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San Francisco Days – A Travel Essay

January 3, 2012

Visiting the Haight almost four decades after the Summer of Love

Sami Sunchild leads one of her "world peace conversations."

Sami Sunchild seemed discouraged as she looked out the front window of the Red Victorian, her “Living Peace Museum” on upper Haight St. in San Francisco. Bargain-priced T-shirts lined the window sill all of them emblazoned with Sami’s colourful versions of the peace symbol. Behind her posters shouting peace slogans adorned one wall. Outside, a bass fiddle bobbed from side to side accompanying a violin to the beat of a familiar tune.

The Red Vic’s cafe was starting to percolate with activity much of it generated by the 86-year-old peacenik cum hippie. She seemed uncharacteristically despondent that day in the heart of what was once hippie heaven, a world destination for thousands of unsettled youth looking not just for America, as 1960s songsters Simon and Garfunkel sang, but for themselves.

“They defecate outside our front door and write awful things on our windows,” Sami complained, shaking her head more in disappointment than anger. ‘They’ was an endless stream of homeless people, most of them young, who had replaced an earlier stream that floated through town back in the mid-1960s. This latest group is partly made up of the remnants of the Occupy Wall Street crowd that had been evicted from tent cities around the country, the hobo jungles of a new lost generation. The other one – their parents and grandparents – included the vanguard of the Counterculture.

“Come over to our table,” the diminutive Red Vic owner coaxed, waving to a middle-aged couple who were clearly trying to avoid detection as they finished their bagel and cream cheese breakfast. “We are having the most fascinating discussion over here. This man has written a book on the underground press in the 1960s.” The couple demurred, saying that they were off to Monterey, but they finally capitulated. Sami does not take no for an answer.

As soon as she had them surrounded she began the same discussion that she has been leading since 1976 when she bought the  Jefferson Hotel (circa 1904) and started converting the 26-room building into what would become the Red Vic, a bed & breakfast, “peace cafe,” “peaceful world centre” and “peaceful arts gift shop.”

Peace is Sami’s mission and she makes sure everyone who crosses her threshold knows it. She is determined to make it happen by creating space for “peaceful world conversations,” a “peace art gallery,” a “peaceful world travel” centre and a “peaceful world foundation.” It’s a one-of-a-kind place perched on a hilltop glittering with one-of-a-kind sights and sounds.

This is a town stuffed with jazz and blues joints along Fillmore St., Italian cafes that occupy North Beach next to the Beat Generation’s City Lights bookstore (still one of the best anywhere and still offering the odd poetry reading by founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 92).  This is also home to Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zeotrope film studios, with its fancy restaurant serving pricey Coppola wines. It sits in the shadow of the distinctive Transamerica pyramid, San Francisco’s tallest skyscraper. Burger outlets, like the Pearl near Union Square, vie for the gourmet burger of the year award in publications like the ever-feisty Bay Guardian.

Open-top tourist buses zip through Golden Gate Park and across famed Golden Gate Bridge. Fisherman’s Wharf tourist traps coax diners to enjoy a sourdough bowl full of clam chowder. Castro St. invites gawkers to soak in Harvey Milk Square and the historic Castro Theatre. The Mission district, with its colourful murals and street life, persuades the hungry to munch on the best burrito ever at Pancho Villa’s or dozens of other taquerias. Alcatraz seems to float in the bay below the city as pelicans soar overhead.

Undoubtedly the Red Vic competes with this candy store of cultural delights, but still it deserves its one-of-a-kind status.


The couple looked uncomfortable. They hadn’t bargained on Sami. They hadn’t realized that they were sitting at one of the Red Vic’s round “peaceful world conversation” tables. After their encounter with the aggressive peace seeker, they might have opted for a spot at the other side of the cafe where several rectangular tables offered a peaceful oasis, a less participatory refuge.

Sami comes by her aggressiveness and enthusiasm naturally. After all, she had to fight hard to realize her dream of transforming the “‘funky, down-at-the-heels’ historic Victorian hotel” into the Red Vic. A tabloid newspaper tells of how she “fought off frauds and con men,” corrupt contractors, cheating business partners and gun-toting hotel managers. She also fought off high-level stress, loneliness and breast cancer to develop this model of “what we want for all people in the world.”

