This post is scheduled to be published when I am a tourist in Alaska, a state where half of the population was not born there and which also has a very tourist-driven economy. I find that ironic.
I first heard the song the song “1999” by Charli XCX when I was inside a store on Haight Street. I heard the lyrics “I just wanna go back / Back to 1999 / Take a ride to my old neighborhood.”
I took a look around me. I was in a store which I had almost certainly visited in the year 1999. And the decor had not changed at all since 1999 (at least they were playing a new song – some stores on Haight Street play the same songs from the 1960s over and over again). If you had shown me a picture of that store taken in 1999 and taken in 2019, I would not be able to tell which was which. Of all of the places in the world, this was one of the easiest places for me to imagine that I had gone back to the year 1999.
I didn’t need to ‘take a ride’ to go back ‘to my old neighborhood’. I was already there.
Most people do not associate Haight Street with the year 1999. Nope, the year which most people attach to the Upper Haight is 1967 – “the Summer of Love.” For DECADES, tourists have been coming to Haight Street to indulge in the dream of JUST ONE SUMMER. A summer that I have no memories of because I had not even been born.
We are economically dependent on the tourists who spend money on Haight Street. Yes, I use the pronoun ‘we’. The fortunes of Haight Street actually do influence my household’s income, though we are not nearly as dependent as some our neighboring households.
And what drives the economy of Haight Street? Tourism. What brings the tourists? The legend of 1967.
Growing up in the Upper Haight, around people who depend on tourism in the Upper Haight, tourism based on a historic legend, feels just a little bit like being told for your whole life that all the significant events happened before you were born, and that your purpose is to put on a pageant recalling those events.
I’m calling it ‘the Upper Haight’ because that is my preferred name for this neighborhood in San Francisco. Many people call it ‘the Haight-Ashbury’ because it contains the famous intersection of Haight Street and Ashbury Street. And yes, there is also a neighborhood called ‘the Lower Haight’.
While working on this post, I typed in ‘Haight Street’ on YouTube to see what would come up. I watched three of the videos: “The Haight Street Kids”, “Thrifting at Haight Street, San Fransico // Why I Thrift”, and “HAIGHT ASHBURY SAN FRANCISCO | Hippie History, Shopping & Tour”. In all of these videos, I was looking at the background so I could place the shots onto my mental map of Haight Street, and to see what places were around when these videos were shot. And as these videos were showing various spots on Haight Street, I would think thinks like ‘my Dad likes to eat lunch there,’ ‘I remember, back when I was twelve years old, I went into that store with [person] and I saw them do X,’ ‘I graduated from the same elementary school, middle school, and high school as the daughter of the owner of the store that this video is talking about right now.’ I sometimes was more interested in the background than whatever the narrator was focusing on. And yes, I disagree with some comments made in these videos.
Speaking of YouTube, this short film which used to be played before every feature at the Red Vic Movie House is 100% authentic Haight Street Nostalgia. Goodness, it’s probably been about ten years since the last time I saw that short film.
I was planning to make this a multi-part post and go into a lot of detail about the history of the Upper Haight, and to describe some aspects of the current community, and illustrate how this neighborhood has a tendency to try to preserve the past and avoid looking towards the future (which is ironic, since I think the hippies of the 1960s wanted the exact opposite). I was planning to talk about the old streetcar line, the 1906 earthquake & fire, the freeway revolt, and the AIDS crisis. All of that matters, but I think if I went into all of those details, the main points of this post would drown and be lost on some readers. Though if I did go into all of those details, it would prove the point that I am also enthralled by Haight Street’s past and cannot imagine that it even has a future, let alone what that future might look like.
I spent a lot of time on Haight Street roughly around age 8 thru 18. I went to Haight Street even younger than that, but only when my parents were bringing me along for whatever they planned, age 8 was around the time I started initiating trips to Haight Street. I have hella memories (and I used the word ‘hella’ more often then than I do nowadays). I have many memories of businesses which are long gone.
Just after I returned to San Francisco, I was rather put off by Haight Street. I had not been there for years, and it felt like too much of ‘my’ Haight Street was gone.
