How Haight-Ashbury got through the pandemic

Though local businesses struggled as tourism cratered, the area has proven surprisingly resilient

Dec.December 03, 2021 07:00 AM

Sunshine Powers in her artisanal tie-dye shop, Love on Haight (Photo courtesy of Emily Landes)

The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco may be the only place on the planet where someone named Sunshine Powers, who calls herself the “Queen of Haight Street and all that sparkles,” could be the savvy owner of a flourishing business, as well as the president of the local merchants’ association. 

Every day, she and her staff stand behind a velvet rope at the entrance to her artisanal tie-dye shop Love on Haight, waving and calling out welcomes to the half-empty Hop On Hop Off tourist buses that cruise through the neighborhood. While many of her neighboring business owners didn’t make it through the forced closures of 2020, Powers used that time to “glitter seal” her shop’s flower-print floor and paint a technicolor exterior with motivational messages. 

“We needed a brighter rainbow,” she said, adding that the changes were as much for visitors as for herself. “A burnt-out Sunshine is not good.” 

The Haight (pronounced hate) was, ironically, the birthplace of the Summer of Love more than 50 years ago, and the neighborhood is still associated with the hippie movement and famous former residents like Janis Joplin and members of the Grateful Dead. It’s still one of the must-dos for visitors, Powers said.

While local businesses have struggled and many have failed in these pandemic times, the area has also shown surprising resilience even as visits to the city dropped by 60 percent in 2020, representing an almost 80 percent drop in visitor spending. The dropoff in street traffic has also made the area’s growing homeless population more visible. Though a full tourism recovery isn’t expected until 2025, several Haight businesses that have made it thus far have expanded into vacant neighboring storefronts and several new shops have maneuvered through the city’s challenging permitting process and opened in recent months. 

“We will get by”

As a native San Franciscan, Powers says she’ll never forget Joe Montana’s game-winning 1987 “Hail Mary” pass, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the day in August 1995 when Jerry Garcia died. She’ll also never forget the first time she heard the words “shelter in place.” 

On the advice of a neighborhood police captain, she was moving out inventory and nailing plywood over her store windows on March 16, 2020, when she heard Mayor London Breed’s announcement effectively shutting down the entire city. Knowing the plywood would get hit with graffiti, she decided to tag it first, spray-painting the Grateful Dead’s lyrics “We will get by/ We will survive,” across the planks. 

The next day, a picture of her store, with a doctor from the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics walking in front, was on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and The LA Times and splashed across cable news stations. 

Over the months of closures, reopenings and reclosures, she had local artists repaint the now-famous plywood with lyrics of support for protesters last summer and later Janis and Jerry wearing face masks. But when it came time to paint a permanent message on her rainbow-colored storefront, she said she went back to those original words “because we will survive and we will thrive. We just have to have faith and shift our idea of what surviving is.”  

For Powers and others, survival in the Haight has relied in part on the same communal values that have long been a hallmark of the neighborhood. Powers said she made it through the many months of ever-changing city regulations and almost no foot traffic because of a “pretty freaking awesome” landlord who was willing to accept lower rents when she was closed down, federal PPP loans and a business loan that she took out just before the pandemic. 

Not all of her fellow merchants were as lucky. With the drop-off in tourism, commercial rents became untenable for many. 

The street was already at a “record high” 21 vacant storefronts in March 2020, according to meeting notes from Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council board member Christin Evans, who owns a popular bookstore and restaurant in the neighborhood. “Rising costs including skyrocketing rents, payroll and other costs coincided with four years of disruptive street construction making it a tough go for many shopkeepers,” she wrote, including longtime businesses like the 40-year-old Haight Ashbury Music Center, which shut its doors just before the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, the shuttered shops and drop in foot traffic have made the area’s homeless population that much more visible. Residents and merchants are locked in a constant debate with the city and one another over the best ways to support their unhoused neighbors without encouraging more tent encampments in the area. Crime is also on the rise; the neighborhood recently came together to decry a series of gang-related shootings that left one dead, one blinded and others seriously injured. 

One year after shelter-in-place restrictions were rolled out, 32 storefronts were closed, one-fifth of the commercial spaces on the Haight’s main drag. Many were clothing stores that “struggled to meet rent obligations with a significant drop in sales,” Evans wrote.

