When I came to San Francisco in 2004 the first place that I visited was the Haight-Ashbury district.
I have a lot of vivid memories from that trip, but none are from the Haight-Ashbury.
Still, nothing happened to deter me from holding the area in high esteem. In 2007, it was top of my agenda of places to visit. Even this year, with New Zealanders to show around, it was still well up on the list of San Francisco must-dos.
I've come to accept something about the Haight recently: it's a turkey.
It holds nothing but the rotting, unattractive carcass of the memory of the very counterculture that draws people in. There's about as much culture in the Haight as there is caffeine in the rinse water of a previously emptied pot of coffee.
It's Venice Beach, without the beach.
Granted, Haight-Ashbury's well-told cultural backstory is a doozy. In the 1960s it teemed with kids, hippies, intellectuals, artists and anarchists; it birthed the counterculture, flower power and all that sort of jazz. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin each lived there. Members of the Grateful Dead lived a few doors down from the Hells Angels.
As a young one the music was less of an appeal as witnessing the whole spectacle and scene of it. Books were a big factor in its pull for me. I preferred the new journalists to the beat generation that had based itself in North Beach across town in the 1950s; there'd be no Electric Kool Aid Acid Test without the Haight-Ashbury (even though the morality of that book always frustrated me), Hunter S. Thompson lived nearby as he researched and wrote Hells Angels.
Joan Didion's essay Slouching Toward Bethlehem, which I read and loved much later, points out probably rightly that the Haight-Ashbury in its heyday was a little anarchic and pointless. But even in her less than flattering words it still sounded as though it'd be quite a sight to take in.
Not any more.
LP and I went back there yesterday, just to make sure that I wasn't being unfair on it after my most recent visit.
We arrived at the entrance of Golden Gate Park at the bottom of Haight St. There was a group of almost a dozen homeless at the entrance to the park, sitting morosely. A pack of 10 more sat outside of the adjacent McDonald's, a bit too drunk and leery for 10.30am.
A Whole Foods supermarket and a chic café are open just off Haight St - probably to pull in the culturally discerning patrons of the area's only true highlight, Amoeba Records - suggesting at some coming gentrification.
Amoeba Records was shut when we arrived there. An earnest man had only just dropped a record player off outside its doors as a volunteer donation. He signalled to two passing men that this is there, gratis, and they should take it. Each was grubby from head to foot: one in tie-dye and the other a tattered, slightly menacing trenchcoat.
There was a sneer from one of them. "What am I going to do with that, plug it in?"
Moving up Haight St, there's a succession of messy, graffitied street murals, a series of Mexican eateries, pizza joints and greasy spoon cafés you wouldn't feel very at peace in, a whirl of junk stores, vintage clothes stores, stores hocking tie-dye, liquor stores and smoke shops.
A sign in the window of a smoke shop advertised that Jimi Hendrix used to live above it. I'm sure Hendrix would be pleased to know that it's now home to a wealth of drug paraphernalia, bad coffee mugs and thin, cheap flags.
There's a mural hanging in the window of another smoke shop, a few blocks down the road. It featured Barack Obama, a joint hanging out the side of his mouth, lighting a bong with the smoke blowing up and into John McCain's nose.
Has this sat unsold since 2008? Probably.
At the Haight-Ashbury corner, that of the famous Grateful Dead portrait, there's a store called RCVA, selling cheap clothes. It seemed like Supre crossed with Hallensteins. There're a couple of vintage clothing shops on that same intersection. One has a peace sign prominently in the doorway. But these shops are not exactly of the people, more of the 20-year old T-shirt for $30 variety.
More homeless were scattered up the street. Bad buskers channelled their best worst Joe Strummer impersonation. Groups of leather clad anarchists sat with small dogs. Some sat roadside smoking marijuana openly.
There were occasional moments of worthwhile shopping, but these can't hold Haight-Ashbury up.
So the Haight-Ashbury is a bust. Okay? San Francisco is replete with fun and beauty. Don't waste your time here.
But if you ignore my advice, I've designed a drinking game for you to make your time there at least a little entertaining. (You can apportion drinks, or points, or whatever.)
* ...encounter with a smoke-shop employee who moves with the certainty and conviction of a human koala bear.
* ...brooding, pretentious photographer taking a photo of something pointless.
* ...older rocker wearing a porkpie hat and a tatty band T-shirt, looking as hough he is currently/is about to/has been drinking.
* ...configuration of tourists wearing confused looks, as if to say, "Is this it? Is this all there is?"
* ...brazen pot smoker.
* ...tie-dyed or Hendrix-adorned T-shirt.
* ...homeless guy with a small dog.
Take a sip
Every time... you find yourself a little mortified that people are still gathered at the gravesite of the 1960s to commodify the essence of a cultural corpse.
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