They picked me up when I was hitchhiking and I’ve been there ever since,’ says Bob of Pomo Tierra, a collective north of San Francisco which he joined in 1971. ‘It was pretty wild. No-one had ever farmed before. We just knew we wanted out of the city.’ Nowadays Bob and his apples, juices and cider vinegars are a regular fixture at the Berkeley farmers’ markets, where he is known to many as ‘Bernie’, thanks to his resemblance to senator Bernie Sanders.

Just across the water from San Francisco, on the east side of the bay, Berkeley remains a bastion of counter-culture. During the ’60s, the university was at the heart of the anti-Vietnam-War protest movements, and many students never left town after graduating. There must be a higher percentage of proudly grey, longhaired citizens here than anywhere else in America. This is a place where holistic centres abut biofuel garages, bars serving kombucha fermented health drinks are more numerous than Starbucks, and groceries are carried conspicuously with canvas bags at the tri-weekly farmers’ markets.

At the Thursday market on Shattuck Avenue, locals are joined by out-of-towners, drawn by the promise of produce so good that North Berkeley has acquired the nickname ‘the Gourmet Ghetto’. Wiggly-shaped baby squashes, corn with the husks still on and peppers popping in reds, yellows, greens and purples form a tableau that is almost psychedelic in its explosion of colour and pattern. Still-warm loaves of spelt bread, Bernie’s apple juices and a stall selling raspberry-basil sorbet and brandied cherry ice-cream tempt shoppers. Baskets of plump peaches are so fragrant that they demand to be eaten right there and then.

Given that so many hippies stayed in Berkeley, it’s not surprising this became the crucible of the organic food revolution. ‘Living in Berkeley in the ’60s, there was this sense that we could change the world. Everyone knew someone who’d dropped out to join a commune and you just absorbed the understanding that we had to care for the land,’ says Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse. Since opening on Shattuck Avenue in 1971, the restaurant has been one of the earliest champions of local and sustainable food, pioneering now widespread practices, such as changing dishes daily according to what’s in season and naming producers on the menu. Gourmands from around the world continue to make the pilgrimage here, passing under the vine-trellised entrance into the small serving room, where warm wood and brass finishings give the appearance of a homely French-style brasserie. Dishes are seemingly simple – a wild salmon carpaccio, roasted lamb with green garlic – but when the provenance is this good, it’s best left unadorned.

Opposite Chez Panisse stands another Berkeley institution: the Cheese Board Collective. Founded the same year as the Summer of Love, the deli is a veritable library of cheddars, goudas, American jacks and goat’s cheeses. Inside, chalked blackboards announce seasonal specials, and a cow statue, clothed in multi-coloured crochet knit, stands guard. Next door, a pizzeria serves thin pies with toppings that change daily, but are always vegetarian, and a live jazz band keeps customers tapping their feet as they wait. What makes this place unique is the way it is run, as a co-op. All staff earn the same hourly wage, no matter how long they’ve been there, and decisions are made by the consensus of all 54 employees. ‘For customers who remember the ’60s, we’re a touchstone to that period of political action,’ says worker Cathy Goldsmith, as she carefully slices a wedge of gruyère.

Social consciousness is woven throughout the fabric of Berkeley. Its farmers’ markets, which would be the envy of wealthy communities everywhere, are accessible to those on lower incomes, thanks to food stamp programmes. In the poorer southwest area of town, the Spiral Gardens Community Farm is another example of trying to bring Eden to everyone. Kanchan Dawn Hunter is just visible among the luxuriant jungle of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. A scrum of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds are proof of the chemical-free policy here. ‘When my husband founded the gardens 14 years ago, this was a vacant lot surrounded by liquor stores. It was difficult for the neighbourhood to access fresh food,’ recalls Kanchan. Now, the project teaches locals to grow their own and distributes free produce to those in need. Visitors support the gardens by buying seeds, fruit and vegetables, while learning about native plants and sustainable growing practices from the volunteers. ‘It’s environmental justice in action,’ says Kanchan, looking the picture of an eco warrior with her straw hat and dreads braided with cowrie shells.

On to Oakland

BERKELEY HAS THE HIGHEST number of original hippies, but it’s in Oakland, San Francisco’s sister city in the East Bay, that the imaginative, youthful spirit of ’67 lives on. The founding place of the revolutionary African-American Black Panther Party, Oakland is still a vibrantly diverse place. And in recent decades, artists fleeing San Francisco’s rising rents have swelled the ranks of the city’s creatives. Scores of galleries now occupy Art Deco skyscrapers and former warehouses. Every other block is festooned with storeys-high murals, ranging from abstract patterns to Native American symbols, and a cheeky caricature of a grandmother listening to thrash metal. Art is everywhere in Oakland.

