Haight-Ashbury walking tour: A nostalgic trip
Back in the 1990’s, I lived in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the birthplace of the hippie movement and the epicenter of the Summer of Love.
When my daughter was born in 1992, I decided not to go back to work right away. Paying for childcare would have cost much of my take-home pay, so it just didn’t seem worth it. So for a few years I was a stay-at-home mom.
The problem with this was that I found it stultifyingly boring. Don’t get me wrong—I loved my beautiful little girl. It was just that kids that young aren’t exactly stimulating conversationalists.
So I started a small business at home. I had been studying geography at San Francisco State University until the fees went up too much, and had done a lot of research on my neighborhood, the Haight-Ashbury. So I decided to create a walking tour and market it to tourists.
After a slow start while I worked on publicizing it, my “Flower Power Haight-Ashbury Walking Tour” was moderately successful. By the time we moved away, it was making money, but that was largely because there was so little overhead involved. It didn’t earn enough to live on, but it brought in a little extra cash.
When we moved, I sold the tour to a local inn owner, and the tours have been going on ever since.
My daughter – now a grown woman – lives in San Francisco, and on one of my visits we decided to take the tour. It is still led by the guide I hired back then for the times I couldn’t do it myself: Stannous Flouride, a local artist and well-known denizen of the Haight.
Disclosure: I received this walking tour for free, but this isn’t a review. I wouldn’t be able to review it in an unbiased way!
Stan hasn’t changed a bit since I knew him, even down to the shorts he wears year-round. He welcomed us warmly and worked us into his spiel as well. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area, especially its hippie period.
Hearing his stories, my stories, my history, with more of his own mixed in, was a strange experience for me. This tour was my baby. I wrote it and planned it and delivered it myself.
I was the expert back then in everything about the history of that neighborhood. I even wrote a local history column for a neighborhood paper, now defunct.
Yet I remembered very little of it. As soon as he said each point, it came back to me, but just as a distant reminder: “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard that before.”
You hear people remark “That was another lifetime.” That is exactly what it felt like. In a past life I was a stay-at-home mom with a charming little girl with big eyes and a walking tour business to give my brain something to do. I don’t feel much connection to that life, except a certain nostalgia.
In this life, I still have the same husband, but I’m a travel blogger and ex-teacher. I’m the mother of one charming young woman who still has those big eyes, as well as one tall, sardonic and smart young man.
I’ve moved on, yet this vestige of my past life is still there, still going on without me. It’s strangely gratifying.
And the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood hasn’t changed a bit: the tie-dye is still there, in all its old glory, along with the tattoo places and head shops and all the other various alternative businesses. Grubby young kids with tattoos and piercings still wander the streets, alongside the homeless people – who look a lot like the kids, except perhaps a bit grubbier – and the tourists, who are mostly somewhat better dressed.
If you’re interesting in learning all things Haight-Ashbury, the tour, now called Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour, runs several times a week and will give you an entertaining overview of the neighborhood’s history. It’s worth it, if I do say so myself!
Have you ever experienced a flash-from-the-past like this before? Something that used to be so central to your life but that you barely remember? Tell us about it in a comment below!
Great to see something you created lives on still after all these years!
We did the area ourselves with a self guided tour, such a lovely part of what I think is a lovely city!
I love San Francisco! The Haight- Ashbury has some beautiful architecture and quirky shops, but it’s also pretty grungy at the same time. It’s a fascinating but not always comfortable mix. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Chris!
Glad you enjoyed your recent trip and was able to see how your baby (i.e. your tour) has evolved under new ownership over the last 20 years. It is very much a living thing, constantly changing as new information is discovered and some of the old less useful must be retired to prevent from becoming too lengthy. Keeps it fresh for guides and tourists alike. We are so excited to be bringing in Diana Graue, our newest guide, who will integrate various connections she has had with the 60’s alternative culture and other aspects of the Haight’s history. Although decades younger than the current guides, Diana is absolutely qualified to claim some hippie credentials in her own right. Was grateful Rachel that we had an opportunity to catch up a bit. Haight Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour lives!!
Thanks for the kind note, Pam! And good luck to your new guide!
One very late night in April of 2007, while dozing off while channel surfing for something of substance, I stumbled across a documentary on PBS, already in progress. Unaware of its title, the subject matter caught my interest…the 1960’s.
The b-roll and narration kept me from moving on to the next channel. The familiarity of the sights and sounds of the street life peeked my interest even more. Then, much to my surprise, there was Virginia, a dear family friend and neighbor, being interviewed (“60 Minutes” style). She was sharing her personal insight of what it was like to live in the Haight during those times! A perspective that is rarely shared from a true native. It was blast from the past!
Years later, my life partner and I were giving a friend (who had moved from Michigan to SF) a walking tour of the Haight. I stopped to point out a detail of Haight Street and reflect on its evolution from my perspective as I child in the 60’s. It was then, a stranger overheard my conversation and (much to my surprise) proceeded to contribute to the discussion. I was intrigued by this man’s knowledge, but assumed he was a transplant. I politely challenged his expertise by commenting that my family had a restaurant on Haight St. since 1916 (for 60 years) and my brother managed a popular flower shop across from the original site of Haight Theater. Surprisingly, he knew of my brother and was aware that his health had taken a turn for the worst in the late 80’s. A victim of the early days of the AIDS epidemic in SF.
The man introduced himself as Stannous Fluoride. What a small world. He would eventually asked me for my email address. A request I would generally be reluctant to give to any stranger. Well, I obliged and I’m so glad I met him that one and only day. Since then, I look forward to his historically rich, informative emails of my hometown. Although I don’t live there anymore, I do try to pay it forward. I’ve been giving tours of SF since the late 80’s, but very much like that of Stannous Fluoride…..with a personal touch! And of course, my old neighborhood, is one of the highlights, but I show them that there is more to the “Haight”, than just the five block stretch of Haight St. There’s a neighborhood rich with history that goes beyond the 60’s.
The old adage: “You can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy!” rings true.
Wow, John, thanks for sharing your story! It’s amazing how just one neighborhood can mean so much to so many people, and how that spirit still exists.
What a terrific post, Rachel! I’ve never spent time exploring this part of San Fran, but it certainly sounds like a fun tour! Walking tours where we have personal inflections incorporated into the narrative are the best!
Thanks, Doreen! I’m not much for tours in general, except walking tours. I don’t usually like group activities, but somehow walking tours manage to feel more personal, even when I don’t already have a connection to the place!
I love walking tours, and this one seems to have more character than most. Perhaps it’s the air of familiarity from your own personal experiences that brings it to a different light. Sounds like a lot of fun – if ever passing through I’ll be sure to join! 🙂
Both the tour and the neighborhood have more character than most! Thanks for commenting!
Must be a really nice feeling to see your “baby” keeping up after so many years!!!!
It is! Thanks!