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View from the USA: Flower Power

San Francisco's Summer of Love wasn't only a great party. The hippies behind the movement did more than just dream of change — they became it

By Aaron Millar
Published 24 Aug 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 10:41 BST

Fifty years ago this summer there was a revolution brewing in San Francisco. Protests against the Vietnam War were accelerating, the civil rights movement was on the cusp of radical change and LSD guru Timothy Leary had just told an entire generation to "turn on, tune in, drop out". It was a good time to be young.

But it was in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco — a small enclave of artists, activists and musicians, who'd been living in a kind of hippy utopia for most of the Sixties — that it all came together in a spontaneous uprising of youth culture unlike anything the world had ever seen. 

It started with the Human Be-In, a Haight community celebration of '60s values, held in Golden Gate Park on 14 January 1967. What was supposed to be a small 'gathering of the tribes' suddenly exploded into a full-on festival in the streets. The media picked up on it, hippy went mainstream and by the time summer came around, San Francisco was flooded with around 100,000 young people, all with flowers in their hair, and all looking to become 'experienced' with psychedelics, free love and acid-fuelled rock 'n' roll. They called it the Summer of Love.

But I missed it. I've always been convinced I was born in the wrong era. Knocking on the door of 40, as I am, I grew up surrounded by wide-eyed ravers blowing whistles and making shapes (big fish, little fish, cardboard box anyone?). They wore baggy jeans and white trainers; I grew my hair and wore flares. But it wasn't just the great tunes and freedom I was after, it was the purpose. 

The Summer of Love was more than just a party — it was about changing the status quo, dreaming up a new way of relating to the world. The idea was to create an entirely new kind of society, one that was more compassionate, open-minded and free; and then living it. It worked too: the environmental movement, the women's movement, alternative medicine, alternative spirituality, all first took root on the streets of Haight-Ashbury. I grew up in an age of apathy and distraction; what I wanted was the empowerment and hope of the '60s. I wanted revolution.

Perhaps I'm not too late. Historian Dennis McNally, the curator of the California Historical Society's current On the Road to the Summer of Love exhibition, says: "The issues raised by the Summer of Love are at the exact root of the culture wars going on in America today." The country — and increasingly, the world — is divided along lines drawn in the sand at Haight-Ashbury. Half a century on, that fight, that dream continues. 

That's what makes this anniversary so important. Grace Slick, lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, whose song White Rabbit was the anthem of that summer, says: "I think of the Summer of Love as a kind of talisman, a reminder of our own possibilities and the future we're trying to build. That's how it changes the world."

But perhaps it's more than that. I recently interviewed actor Peter Coyote, who was at that time a member of San Francisco anarchist theatre group the Diggers. The secret of the Summer of Love's enduring power, he believes, is that they didn't talk about building a better world, they lived it. "I would rather make a sandwich myself," he said, "and give it to a homeless person than I would make a speech about hunger to a thousand people. Making the sandwich is behaviour that can be modelled. Someone can see it and copy it. It's very easy to have ideas. It's very easy to get indignant. But unless you put your beliefs into action, unless you concretise them — however modestly — you're just blowing hot air into the universe." 

The Summer of Love worked because they didn't just dream of change, they became it.

Fifty years ago, revolution was in the air, and perhaps it is again now. But the Summer of Love reminds us that change happens not just by raging against what is wrong, but also by shining a light on something new. No clicks. No shares. No fake news. Just imagine a better world and live it. The future is watching. The music's getting good again. Maybe it's time for the next Summer of Love.

Follow @AaronMWriter

Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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