The year 1967 was designated the “Summer of Love” when somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 youth flooded 25 blocks in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Beforehand, the neighborhood was home to a small community of “hip” residents interested in art, music, theatre, and literature. Afterward, it was known worldwide as the center of countercultural activities. For many, the Summer of Love calls to mind an ambitious attempt at cultural revolution when America’s youth championed values like peace, love, and freedom of expression.
Fifty years later, that utopian vision of the Summer of Love prevails. But underground papers like those in Reveal Digital’s Independent Voices Collection testify to the dark underbelly of that fateful season. The June 23 edition of the Berkeley Barb, for instance, includes an advertisement for the Berkeley PROVOS, a group of people who intended to help deal with the influx of people into the area. Although embracing the spirit of the Summer of Love, the article amounts to a plea for help. It reads, “We still need food, clothes, places to stay, beds, sheets, soap, blankets, coat hangers and HELP.”
In fact, the hippie demonstrations and the publicization of hippie culture that coalesced in the Summer of Love were met with controversy rather than acceptance. Even the participants varied in what they understood the meaning of the event to be. They knew something was happening, but it was hardly the simple introduction of peace and love to American culture.
The Role of Mass Media
For many in the counterculture, the Summer of Love was an accident precipitated by the widespread consumption of music, television, and magazines. Songs, programs, and articles began documenting the activities of the countercultural community in the Haight-Ashbury district with the advent of the Human Be-In. According to Chet Helms, after the Human Be-In, a relatively small group of counterculturally minded people in the Haight issued an invitation for young people to come to San Francisco. They formed a council that they called the “Council of the Summer of Love” and attempted to organize summer activities in Golden Gate Park.
Articles on the “new” hippie lifestyle appeared in magazines like the New Yorker, and the hit song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” cemented the idea that something was going to happen in San Francisco in the summer of 1967. By most accounts, the arrival of so many young people was more an accident of popular culture than the result of any planning performed by the council.
As the Summer of Love progressed, it became increasingly clear to many committed participants in the community that the Summer of Love, and the idea of a “hippie,” was being defined by the media more than anything else. Many in the counterculture became deeply suspicious and then hostile toward what they considered “the media,” by which they meant photographers, magazine and daily newspaper reporters, and documentarians. Columnist Joan Didion recalls being labeled a “media poisoner” by countercultural leaders who were part of a group known as the Diggers.
Jef[f] Jassen of the Berkeley Barb writes nostalgically of the Haight-Ashbury district before the Summer of Love: “Nowhere was a camera visible.” Perhaps the event that highlights most clearly the role of the media in relation to the Summer of Love is the “Death of the Hippie Parade,” which was meant to conclude the Summer of Love. The event, documented in underground papers like the Berkeley Barb, included a funeral procession that marched through the Haight-Ashbury district, participants carrying a coffin filled with symbols of hippies: beads, mandalas, hair. A funeral notice was passed around the neighborhood that read, “Funeral Notice / HIPPIE / In the Haight Ashbury District of this city, Hippie, devoted son of Mass Media…” The demonstration was meant to call attention to the role that the media had played in creating a hippie stereotype and to replace the image with that of a “free man.” Jassen quipped,
I didn’t appoint the Chronicle to label me a ‘hippie.’ Similarly, I didn’t appoint the Oracle, Happening House, the Diggers, or anyone else to free me from whatever plastic coating society is trying to seal me in. If precious time has to be spent now to release people from the name of ‘hippie’ then I can only wonder about those same people who spent countless hours telling me that there is no such thing as a ‘hippie’.
Jassen’s comment reveals disdain for mass media, but also disagreements within the countercultural community over the significance of the idea of a hippie.
The media, as imagined by countercultural participants in the Haight, not only played a role in the creation of the Summer of Love, it also came to be one of its primary targets of criticism. Underground papers offer a valuable resource for examining the evolving and ambivalent relationship between participants in the counterculture and mass media. For those interested in the cultural effects of media, the Summer of Love is ripe fruit.
Countercultural disdain toward the media was complicated by another countercultural trend that participants in the counterculture were developing: guerrilla theatre. During the Summer of Love, the San Francisco Mime Troupe used street theatre to make political points. The group was known for putting on thought-provoking (and just generally provoking) theatre meant to make social and political critiques. Leaders like Rennie Davis and Peter Berg were members of the mime troupe and their theatre and opinions appeared regularly in underground papers.
After the Summer of Love, Davis continued working with ideas of guerrilla theatre, collaborating with the media-minded Abbie Hoffman on a number of demonstrations, which were intended to leverage the power of mass media to countercultural ends. The Summer of Love was a moment when participants in the counterculture began to realize new ways of leveraging its power.
For many, the counterculture died when corporate America began capitalizing on hippie culture. According to this narrative, greedy capitalists, seeking nothing more than to make a dollar, realized that there was money to be made in marketing to countercultural sentiment. These entrepreneurs and ad men co-opted the symbols and practices of the authentically revolutionary counterculture and sapped them of their power. By this way of thinking, the Summer of Love failed not because the countercultural community in the Haight-Ashbury district was ill-equipped to deal with 100,000 visitors, but because those 100,000 visitors attracted greedy entrepreneurs who cared little about the community and wanted only to make a buck.
Chester Anderson’s pamphlet Uncle Tim charges such entrepreneurs with being responsible for the dark underbelly of the Summer of Love. Anderson’s pamphlet may be hyperbolic, but it lists scathing criticisms of the “HIP merchants,” whom he blames for the difficulties of the Summer of Love. Among those he criticizes are the San Francisco Oracle, the council for the Summer of Love, and especially LSD guru Timothy Leary. The hyperbole of the pamphlet speaks to the passion with which many in the counterculture disagreed with one another over their activities, how they imagined themselves as a community, and the meaning of the Summer of Love.