Corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco Declared 'National Treasure'

The corner of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco has been declared a 'national treasure' by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (nickestamp/Flickr)

The National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the corner of Haight and Ashbury a "national treasure" this past week, defined as "nationally significant historic places where the National Trust is taking direct action." KQED's Tiffany Camhi met up at the famous corner with Mike Buhler, the president of San Francisco Heritage. Their conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Is this street corner anything like it was back in the 1960s?

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Absolutely. This corner is remarkably intact. The building that we're standing next to, the Doolan-Larson building, is a city landmark. It's on the National Register of Historic Places. It is exactly the same as it was in 1967. And the surrounding neighborhood is one of the most historic neighborhoods in San Francisco. We are literally at the crossroads of the counterculture movement that led to changes in environmental protection, health care, attitudes towards sexuality, rock and roll, the list goes on.

A lot of people know Haight-Ashbury because of the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix all hung out over here. But I didn't know that there was also a health care movement and an environmental movement going on too.

That's right. Just at the other end of the block is the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic opened in 1967 by young UCSF medical students led by Dr. David Smith who's still in the community today. They coined the phrase "health care is a right not a privilege." And of course that concern is still resonant today in American discourse.

Members of the Grateful Dead stand outside Mnasidika in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Mnasidika was an influential hippie boutique and meeting place in the 1960s.
Members of the Grateful Dead stand outside Mnasidika in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Mnasidika was an influential hippie boutique and meeting place in the 1960s. (Herb Greene/Courtesy of San Francisco Heritage)

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Why this specific corner?

Well in the mid-60s young people flocked to this neighborhood attracted by cheap rent. At this very building, at the Doolan-Larson building, the first hippie boutique on Haight Street opened, Mnasidika. Mnasidika closed in 1968, but the space as it was is virtually unchanged. The storefront here was owned by a young woman named Peggy Caserta. She was 24 years old when she opened it. The name refers to the first known lesbians in history and among her early friends and customers were members of an unknown band called The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin — who would become her lover until Janice's death in 1970. She is credited with convincing Levi Strauss to produce bell bottom jeans for the first time. She was selling homemade version of bell bottom jeans and then approached Levi's and is credited for starting that trend.

Peggy Caserta founded Mnasidika and is credited with convincing Levi Strauss to produce bell bottom jeans.
Peggy Caserta founded Mnasidika and is credited with convincing Levi Strauss to produce bell bottom jeans. (Herb Greene/Courtesy of San Francisco Heritage)

Wow I feel like there should be a plaque right here so people can know which store was Mnasidika.

Over the next several months we'll be working with the National Trust (for Historic Preservation) and the Haight Street Art Center for a future cultural destination at this site and Mnasidika will be a prominent part of that because it reflects so many of the values that the counterculture movement embodied whether it be fashion, music, attitudes towards sexuality. I think Mnasidika's story is really reflective of those things.

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