Setting a Crime Novel on Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park
I don’t know what’s so captivating about Hippie Hill, nor what made me want to stash a body there in my new novel. But Hippie Hill somehow looms large in Haight-Ashbury lore and is a key element in A Hitman on Haight Street.
By San Francisco standards, it’s not much of a hill at all. Barely more than a mound, really. It’s a grassy fold, a pleasant place to lie in the sun, with a white peace sign painted on the asphalt in front of it. Today, it’s at its best on Sunday afternoons when the drumming circle meets and plays for hours on end.
Somehow, Hippie Hill has earned a place in the folklore of Haight-Ashbury, just as a place that people know. It’s in the background of Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits album and it overlooks Robin Williams Meadow (formerly Sharon Meadow) where the annual 420 Hippie Hill celebration for cannabis is held. Hippie Hill pops up in descriptions of the Summer of Love and the Haight scene.
So it was a natural place for a body to be discovered in the second book of the Jimmy Spracklin crime series.
A Hitman on Haight Street opens a few weeks after the conclusion of the first Spracklin crime novel, The Haight. A headless female body has been found in the foliage over the crest of Hippie Hill. The people who found the body are staging a free concert on Hippie Hill to celebrate the summer solstice in 1968.
I didn’t intend for Hippie Hill to become the focal point of the novel, but it worked out that way. It was a bit of a trade-off. What I lost was a focus on the interior of the wonderful Queen Anne homes that dot the landscape of Haight-Ashbury. They make such a splendid setting for a murder mystery and effortlessly transport the reader back to the heydays of Haight-Ashbury.
What was gained by using Hippie Hill as the nexus of the novel was an emphasis on music and the way the hippie community would come together to stage music. I could have placed the concert on the Panhandle, the thin strip of parkland that springs east from Golden Gate Park parallel to Haight Street. It was where the Grateful Dead played so many legendary sets.
But Hippie Hill is right in Golden Gate Park, with its hills and valleys and patches of vegetation where a writer can hide things like rogue cops and dead bodies. It was central to building the plot of this police procedural.
What’s more, bringing a fictional concert to Hippie Hill served two purposes. First, this was the “Woodstock generation” and just portraying an outdoor music festival brings to mind images of that much grander festival a year later in Bethel, N.Y. Second, it brought music into the fabric of the novel, and you can’t have hippies without music.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to take in a few of the shows at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the annual free concert in Golden Gate Park. (Robert Plant was really good but the star of the show for me was Judy Collins, an 80 year old who sings like she’s 20 and played the perfect set list.) One of the gratifying parts of the festival for me was seeing that the spirit of outdoor concerts endures in San Francisco.
Hippie Hill is a mile or so away from the Hardly Strictly stages, but I still felt some excitement knowing that the ethos of free concerts is still there. I hope the readers who revisited the Sixties with The Haight will find the same delight in being transported back to a rock festival in A Hitman on Haight Street.
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