At Oakstop, a big-windowed gallery-slash-coworking space in the heart of uptown, founder Trevor Parham is chatting to his friend, Abba Yahudah. Behind them Abba’s canvases are a multicolour reimagining of his travels in Ethiopia, while in the next room a display on the Black Panthers is being hung. ‘I wanted to present local art in a non-pretentious way,’ says Trevor. Instead of the hushed environment that normally greets visitors in exhibition rooms, here there’s the background buzz of excited entrepreneurs swapping ideas by the coffee tables. In the studios downstairs, jewellery-makers work beside music producers and most days there’s a free event, from artist talks to film screenings. ‘It’s about creating a community,’ explains Trevor. ‘People are losing interest in corporate America. The ideas of the ’60s – the need for people to support each other as individuals – are coming back around.’

Across town at Free Oakland Up, Jocelyn Meggait has taken this to an extreme. Just as the Diggers collective did with their Free Store during the Summer of Love, Jocelyn has created a shop where nothing can be bought and everything is given away free. Old books and candlesticks, vases, napkin rings, and a suitcase filled with handwritten letters from the ’60s are among the treasures on offer. In the back corner resident artists can help themselves to free art supplies. At the end of their residency, the art is hung on the walls and also given away. ‘Everything has been donated. Anyone who comes in can take one free item a day,’ explains Jocelyn, looking like she’s stepped out of the ’60s in her flowing paisley trousers. ‘I want to show people that it’s wonderful to give a new life to things.’

A similar commitment to combatting throwaway culture prevails at Owl N Wood. In this emporium in uptown Oakland, vintage clothes and locally made products are laid out like a high-end concept store. ‘I believe in recycling old stuff. By being creative in the way you display, people see beauty in things they might not have thought they liked,’ says owner Rachel Konte, her Afro-Scandinavian curls scraped into a side braid. ‘He’s my inspiration,’ she says, gesturing to a portrait of Jimi Hendrix behind the till. ‘He’d mix up vintage military jackets with women’s floral shirts and it would work. There was such freedom of dress at that time.’

Like many of the city’s independent boutiques, Owl N Wood began life as a pop-up. Nearby, Oakland’s Koreatown Northgates neighbourhood is taken over one evening a month by an event dedicated to pop-ups. First Fridays sees five blocks colonised by local creatives. Among them are DeMarquis Holley, who gives shoes a graphic makeover with Sharpie pens, and Marisol Catchings, who sells handmade jewellery under the label Azteca Negra – a reference to her Black-Mexican heritage. Amid craft stalls are trucks selling food from po’ boy sandwiches and spicy tacos to steamed dumplings. A sake bar is fashioned with bamboo fencing and a smoky aroma wafts from the barbecue. Hundreds of Californians throng between them, stopping to watch breakdancers, poets and singers perform into the night. It’s an event that showcases the unique cultural mix of Oakland and evokes the open-air, open-to-all atmosphere of Golden Gate happenings during the Summer of Love.

Sundowners in Santa Cruz

BACK IN 1967, A TEENAGE FROSTY Hesson spent his summer alternating between listening to bands in Golden Gate Park and surfing the cold waters of neighbouring Ocean Beach. A few years later, along with many other young San Franciscans, he had drifted down to Santa Cruz, a classic Californian beach town to the south of the Bay Area. ‘You had hippies, students and surfers all mixing together, a bunch of non-conformists finding a way of life they enjoyed,’ recalls Frosty, standing on the dramatic headland at Steamer Lane, a renowned surfing spot. ‘There’s still a lot of radical thinking around here. Perhaps there’s something in the water,’ he says, as a classic campervan pulls up next to him, with a ‘Keep Santa Cruz weird’ sticker brandished on its bumper.

In the ocean below, a pod of younger surfers look like seals in their sleek wetsuits. Not far beyond them, an otter plays in the forest of kelp. A pelican swoops past and the barks of sea lions reverberate out from underneath the town wharf – signs that the decades-long clean-water campaign here is working to good effect. A short stroll away, the sandy sweep of Cowell Beach and vintage fairground rides on the boardwalk are beginning to fill with holidaymakers. At Steamer Lane, Frosty is soon joined by other silver-haired surfing legends who’ve been in town since the ’60s. One of them, Jane McKenzie, arrives on her bicycle carrying her long board. ‘You see those waves and feel humbled by an entity greater than you. It’s a certain kind of person who’s drawn here, ’ she says, looking out at the growing swell.

By late afternoon, the engorged tide is too enticing to resist. The old-timers slip into the water. On the cliff above, a circle has formed around a guitar player. Nearby a group of students are hula-hooping, their neon rings glinting in the setting sun. Here, at least, it seems summer might last forever.

First appeared in Lonely Planet Magazine in 2017.