The stores that stayed open had to upgrade their online presence. Powers said she went from “eight milk crates” of inventory for her e-commerce shop before the pandemic to 45 today. She’s even had to rent out extra apartments from her landlord above the shop to hold it all. 

A few blocks away at Indigo Vintage, store manager Carly Dent said the co-op, which also has outposts in Berkeley and Santa Cruz, was completely online between March and August 2020. 

“That’s how we stayed afloat during the pandemic,” she said. 

The online business did so well that, since reopening its Haight storefront, Indigo has taken over the former cellphone repair shop next door, allowing it to add more curated vintage collections and a pop-up coffee shop. The increased street presence has also made the store more visible to locals, who now make up the majority of its customers, Dent said. 

Other  businesses have followed the same tack: Gus’s Market is expanding its groceries into the old Music Center space, and Buffalo Exchange, another used clothing store, turned a former shoe store next door into a counter for those interested in selling their pre-worn apparel.

Feeling the Love

David Valasco always had a place in his heart for the Haight, he said, even though he grew up in Barcelona. He moved to the city 10 years ago and opened his first houseplant shop, dubbed The Mellow SF, with his wife in the Mission just before the pandemic. That business thrived when he switched to an online model combined with an in-house delivery service, with online orders going to 300 from 20 in just one month. 

Online-only sales weren’t “soul affirming” in the same way as working directly with customers, he said. The Mellow SF’s next location had to be Haight Street, even though Valasco knew signing a lease in a former clothing store in October 2020 was “so risky.”

“There was no one in the streets,” he said. “Tons of businesses were closed.” 

But as a music lover, Valasco couldn’t turn down the Haight’s inherent appeal and he said he was quickly welcomed by his new neighbors. 

“We feel the love,” he said. “The community immediately opened their arms to us. From Day One, we just felt so happy to be here.” 

Residents have been especially interested in the small concerts and workshops that he holds in his store after business hours. Tourists sometimes walk in, he said, but they rarely want to buy a plant to take home with them. He estimates 85 percent of his business comes from locals and he’s in the process of getting the permits to add a kombucha and coffee bar. 

Valasco said his biggest issues so far have come from the neighborhood’s well-documented unhoused people, who leave behind garbage and don’t clean up after their dogs, but generally move along when asked, he said. Those camped out in front of his store are younger than the homeless population in the rest of the city, he said, and remind him fondly of the okupas in his hometown who have turned squatting into a lifestyle.

“It’s a very legit way of living life,” he said. “Kids do it for a few years and then they move on. I guess it’s the new hippie.” 

Whether new hippies or old, most merchants are betting that Haight Street will continue to be a draw for those looking for something a little outside the box. Japanese vintage clothing retailer 2nd Street, which has more than 500 stores in Japan but only recently expanded into the U.S., set its sights on a vacant tattoo shop on Haight Street back in 2019 for its first outpost in Northern California. 

Despite the pandemic and a months-long process to get a waiver because entities with more than 11 stores in neighborhood corridors like the Haight are typically banned in the city, marketing manager Wakasa Mizuno said the company “never thought of dropping” its ambitions for a Haight Street store.

Numerous visits and copious research proved to corporate higher-ups that “this place was artistic and unique” and they “were convinced that the products we sell and the culture of the town match,” she said. 

Since opening in October, the secondhand store has mainly catered to locals, she said. But since the company and the street both have fans far and wide, she said, “We are preparing inventory just in case the number of tourists increase.” 

While the ban on international tourists was only lifted last month, Powers said this summer she began seeing domestic tourists on the buses that drive by her business. She’s been delighted by the new additions on the street in the last few months, though she wishes the city would lift a moratorium limiting the number of restaurants in the neighborhood to fill in some of the vacant retail openings that remain or that landlords would be incentivized to allow homeless support groups or mobile bathrooms and showers in their empty shops while they remain unoccupied. 

In the end, she said, the neighborhood that means so much to so many has no choice but to recover. 

“I don’t think anyone’s going to let the Haight not be the Haight,” she said. “The Haight is its own being that evolves all on its own. I just want to encourage it to sparkle as much as possible.”

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