The Red Vic isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, as the Monterey-bound couple discovered. Sami’s images are everywhere and her taste in decoration is decidedly hippyish. The B & B is an acquired taste with its “Summer of Love Room,” offering “tied-died bed canopy, lava lamp and real Grateful Dead posters,” the “Flower Child Room” where you can “enjoy rainbows, clouds and sun on your ceiling,” and, of course, the “Peace Room” which is “dedicated to the ‘60s dreams of peace.”

It’s all in good fun, including the “Playground Room” lined with stuffed characters like Humpty Dumpty and a tie-died blanket on the ceiling. It “celebrates the first public child’s playground in nearby Golden Gate Park.” It’s also relatively cheap to stay at the Red Vic. A week in the Playground Room, with a double and single bed and two full bathrooms just outside the door, cost $79 a night. The added price – a chance meeting with Sami – is probably steeper than some want to pay in an era where many choose to hide inside social networks rather than meeting their neighbours face to face at the local coin laundry.


Without doubt, Sami is an irrepressible high priestess of peace in a city that once claimed to be the home of peace, love and good vibes. Along the Haight are the ramparts of those days: a sign reminding passers-by of the free clinic that used to deal with drug overdoses, venereal diseases and crab lice; a Ben & Jerry’s, maybe the very first one, that once served Cherry Garcia ice cream in homage to the Grateful Dead leader; a marker where the “Digger House” used to sit in welcome to all those who were looking for a different America…along with some free grub and a place to crash.

Red Vic visitors playing outside on Haight St.

Is Sami fighting a losing battle for peace now as wars rage around the world, many of them promoted by an American economy that thrives on destruction and consequent reconstruction? After so many personal battles that she has won, is there any hope for her dream of world peace? Has the world moved on from peace conversations and peace cafes to simply hunkering down and looking out for No. 1?

After all, the 1960s, with their ‘make love not war’ philosophy, their embracing of eastern religions, and their preaching of a sharing world, has long been a decade to hate. Mass media gave it front-page prominence four decades ago and as easily took it away. Hippies were freaks and druggies, lazy good-for-nothings who were an eyesore to nice society, a threat to the establishment and a mild challenge to capitalism itself. They came to be seen as an embarrassment rather than the happy, bead-wearing, guitar-strumming bearers of good tidings that might lead us to the dreamland of blissful co-existence in a more peaceful world.

Sami Sunchild still believes in that dream and she shares it with anyone who will listen. She lives it and invites others to sail her dream into their own dreams of a planet where people are dedicated “not to collecting wealth, but to making a better world.”

Sound a little hokey in 2012? Maybe so. But as the Occupy movement fizzles out, having so graphically exposed some of the terrible inequalities that exist today, we are left with a world that looks more and more like it could use a few peace conversations, a little more love and a lot more kindness.

Sami looked away from the front window and wondered if the kids outside weren’t the same as those who wore some flowers in their hair so long ago. They looked as haggard and lost as they did back then. Still, a generation or two away from those sunny San Francisco days, this crowd seemed less friendly, less innocent.

We are light years away from the promise of an end to war, hopes of a more equal sharing of wealth and the possibility of a democracy that lives up to its name. Sami was looking at the self-proclaimed ‘99 per cent’ outside her door that day and she wasn’t sure what to think of them. She looked worried. They looked hungry and a bit scary. Could the best minds of a generation be hidden somewhere in the motley rabble that confronts visitors to Golden Gate Park each day?


A few days later, she noticed that the couple she had drawn into the world peace conversation had come back from Monterey. They would no doubt take their place at the peace table at Sami’s gentle but persuasive insistence. They were about to become the latest members of her “global family of friends.” It was close to New Year’s Eve and no one had to guess what Sami’s resolution would be. Happy New Year, Sami!

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One Response to San Francisco Days – A Travel Essay

  1. Anthony on January 8, 2013 at 5:22 am

    I went to sanfrancisco, it just so much fun there

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