(Almost) Everything You'll See on Peter Coyote's Haight-Ashbury Walking Tour

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On Peter Coyote's tour of the Haight-Ashbury, visitors learn why the signs at the famous intersection are so high on the pole -- and why the clock is stopped.  (Brian L. Frank)

When I'd heard that Detour had created a walking tour of the Haight-Ashbury, I was instantly dubious.

Part of it is my wariness of tech's often unfulfilled promise to create a rich, human experience; Detour is an app that offers tours of neighborhoods, narrated by notable figures and experienced through one's GPS-enabled smartphone. But a larger part is that, as a child of the 1980s, hearing Boomers wax rhapsodic about San Francisco's rock revolution of the 1960s being The Most Important Thing To Happen In The World Ever has become, well, a weary thing. How many times can someone hear the same stories about Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead?

I'm here to tell you that my hesitation was unwarranted, and for a simple reason: Peter Coyote, the tour's host, who provides a firsthand account of the neighborhood without the back-patting and self-serving revisionist history so prevalent in reminiscences of 1960s-era Haight-Ashbury. (In a call for pitches last year, Detour asked specifically for "something even hippy-haters would love," and while Coyote certainly has personal anecdotes galore, he sufficiently distances himself from nostalgia on the tour (which, full disclosure, is presented by KQED)). He also focuses less on the well-trampled underground rock scene, and more on the noble ideals of he and his LBJ-era peers. And, importantly, this is one of those rare times that an app truly delivers on the "human connection" promise -- visitors have the sensation that Coyote is walking right alongside them.

Haight Street.
Haight Street.

On his old stomping grounds -- Coyote was an early member of the Diggers and the San Francisco Mime Troupe -- he evaluates the Haight's accomplishments realistically and talks honestly about the seedy underbelly of the era. Coyote has fun with the app's technical possibilities too; after an intro about Sue Bierman and her fight against the plans for a freeway running through the panhandle, where Jimi Hendrix performed and where the SF Mime Troupe began, he asks me to cross the street. "And don't get run over," he says while I'm in the middle of the crosswalk, "or you'll miss how it turns out."

Here's a peek into how it turns out. I won't give away everything.


Coyote introduces the neighborhood by talking about the artists priced out of North Beach who flocked there in the early 1960s, and of their homes overrun with visitors, "doors wide open," welcoming to all. As I walk up Cole Street, right at this part, I notice a very different type of welcome here in 2016.


Around the corner, I'm brought to the former site of the Free Store, an operation located inside a garage where everything was free -- "You could even get a free new identity here," Coyote says, explaining the site's draft-card ring for those who wished to leave their white collared shirts on the rack and disappear into the Haight. (There's a great story here about the birth of tie-dye, too.)


The tour asks visitors to bring along a small object, and a small metal box in front of the house is the reason why. The current residents have agreed to this tiny re-creation of the free store, where visitors are given the combination to the box and trade their small item for another. It's marvelous, really. As I was crouched down, the mailman mistook me for the owner of the house and tried to hand me the mail. Then Peter Coyote told me about the time that Fish & Game offered the Free Store a 1,500-lb. whale (they accepted).


Up Ashbury, after Coyote bemoans the way Chronicle columnist Herb Caen "infantilized us" by coining the term "hippie," I come to Janis Joplin's old house.


Coyote explains he was friends with Joplin, drug partners, lovers, even; he spends as much time on her as he spends on a woman who was thrown off a roof in a drug deal gone bad, up the street at 719 Ashbury, right across from the Grateful Dead's old house.


"Taking LSD is like taking a helicopter ride to the edge of the Grand Canyon," Coyote says, by way of getting into the drug casualties, overdoses, theft and other elements that riddled the scene. He returns to this later, but now it's time to head into the Haight-Ashbury Music Center.


Yes, you walk into the store, and ask the clerk to go into the back room. At this point Coyote hands the tour over to Mary Gannon Alfiler, former bassist for the band Ace of Cups, who tells great stories about how sexist the rock industry was in the '60s, including her timeless response to a request to play topless.


I'm also directed into Booksmith, where I get to ask the friendly girl behind the counter for a book of Jim Marshall's photographs of the neighborhood. I also get to sit at this fine desk.


"Do you see any street kids around?" Coyote asks me, and sure enough, three dreadlocked teens in backbacks walk by holding a sign that reads "Just Passing Thru / Love You / Spare a Few." He directs my attention to Huckleberry House, the homeless center still in operation to this day, before guiding me to the exterior of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. There, founder Dr. Dave tells me, "We would treat over 100 heroin addicts a day." The sign once posted on the door at its original opening is replicated anew.


Coyote mentions the iconography that now represents his era: the abundance in the neighborhood of smiley faces, peace signs, and dead rock stars. "They just don't line up with my vision of what the scene was," he says, "and what we set out to accomplish." Particular notice is given to the presence of George Harrison on a tall mural; George Harrison called the Haight "terrible," Coyote says, and stopped taking LSD after visiting San Francisco and seeing what it'd done. And now he's on a mural here.


But Coyote allows some pride for what he and his fellow Haight residents accomplished. Not for having revolutionized the world, but for, as he puts it, while I stand in a patio behind Jimi Hendrix's old place, "moving the cultural needle." The idea that women should be treated equally, the idea that medical care should be available to all, the idea that healthy food should be in steady supply -- "the fact that these victories seem unremarkable," he says, "well, that's the best victory of all. They're normal now."


Detour's suite of San Francisco tours is $24.99, and available here. Tours in the package include "The Castro," "The Tenderloin," "The Beat Generation," "Fisherman's Wharf," "Cool Gray City," "Architecture," "Beyond the Painted Ladies" and more; "Haight-Ashbury" is presented by KQED. Peter Coyote can be seen in the Mandy Moore classic 'A Walk to Remember' and in the courtroom drama 'Jagged Edge,' among over 120 other feature-length films.