“We hold these experiences to be self-evident, that all is equal, that the creation endows us with certain inalienable rights, that among these are: the freedom of body, the pursuit of joy, and the expansion of consciousness and that, to secure these rights, we the citizens of the earth declare our love and compassion for all conflicting hate-carrying men and women of the world.”
– A Prophecy of a Declaration of Independence, published anonymously, 1967
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE “Summer of Love,” airing Monday, April 23, at 8 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7, presents a striking picture of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district during the summer of 1967 — from the utopian beginnings, when peace and love prevailed, to the chaos, unsanitary conditions and widespread drug use that ultimately signaled the end. Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco (“Daughter from Danang”) examine the social and cultural forces that sparked the largest migration of young people in America’s history.
“Many of these idealistic youth were products of the 1950s, with its confusing mix of post-war affluence and the threat of nuclear annihilation,” says Dolgin. “San Francisco, in 1967, seemed like mecca, the center of a visionary new society — one that rejected war, hatred, conformity and money. The Haight-Ashbury, for a brief period, was the playing field for a new way of life.”
“Everybody had a different entrance point,” explains San Francisco music critic Joel Selvin. “Some people came in because of the sexual liberation prospect. Some people came in because of the appeal of the music. Some people came in because they were angry and scared about the draft and the war. But once you were in that vortex, once you were in that swirling miasma of social and personal change, all the doors were open.”
“Thousands of kids were ready to go through those doors and find out what was on the other side,” says Franco. “The cliché of ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll,’ often used to describe the Summer of Love, misses some of the more profound new horizons being explored. Love, personal growth, mysticism, community and authenticity were at the core of the experimental society.”
In January 1967, the thousands of young people already in San Francisco descended on Golden Gate Park for a “Human Be-In.” The media flocked to the event, putting hippies in the national spotlight for the first time. And once the press offered a window into the world of Haight-Ashbury, even more young people flooded in. “The city of San Francisco has been warned of a hippie invasion, come summer, in numbers almost too staggering to comprehend,” declared one TV news reporter.
The new arrivals were looking to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” the popular refrain that invited people to an existential experience courtesy of LSD. “We really thought that drugs were going to change the world,” recalls Mary Kasper, who was in the Haight from the start of the movement. “We thought if you turned on, if you took acid, you would really change, because we had changed from those experiences of cosmic oneness.”
San Francisco was fast becoming an outdoor society, where free music was as readily available as free love. The Grateful Dead became the poster children for a generation, offering free concerts to anyone who wanted to listen. The music coming out of Haight-Ashbury only served to draw more young people to the movement. One hit song beckoned the young and the curious, and became an anthem for the time: “If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).”
But along with free music, free love and “cosmic oneness,” the onslaught of people also brought a lack of housing, shortage of food, rampant drug problems and sexually transmitted diseases. Free clinics and soup kitchens served the massive population, estimated from 50,000 to 100,000 at its peak.
The Haight soon became a caricature of its idealistic beginnings, as shops catered to souvenir-hungry tourists and weekend hippies. College students with no intention of “dropping out” took on hippie personas for the summer. Hundreds of young runaways wandered the streets aimlessly. For many, the center of the counterculture no longer seemed a shimmering wonderland. By fall, the numbers began to drop as precipitously as they had grown.
“The Summer of Love” was a fleeting moment in the turbulent history of the 1960s, but its underlying message left an indelible impression on those who witnessed it. “So many of those things from that time have stayed with me, certainly the importance of community,” says Kasper. “I thought we could change the world and I thought we could make it a better place. And I think in some ways we succeeded.”
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE “Summer of Love” airs Monday, April 23, at 8 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7.
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