That changed when I started going to a meetup in the Lower Haight (I have a lot less nostalgia/memories/attachments around the Lower Haight). In order to go to the Lower Haight, I pass through the Upper Haight. I grew used to Haight Street as it is now, and I discovered some new businesses (both businesses which are literally new and old businesses which I simply was not interested in before). And yet I still feel like Haight Street is haunted by the ghost of how it was when I was a teenager, a magical era which will never come back.
Just because my ‘magical era’ of Haight Street was not in the 1960s does not mean that my own thought patterns are much different from many of the people in the neighborhood who were here in 1967 and are still here.
As I went through the KonMari process, I handled a lot of items which I had acquired in the Upper Haight or were otherwise attached to the neighborhood, at least in my mind. When I was letting go of some of the items from my ‘magical era’ of Haight Street, I was also letting go just a little of my attachment to how the Upper Haight was in my memories.
And then, once I decided what I was going to keep, there were all of the things I was not going to keep. Oh how I wished the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council Recyling Center were still open; it would have made dealing with cardboard boxes so much easier. And the used bookstore I used to love, Forever After Books, is long gone (I guess they were not ‘forever after’ after all). But Haight Street still has a Goodwill and multiple secondhand stores which buy clothes, CDs, DVDs, etc. I’m not aware of any little free libraries on Haight Street itself, but there are multiple little free libraries in Cole Valley (a neighborhood adjacent to the Upper Haight).
Yep, a lot of the stuff I decided to get out of my home ended up in the Upper Haight (or Cole Valley).
And because I was bringing stuff to these places, I also saw what they were offering, and, ummm, bringing some of the stuff home. I just looked in my closet, and counted eight articles of clothing which I bought at various secondhand stores on Haight Street while I was doing the KonMari thing. Who knows, maybe those articles of clothing reached the secondhand shops because the previous owners were also doing the KonMari thing.
I remember overhearing some employees at a secondhand clothing shop talk about how popular Marie Kondo’s Netflix show is. They had not seen it themselves or read the books, but they thought it was a good thing that so many new people were coming into their story because after they sell their clothing they often buy clothing too. One of the employees also expressed interest in learning more about the KonMari method and maybe trying it herself.
And through the KonMari process, whether I was thinking about my memories of Haight Street, or bringing stuff to Haight Street, or choosing to bring stuff from Haight Street home with me, I found that I was renewing my relationship with the Upper Haight.
Whether or not Marie Kondo is ‘really’ a minimalist, her ideas are often associated with minimalism, and avoiding mindless consumption.
And yet this mindless consumption is the lifeblood of many businesses on Haight Street. How can I advocate ‘don’t buy anything unless you really need it or really love it, wasteful consumption is bad for you and the environment’ when I fear that if people actually put this advice into practice it would cause some of my neighbors to lose their livelihoods?
That said, most of the people I know who have an income tied to Haight Street don’t just want to make money; they want to believe they are adding value to their lives of their customers/patrons/clients/etc. I know of cases where someone preferred to lose some income rather than continue to supply something which they did not think was beneficial to whoever would be paying for it.
There are also many people who are pursuing their passions through their jobs and businesses on Haight Street. For example, many of the vintage shops are run by people who are really into vintage clothing, and it is not unusual to walk into some of those shops and see an employee/owner dressed like they were living in the 1920s. They need enough money to cover their needs, but they are also doing a labor of love.
I guess the question is: how can we meet our economic needs without encouraging people to engage in wasteful materialism?
The secondhand shops do sell goods in a way which has a gentler impact on the environment and customers’ wallets (okay, expensive vintage goods are not gentle on the wallet). Conserving the past and conserving the environment are both forms of conservation. Maybe conserving history and resources IS the future of Haight Street which has been here all along in plain sight. Maybe in the 2030s we will all dress like the 1930s.
This elementary school is on Haight Street. It has only been ‘Chinese Immersion School’ since 2009, but there has been an elementary school in this location for over a hundred years (in fact, this building survived the 1906 Earthquake & Fire).
The students at this school do not remember how the Upper Haight used to be. They only have the most shallow awareness of the neighborhood’s history. They just see the way the Upper Haight is now.
The students who stick around the neighborhood as they grow up will, for better or worse, be the future of the Upper Haight. Maybe in the future the Upper Haight becomes yet another neighborhood in San Francisco where Chinese is widely spoken.
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