Haight Ashbury Switchboard Through the Seventies
Three eight seven seven-thousand. Dial this and you get the nexus of
alternative information. Or you would have if you were in San Francisco twenty-three years ago.
"I don't know if I'm calling the right number. I live in Berkeley and
I'm trying to find somebody that can help out my brother. A
week ago he was invited to dinner by some people he met in
People's park who were with a church called 'The Unification
Church', and well anyway, I think they were Moonies and they got
him. I haven't heard from him since that night and we're like
"Yea, that's the Sun Myung Moon church all right. Hold it
Paris says pulling out a two foot long, flat index file drawer
called the category files. He looks at the card under
'religion' and says, "O.K., I have a number you can call here in
San Francisco of a group that searches for Moonie victims and
deprograms them. The organization is called Eclipse. The
sooner you can get your brother out the better." No sooner does
Paris hang up than another call comes in from someone searching
for the name of a counter-culture education collective
What does counter-culture mean? You won't find it listed in the yellow
pages because it's not for sale and it's not legal. Why not?
There's a price on everything? 'Cause that's the System man;
that establishment trip puts an arbitrary value on goods and
ideas. We are of the System but we reject it. How can an
alternative information network survive in the USA without
buying into the system, at least for running expense? Listen
and I'll tell you. I am Paris, just Paris, come from the dead.
I have come to tell you all; I will tell you all.
Though lofty sounding in name, alternative information is merely
truthful, factual, or useful information. The System is ordered
so that information equals power and therefor the powerful
suppress the truth. Corporate America deals in persuasion not
truth but since we at the HASB didn't owe any allegiance to
Corporate America we were truly free to tell that the Emperor
wore no clothes. It always makes a difference who sponsors an
organization and members and the community were our only
Originally the Haight Ashbury Switchboard wasn't formed to seek the
truth but rather to allot services, goods, and information to
hippies who were dropping out and tuning in during the '67
Summer of Love. The HASB was to crash-pads and free concerts in
the park what the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic was to VD and bad
acid (that is, a resource for help). It wasn't until after the
Love Children processed this social experiment out of existence
that we evolved our higher level of rhetoric and action. The
Switchboard's format as it existed from 1970 to 1986 was
interpreted as socialistic, communistic, and anarchistic. I
suppose it took elements from each though I always viewed our
format as highly democratic. Truth was its actual product and
altruism it's by-product.
The members incorporated in 1970 and set up a board of
directors and officers who ratified our policies. We were to be
non-affiliated with any political cause or organization and
independent of any region though our name implied a neighborhood
connection. We managed for sixteen years to run an office and
drop-in center in the Haight Ashbury even as we made referrals
to resources throughout San Francisco and the Bay Area. It was
fair to say that for the first ten years after our incorporation
nearly 90% of our members lived in the Haight Ashbury
neighborhood and since it was their community, the volunteer
staff declined to change the organization's name.
Our goal was an all volunteer staff operating a 24 hour a
day storefront office on the commercial strip of Haight Street. We achieved
this goal for a number of years at 1797 Haight Street, a corner
storefront in a declining yet beautiful Victorian building.
The physical setup at the HASB consisted of a makeshift
drop-in center with benches in the very front of the store. The store front
was decorated like home with planters where coleus and ivy grew
along the boarders of the windows among macrame valances and
macrame lampshades. Our shop windows were filled with free
clothes, or 'freeboxes' as they were known then, where people
from all over would drop off out-dated used clothes in good
condition. If a traveler were out of clean pants or needed a warm coat he
could take what he needed from the freebox. Our sign for donations and our
phone number also hung in the window. The drop-in center was
divided from the general public by a waist-high partition behind
which were the desks where the staff manned the phones or made
face-to-face contact with the clients. Rather than painting it
as some sort of psychedelic palace, we painted the interior in
drab grays and blues, probably because that was the surplus
paint we had. It added a certain utilitarian atmosphere to the
place. The obligatory 'head' posters were tacked up but most of
the wall space was covered with relevant information and signs.
