“Haight Street was not a good place to be,” Mitch Maycox, a San Francisco college student in 1967, says about the Summer of Love. “The police were stretched so thin, because of the influx: the crime, the drugs, all of that stuff. A lot of things slipped through the cracks because so much was going on.”
For many, the Summer of Love inspires visions of hippies laughing as they strolled arm-in-arm through Haight-Ashbury, flowers in their hair, joints in hand, Jefferson Airplane playing in the background. Such activities certainly took place, but 1967 saw more than just love and peace. Police clashed with the community, city officials condemned the hippie movement, STDs were rampant, and drug overdoses and murders were not uncommon.
At the time, the newspaper, TV and radio reporters happily covered politicians’ outrage and the social carnage, but present-day media has largely chosen to focus on the shiny, happier sides of the hippie gathering. To dive into the complexities of the rampant addiction, sexual diseases, murders, and authorities’ crackdowns on the hippie movement would mar S.F.’s role in the colorful historic summer. It’s much easier and less controversial to publish stories celebrating the Beat poets, musicians, and anti-Vietnam war activists of the era than it is to track the violent police responses to demonstrators, the overdosing runaway teenagers, and a police force that couldn’t control the chaos.
The Summer of Love has been tidied up and neatly wrapped in a tie-dye package. But ask anyone who was there, and they’ll more than likely have a story of the era’s dark underbelly.
Maycox was one of them. In 1967, he spent much of his time in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, where students from S.F. State or the University of San Francisco rented out whole blocks of houses with their friends.
“People bought up properties because it was a blighted neighborhood,” he says. “Rents were cheap. It was all artists, musicians, social activists. Most of the people were activists.”
But that changed with the influx of hippies. On Jan. 14, 1967, 30,000 people took over Golden Gate Park’s Polo Fields for the Human Be-In, fueling a nationwide impression that the hippie movement’s home was San Francisco.
The Department of Public Health took a stance on the situation just two months later, when authorities estimated that there were “4,000 hippies” in the city. A team of health inspectors was deployed to the neighborhood. Clinics were full of people suffering from STDs, the result of a general lack of public sex education among teenagers who’d fled their middle-class homes, and the frequent use of drugs.
“There was a lot of drug use, group sex, communal sex,” says Dr. David Smith, founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. “It would be an understatement to say there was a spike in STDs. That’s like saying a hurricane is a strong wind.”
In a March 1967 interview with the Chronicle, the city’s health director, Dr. Ellis Sox, did not mince words, comparing the influx of hippies to an apocalypse: “These people are creating the slums they live in,” he said. “Most poor people forced to live in poor housing at least try to keep clean, but here we have young people of good education and background who are creating a slum. When water is shut off from failure to pay the bill, toilets are not being used. Garbage is thrown around, and this attracts flies and rats. Bubonic plague is carried by rats on fleas, and it is not impossible there might be an outbreak of epidemic meningitis.”
By June, the number of people visiting the Haight was predicted to be close to 100,000. For context — that’s more than an entire day’s worth of Outside Lands attendees, squished into one neighborhood. Every spare couch was filled, runaways huddled in doorways at night, and school buses converted into mobile homes lined the Panhandle along Oak and Fell streets. “They were living on the streets, or renting a place, half a dozen people to a room,” Maycox remembers. “That’s when it really changed.”
A New York Times employee who went by the name “Ms. Elizabeth” also recalled that the tone evolved throughout the summer. “At first, it was really very happy,” she said. “There were so many ‘be-ins’ and marches and free music. Organized crime got the Hell’s Angels involved. There was an influx of young runaways, many from well-to-do families. They were expecting a city of love and found a city like any other city, and a lot of them ended up being prostitutes.”
Maycox confirms this. “Some people came here just to prey on the younger folks,” he says. “They’d rob them. A lot of young girls would end up as prostitutes. Some of the pimps from the Fillmore would come recruit people These were young kids; 15, 16, 17. What surprised me was how fast that happened.”
Runaway teens drew cops to the neighborhood, as frantic parents across the country tried to track them down. Soon, even the Diggers, a radical activist group, were rejecting people under 18 from their community houses, out of fear cops would raid them and find drugs. Signs went up in windows saying the underage weren’t welcome.
Running away was a crime, and those who were caught were tossed in the Youth Guidance Center, a juvenile-delinquent center on Twin Peaks with bars on the windows. It quickly reached capacity, with cots filled up and teenagers forced to sleep on the floor.
Deveron, a 13-year-old girl, described the scene in a September 1967 letter to Reverend Larry Beggs, the founder of Huckleberry Home for Runaways.
“The rooms are steaming hot 24-hours a day,” she said. “The windows are half an inch thick and through the tiny crack at the top you can maybe see a few lights at night outside the barbed wire. There are no people there. Only animals. If it wasn’t time to be let out they had to wet their floors. The only sounds are ‘Be quiet!’ and the sound of rattling trays and doors and keys.”
Amid the plethora of sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution, and city-supported child abuse, hospitals were overloaded with hippies overdosing on drugs. In his city-history book Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love, David Talbot writes that “when high-flying kids were brought to General Hospital … they were dumped across the street at Mission Emergency Hospital, where they were thrown in with alcoholics or gunshot victims, or locked in padded isolation cells. What began as a mildly bad trip could erupt into full-blown psychosis by the time a hallucinating patient made his way through the city’s harrowing public-health labyrinth.”
By October, tens of thousands of hippies who’d migrated to San Francisco for the summer had left. Many returned to college to finish their degrees, others were drafted into the Vietnam War. A “funeral” marking the death of the hippie movement was held to signify the official end of the summer. “We wanted to signal that this was the end of it, to stay where you are, bring the revolution to where you live and don’t come here, because it’s over and done with,” organizer Mary Kasper said in a public statement after the funeral took place.
But while the masses vacated, the neighborhood retained some of the damage the Summer of Love had inflicted. Veterans returning from the war became hooked on hard drugs, which were readily available on street corners. Janis Joplin, who’d become well-known after an appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, drank herself to death only three years later. And as the haze of pot smoke left the Haight, Charles Manson packed his family into a bus and proceeded to murder at least seven people.
It’s easier to memorialize the fun, peace-loving, happy Summer of Love than its darker partner. But remember: That which glitters is not always gold.
Check out more stories from this week’s cover story here:
Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll ’67: The Hippie Temptation
Fifty years ago this month, Harry Reasoner and CBS tried to scare kids away from drugs. It didn’t quite work.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll ’67: The Bad End of the Summer of Love
By Labor Day 1967, a pair of horrifying drug dealer murders made the Haight too violent for even Charles Manson.