Published in Viator, 2012. Original article here.
On the real hippie trail in San Francisco
“Are you looking for a restaurant?” I look around and find a little Chinese man smiling at me. You cannot stand on a San Francisco street looking uncertain for long before someone will offer their assistance (or alternatively, ask for some). The old man has found me on the kerb outside the Buddhist temple in Chinatown, my hair and clothes now pungent with the smell of incense and burning paper. Or is it holy smoke? But yes, I confirm, I am indeed looking for a place to eat. He then asks if I am alone, and nods knowingly when I confirm this: “I came here alone once too, from Hong Kong. This city gives you wings.”
We end up having lunch together, the old man and I. At home I’d have been a lot more reluctant to go off with a stranger like this, but San Francisco has a knack for making you surprise yourself. Its main attractions aren’t the bridges or the cable cars, but a feeling; maybe it’s in the water, maybe it sneaks under the door while you are sleeping. Out here on the foggy peninsula, something’s up. People actually wear flowers in their hair, as San Francisco does a surprisingly good job at living up to its substantial reputation: hippie paradise, rebel haven, magnet for idealists, non-conformists and the occasional nut-job.
Simply walking down the street will give you a decent fill of the San Francisco hippie flavour, with chatty strangers, talented street performers, wafting smells of various substances, as well as general friendliness and curiosity. But if you are serious about gaining your flower power credentials, here are ten must-see destinations.
Swedenborgian Church, 2107 Lyon Street (on Washington)
Hidden out in Pacific Heights, this lumber and redbrick building from 1894 is the brainchild of Emanuel Swedenborg: theologian, scientist and receiver of divine messages. I arrived there in the early evening not expecting to find it open, but the priest, just about to lead a group in bible study, was kind enough to unlock the church for me. It’s a small, homely space: pulpit at the front, hearth at the back. Madrone tree trunks hold up the roof, and the priest pointed out how the maple chairs are made without a single nail. Swedenborgianism is founded on the belief that humans are spirits in a material world, unified by nature, love and luminous intelligence. Swedenborg called it ‘New Age’.
Yoga to the People, 2973 16th Street (on Mission)
‘This yoga is for everyone,’ is part of the guiding principle of this yoga studio. This literally means anyone, as this organisation is run on donations only. Concerned that people may become priced out of yoga, which will set you back at least three figures a month for regular practice, Yoga to the People aims to be a place where the spirit of yoga is made available to all, regardless of means. ‘All bodies rise,’ they say. Namaste.
Bound Together Anarchist Collective, 1369 Haight Street (on Masonic)
This floor-to-ceiling bookshop is chock full of books, zines, posters and pamphlets for the anarchist within. Bound Together has operated in Haight Ashbury for over 35 years now, having turned into a cultural gem in an area that still flies its hippie flag proudly. The bookshop is at the more political end of the hippie spectrum, meaning those more keen to re-live the more, let’s say, mellow elements of the Summer of Love, which happened just up the road, will find plenty of opportunity to do so on nearby Hippie Hill.
Iskcon Hare Krishna temple, 2334 Stuart Street, Berkeley (on Telegraph)
Across the Bay, another pocket of hippie history can be found in Berkeley. The Nag Champa incense lingers on Telegraph Avenue, where hoodie-clad students from the university add a freshness to the tie-dye. I was sitting in a coffee shop near the campus when a robe-clad man came up to me, asking if he could give me a booklet to the nearby Krishna temple. They can teach me how to change my karma there, he said. I have had worse offers. Lectures, chanting and vegetarian meals are also available for those looking for a more step-by-step approach.
Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, 1111 Gough Street (on O’Farrell)
Most San Francisco visitors will go to Grace Cathedral, the Episcopal house of prayer designed in the old French-Gothic style. But Saint Mary, the modern Catholic church sitting on Cathedral Hill, is by far the more unusual, and probably even more awe-inspiring. Built in 1971, the saddle roof exterior is intriguing, but it’s the inside the place that will take your breath. The concrete columns, interspersed with strips of coloured glass, sweep up to form a point high above the altar that tilts everyones heads back.
Konko Temple, 1909 Bush Street (on Laguna)
Near the windswept Japantown plaza is the Konko Temple, a small, unassuming building constructed from blond wood. In the Konko faith, heaven and earth are equally important to make a person whole, explained the reverend when I visited. I’d been sitting in the modest room for a while before he came over, patiently answering my questions and cracking the occasional joke. Kami, the Parent God, is not off in some faraway place, but here with us right now, he explained. Everything is related.
Zen Center, 300 Page Street (on Laguna)
New faces are very welcome at the modern-looking Zen Center, which holds tours for beginners so we can learn how to behave in the temple. A quiet, bright-eyed man in a robe took us around to explain what the bells mean, how to bow and how to take off our shoes in the temple. This was on a Saturday morning, just after we’d listened to a talk by the Buddhist Soto Zen reverend, a soft-spoken woman who explained It takes six months just to learned how to sit. And if you can’t … well that’s just the way it is that day. Instead, take a step back and see things for what they are.
Peoples Temple, formerly at 1859 Geary Boulevard (on Fillmore)
The Peoples Temple is a reminder there is a darker side to San Francisco’s penchant for new ways of thinking. The Symbionese Liberation Army, the radical group which kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst before she joined them to rob a bank, started in the Bay Area, and Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones decided San Francisco was the right fit for his flock. Initially, he adhered to the utopian dreams of the International Peace Mission movement, but things took a darker turn when 918 of Jones’ followers committed mass-suicide from drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
Vedanta Society, 2323 Vallejo Street (on Fillmore)
This 1905 building, with its concoction of styles, has seen better days. Still, it provides an interesting glimpse into the Vedanta Society, an order associated with monasticism and a basis in Hinduism. Just look at the building itself: each turret carries the symbol for a major religion, signalling the basic principle of ‘oneness of existence’. Vedanta teaches that the essence of all things infinite and eternal, and that all religions lead to the same goal.
Tien Hau Temple, 125 Waverly Place (on Clay)
In an alley in Chinatown, on the top floor of what looks like a residential building, is the oldest Chinese temple in the US. This, however, is not a place to sit in quiet contemplation, but a working temple. Ladies sit along the wall busily folding paper, which visitors buy to burn in the fireplace. The ceiling is covered in red and gold lanterns, with dangling messages attached, while every surface is covered in icons and incense. The smoke fills the temple before escaping out the open door, taking the prayers along with it.