SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- There are neighborhoods in San Francisco that were struggling even before the pandemic. The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood was one of them. Homelessness, a drug crisis and business closures made the home of the Summer of Love anything but lovable. But in an effort to improve the neighborhood, residents and the business community, with the help of the city, transformed the Haight into one of the most vibrant and safe communities in San Francisco.
Tourists have never stopped coming to the Haight-Ashbury.
The famous corner displaying the sign Haight and Ashbury streets represents the center of the hippie movement of the late 60s, when "The Summer of Love" changed the narrative of American culture.
Reporters of that era describe it this way, "Thousands of young people from around the country were descending on the city's Haight-Ashbury district."
In fact, the mayor at the time, John Shelley did not roll out the red carpet.
"We do not have an obligation to feed these people, to house them or to care for them," expressed Shelley back in 1967.
The neighborhood saw a decline shortly after. Since then, the Haight has struggled, experiencing years of ups and downs.
But between 2010 and 2015, the obvious street problems hampered any efforts to revitalize the area.
In 2016, mistakes made by the city's street construction project hurt businesses.
Construction crews hit several underground gas lines, forcing street closures and affecting small businesses.
"By the time that construction project was over, it was well over 20 vacant storefronts, so a lot of businesses gave up during that four-year construction period," explained Christin Evans, a business owner and a board member of the Haight-Ashbury Merchants Association.
And, at the peak of the pandemic, the Haight had 32 empty storefronts, nearly a quarter of all businesses in the neighborhood, closed.
That's when merchants and residents of this neighborhood came together to ask for help.
First came the retail vacancy tax to encourage property owners to lease empty spaces or face a $250 per linear foot tax that doubles every year.
"We've seen the rents go down and landlords be more motivated to fill the spaces and so now more than half of those vacancies are now filled," revealed Evans.
Street cleaning and power washing by Public Works followed. The streets here are practically gleaming.
The Haight is also one of six San Francisco neighborhoods with community ambassadors providing an extra layer of security.
"There are still tents in the neighborhood, they tend not to be on Haight Street itself," said Evans.
Proposition C, a business tax to fund services and housing for homeless people, has also benefited this neighborhood.
Most businesses here are pleased with the results.
"It brings the tourists in for sure. It gives a good word that they can come back to the city and to the Haight-Ashbury District. They are more able to enjoy the city and all neighborhoods, it's a lot cleaner a lot safer," said Marilyn Zeidan, a merchant here.
"I think also it's that fewer and fewer people are spending time downtown and spending more time in the neighborhoods," added Evans.
But this neighborhood, which has been a safe haven for the youth who never stopped coming here since the late 60s, now finds itself losing them. The young people who put the Haight on the map and kept the counter-culture movement going, aren't coming here anymore.
One reason those people are missing is that the Haight is now what some call a "service desert" for young people.
Nonprofits like Homeless Youth Alliance, Larkin Street Youth Services which once provided direct services to youth in this neighborhood, have scaled back dramatically --a casualty of the high cost of office space. Even the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic closed in 2019.
"Many of the resources that our young people are asking from us, we have to refer them to other parts of the city and particularly parts of the city they have said they don't feel safe in, and that could include downtown," explained Karin Adams of the Homeless Youth Alliance.
And so, while the Haight may be cleaner and thriving, the neighborhood now struggles to find with ways to support and keep the young dreamers that have long found solace in this neighborhood.
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