At ceiling level hung an old wood framed black Greyhound
arrival/departure board covered in red letters listing
categories of the most frequently requested numbers for easy
reference to staff and clients. A wall sized partition that
closed off the staff mailbox room/ conference room sat behind
the staff area. Finally behind this was Marty's small cubicle
office known then as the Human Resource Development department
(HRD) where clients would find information about jobs bypassing
the requirement to go downtown to Bush Street for this state
The Switchboard was a funky place with every feature
incongruously added yet it appeared quaint as in a club house reflecting the
character of its members. I recall its design and atmosphere as a proud statement of freedom, justice, and independence from the System .
At 10PM the drop-in would close and volunteers would go
in the conference room to spend the night running our phone referral
service. Volunteers counseled many a lonely or desperate soul
at these hours or directed them to 'rap-lines' or even to
Suicide Prevention. We also made some money to pay our phone
bill by acting as the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics after-hours
I worked as a volunteer staff member for twelve years yet I
probably wouldn't fit the profile of the average staff member. For one
thing, the longest continuous member besides me worked for seven
years. The average member spent two or three years as a
volunteer working two 5 hour shifts per week. After several
months of training a volunteer could work as little or as much
as he wished. A general rule was that if he spent too much time
in his first months at the HASB, he would burn out and quit
soon. The vice-president often acted as personnel manager and
advised members who were unwisely scheduled to work with a
greater variety of staff on various shifts.
For years I'd work only one shift per week but in the beginning I'd put
in ten to fifteen hours a week like most members. Since the
members weren't getting paid many had to work jobs and could
spare only the one or two shifts. In fact a criteria for
membership was that you had to have your 'Survival Trip' (financial)
together. This simply meant that every staff had to have an
income, legitimate or otherwise, so that he wouldn't suck up the
resources, like jobs, that came through the Switchboard
earmarked for clients. Many staff members collected S.S.I. or
welfare while others were self-employed. Along with his own
financial resources, we required a volunteer to have a fairly
steady living arrangement so that he wouldn't but a burden on
the Switchboard by trying to work all the graveyard shifts for a
place to crash.
So the average profile for a staff member was someone who
had split from the mainstream and would support the counter-culture
community. The average age was around 25 and the majority of
the members were white. Most were middle class or lower middle
class. Occasionally an affluent member who had made his money
off of the contraband of the hippies wished to repay those who
were supporting the community and charitably offered his time or
money. Donations were after all tax deductible. We got a few
college students who worked their internship as a volunteer and
even the Order of Saint Francis sent us a few monks to update
our files and compile our statistics. Moreover the average
member was a young white person from the neighborhood who wanted
to feel connected to the City and help others find information
The HASB was supported entirely by donations, the bulk of
which were solicited by panhandlers who received a permit authorized by the
City from us, and who were paid half of the take from their panhandling.
Our claim to fame was a fold-out two page newsprint
publication titled The Survival Manual. Early members around 1969-70 had published
it as a center fold-out of an underground press magazine and it
was originally titled The San Francisco Survival Kit. Our legacy to the homeless may be that this Survival Manual is still put out by various charity organizations today.
The purpose of the manual was to have a reference sheet to
the basic necessities of life and to list some of the alternative
organizations. It was divided into sections : Housing; an
introduction to flats and shared living as well as crashpads and
missions ; Free Showers; a resource for the crowd who lived out
of vans and busses; City Blues; hotline listings for counseling
or centers for rape/ crisis; Medi Cal (California's version of Medicaid); information about
eligibility for Medical, references for specific medical needs;
Free Eats; chart of times and organizations who provided meals;
Legal; free legal advice for draft-evaders, tenants' rights, and
of course those busted for drug; and other less dire categories
such as Cheap Thrills that listed movie theaters like The Times
in Chinatown, a theater that played a double bill for a dollar
(At All Times originally part of the theater's name) and The
Surf, SF's sole foreign film showcase. Other cheapo listings
included the Mime Troupe's free theater, rock and roll in the
park provided by The People's Ballroom, and a short list of
street fairs (Union St. and Grant St. were about all).
