Historical Profile of the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood
The Haight-Ashbury offers some of the City’s most colorful “painted ladies” restored to their original Victorian elegance and updated for today’s lifestyles. (District boundaries are generally considered to be Stanyan Street and Golden Gate Park on the west, Oak Street and the Golden Gate Park Panhandle on the north, Baker Street and Buena Vista Park to the east, Frederick Street, and the Ashbury Heights, Cole Valley neighborhoods to the south. The district encompasses approximately 30 city blocks.)
The earliest accounts describe the area as dotted with trees, springs, and a few green valleys. German immigrant William Lange was the first non-native to settle in the area, where he purchased nine acres of relatively fertile soil and established a dairy farm in 1870. Over time, small farms sprang up and ranchers were enticed by the relatively good weather to fence off five to ten acre plots to raise cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens—providing food for city residents.
Prominent citizens with names now familiar on streets signs included Henry Haight (owner of the northern farm), who was a banker and who went on to become the first Governor of California. The eastern farm belonged to Richard Cole, San Francisco’s first established pediatrician. Charles Stanyan, A.J. Shrader, and Monroe Ashbury were members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
In 1868, under the direction of San Francisco Mayor Frank McCoppin’s Committee on Outside Lands, the Board of Supervisors approved a plan for Golden Gate Park. In 1870, California Governor Haight appointed the first San Francisco Park Commission composed of city supervisors Stanyan, Ashbury, Shrader, Cole, and Clayton. These men established Golden Gate Park, although it took two decades before John McLaren was able to transform the thousand-acres into a grand oasis. It was then that work began on what citizens considered “a public garden to rival New York’s celebrated Central Park.” This transformation was responsible for converting the adjacent, unrealized real estate into a valuable investment.
On May 15, 1893, a brochure identified as “land development advertising” publicized 104 lots up for auction by auctioneers Mertens and Lang. The location was described as “Paradise Found” and it explained “Why is park panhandle property so valuable?” The brochure listed the following enticing reasons in answer to this question:
Because it is the most picturesque residence section on the peninsula.
Because the improvements there are all of a genteel pleasing and homelike character.
Because Golden Gate Park is the most highly improved and all the great attractions of the peoples pleasure ground are in the immediate vicinity.
Because the perfect network of railroads brings there weekly no less than 100,000 of our population.
These traits, alongside dependable transportation, brought growth. In 1883 the Haight Street Cable Railroad was completed and connected with the Market Street line. This became the gateway to Golden Gate Park and to an amusement park known as the Chutes on Haight Street (between Cole and Clayton Streets) from 1893 to 1903. The California League Baseball stadium opened in 1887 and the area became a popular recreational hub for San Francisco.
The influx of people brought commercial development consisting first of taverns, restaurants, hotels, and livery stable; then real estate developers, builders, and speculators purchased and subdivided land for construction of large single-family homes aimed at the middle class. The 1900 census reveals the Haight was a middle-class neighborhood consisting of married couples with children. The March 8, 1896 edition of the San Francisco Examiner reported:
The whole country about the heights is now thickly covered with homes of conspicuous size, and many of them of costly design. Masonic Avenue is lined with a large number of Eastlake dwellings, where barren sands were a few months ago. Waller Street has been brightened up very recently with several pretty structures. There are more of them on Cole Street and on Frederick Street. Electric lighting appliances and modern styles could be yours for the price of $6,500 to $8,500 each.
In contrast, cottages on Potrero Hill were selling between $1,500 and $3,000 at the time.
The Haight was one of the few neighborhoods relatively unscathed by the 1906 earthquake and fire, becaming a refuge. By 1910 undeveloped parcels were scarce and in 1912 street cars along Haight Street increased from 30 to 41 cars per hour. Development was clustered around a thriving Haight Street—the prime business area for most of western San Francisco—and 1920 brought a new neighborhood library. By 1930 there were Dudley Stone, Grattan, and Crocker grammar schools; Polytechnical and Lowell (then at Masonic and Hayes) High Schools; and the University of San Francisco. There were also four hospitals: UC Medical Center, St. Mary’s, Trinity (at Page and Masonic), and Harkness (at Oak and Baker). In 1924 a San Francisco columnist wrote, “There is a comfortable maturity about the compact little city that San Francisco knows as Haight-Ashbury. Not the maturity that is suspicious, but a nice upholstered and fuchsia garden sort of grown-up-ness, just weathered enough to he nice, and new enough to be looking ahead to the future.”
During the Great Depression, multiple families shared single-family residences. Many lost homes to banks, many more deferred maintenance of their beloved Victorians—15% of structures in the district were deemed substandard by city inspectors.
World War II brought more socioeconomic changes with the influx of workers associated with naval construction in the Bay Area. Many large single-family Victorian homes were carved into apartments or boarding houses for war workers. The result was that the number of dwelling units in the Haight nearly doubled from 4,750 to 8,770 between 1939 and 1945. By the 1950s the neighborhood was in decline. Too many houses were left vacant after the end of the war, coupled with deferred maintenance, causing property values and rents to drop dramatically. The cultural and ethnic make-up of the area had radically changed during the fifty years since the turn of the 20th century. There was even talk of a proposed freeway cutting through the neighborhood causing a long grass-roots battle that continued from the late 1950s through 1966. However, in time a drop in rents and the grand—although faded—Victorian architecture did beckon to the beatniks of the 1950s, and the hippies of the 1960s.
The Psychedelic Shop at 1535 Haight was one of the first establishments that catered to counter-culture needs. By the late 1960s, the Haight had its own radio station (KDIG) at 1775 Haight and its own band, the Grateful Dead, headquartered at 710 Ashbury, just a block and a half up the hill from Haight Street. The house was constructed in 1890 by the building contractors Cranston and Keenan. Legendary electric guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, lived at 1524 Haight Street until his death in 1970.
These were the years when the corner of Haight and Ashbury was the wildly popular epicenter for young people arriving from all parts of the country and the world. Hundreds would congregate and contemplate the meaning of life while seeking an elusive cultural utopia. 1966 brought a massive “Be-In” in Golden Gate Park and 1967 brought the “Summer of Love,” (Take it from a native San Franciscan who experienced this decade in the Haight-Ashbury—few social movements can top this one.)
But the decline followed soon after, and with a vengeance. The once relatively care-free spirt was replaced by an increase in drug use, crime, homelessness and overcrowding.
Soon the influx turned into an exodus. Blight was just around the corner of Haight and Asbury where it stayed until the 1980s brought a new surge of home buyers with well-paying jobs and a renewed sense of their place in urban culture. The Haight also became the center of a new San Francisco comedy scene with The Other Cafe offering talents such as Robin Williams and Dana Carvey.
The 1990s and the 21st century have brought new vibrant commercial, social, and artistic rebirth. Still a touch bohemian, still resplendent with charming Victorian architecture, the Haight-Ashbury now reflects a rich and diverse history to rival any neighborhood in San Francisco.
The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood can be proud of more than just its Painted Ladies as there are ten officially designated city and national landmarks situated throughout the district. Among them are the Spencer House at 1080 Haight, the Clunie House at 301 Lyon, and the Stanyan Park Hotel at 750 Stanyan Street.
Well known architects like Frederick Rabin, William Curlett, and Martens and Coffey designed residences now considered splendid survivors of an era long gone but certainly not forgotten. When residents and visitors stroll through the Haight along Masonic, they are greeted on both sides of the street by beautifully restored residences sitting elegantly side by side, providing a glimpse of a bygone era of style and grace.
by Catherine Accardi
— taken from the Victorian Alliance’s “2014 House Tour” catalog