We distributed these Survival Manuals free to all walk-in clients
at our office, by mail, and our panhandlers passed them out on street
corners in various neighborhoods. One year San Francisco's welfare Dept even brought several thousand!
It served us as good solid public relations.
To give an accurate account of the sort of calls and
questions we've handled I include these calls left on our answering machine
sometime around 1984.
"Detlef called, eh, and I do need my money. Thank you."
"Hi, I can't tell whether you do any other business
besides that, you used to be a big deal at the Haight Ashbury Switchboard. Um, I
called this other number for the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic but
they seem to be only doing medical stuff. My name is Ed and I'm
trying to get in touch with some people at the Rainbow Gathering
that were up there doing medical stuff 'cause I got the referral
and I don't think I've got the referral anymore. So if you know
of anybody that was working in the M.A.S.H. tent in San
Francisco please leave a message on my answering machine.
Anybody who was associated with it-any doctors or nurses or
anybody who was associated with it that might know who worked in
the M.A.S.H. tent. Thanks a lot. Bye."
"My name is Jenny and I wish to reach someone about the Haight Street
Fair. I have Stephen Stills who wants to perform at your
festival tomorrow, and I need some logistic information."
"My name is Gwendolyn Groves and I'm calling concerning a
job. Does anybody know where I can get one?"
"This is Gwendolyn again. I'm calling concerning a ride
down to Salvation Army. They're at 16th and Valencia. I need a ride.
"Cynthia offers a ride to Boston."
"Hey is there anyone there? Is this only a machine? Robot
to robot, this is outer-space calling. Guess I'll have to make contact in
person. Watch for the spaceship that will be landing right on
the corner. Bye-beep."
"We thought you might need bands for people who are giving
This is Patty from the Space Kats."
"Scott from the National March office calling. We are wondering if
anyone from your organization plans on having a contingency-in-
deed for the march from the Castro to the Moscone Center?"
"This is Gary. I'm leaving today for the Rainbow
Gathering so if anyone needs a last minute ride I'm leaving about one or as
close as I can get."
"We aren't supposed to take discount cards in the panhandling project.
Damien is our street solicitations coordinator and he isn't here
right now nor is the Memo book out front so I can't look this
one up but I have a vague memory of problems with this."
"Everything was cool and everything, the guy told us to come back
between six and nine, and Paris gave us $1.20 a piece so we could go both ways. We got back here at 8:30 and nobody was here. But other than that we were pretty cool. If you get
Paris on the line he will cover us as far as being trustworthy
"Yes but Damien is in charge of that project. Damien is the one who
would make a decision. You're Austin? I'd hate to send you out
now without knowing what's up."
The Haight Ashbury Switchboard served its community long after the
Seventies but it actually dwindled in service and influence by
1980 when it again was forced to move, this time further down
Haight Street past the commercial strip. Our office had to share
a second floor flat with a residence in back. It was at this
time that most of the original staff quit having felt the winds
of change. We rarely had graveyard shifts filled and our members
went from a hundred to a handful. The values in the community
had shifted as the real-estate values skyrocketed. We found
ourselves struggling to pay the enormous rents and our members
had to work longer hour at paying jobs to pay their own rents,
thus having less time to donate. Resources we had to offer such
as three nights free housing (our famous crashing program),
jobs, and ride line, disappeared. Poverty became a rule with
our clients and increasingly we served street people (soon to
call themselves homeless) instead of the transient youth
searching for a niche or a ride out of town. Collectivist
idealism would surrender to materialist greed and Reagan would
be president. But while it lasted the HASB was the closest
answer I've seen to a Utopian democracy serving the highest
truth: Information is power and people thrive when it is freely
Thanks to the folks who made the H.A.S.B. possible at 1797 Haight, 1921 Hayes St. near Ashbury, and 1539 Haight St.
Milton Marks Jr.,
Robert (Marty) Martin,
Sarah Fox Gordon,
Leo Sherwood (HASB Lawyer),
Marcella La Fever,
Terry Trachtenburg, and
any others who have slipped our minds over the years.
For more Information about HASB eMail Paris at:
Richard_Kaderli@RedwoodFN.org ( Paris )