Hippies and street people


On April 21, KGNU Radio hosted a 1960s-themed party at the History Colorado Center at 1200 Broadway in Denver. Psychedelic music played while people visited a touring exhibit entitled 1968: The Year That Rocked History and a locally-produced show on the Chicano movement in Colorado.

State historian Bill Convery gave an impressionistic, half-humorous talk on ‘The Hippie Problem” emphasizing the “idealism and intense optimism” of hippies in the early days. Colorado was called a “hippie haven” and the country’s first hippie commune, Drop City, was founded in 1965 outside Grand Junction.

However, many mainstream people felt threatened. Cowboys attending the National Western Stock Show in Denver wandered the streets looking for hippies to beat up. In Boulder, there was “aggressive enforcement” of vagrancy and drug laws. In Denver, zoning laws were used against nontraditional living arrangements (people who weren’t blood-related living together).

The baby boomers were becoming young adults and the most visible boomers were hippies. Like many college towns at that time, Boulder was transformed by the cultural and political dissidence of the 1960s. It went from being moderately Republican to liberal Democrat. David Hays, archivist at University of Colorado Boulder’s Norlin Library, wrote in an unpublished paper that there was “an enormous rise” in the Boulder’s population at the time:

“Between 1960 and 1970, the city grew from 37,718 to 66,870, or by 70 percent. By 1975, the estimated population for the city of Boulder was 81,900, an overall increase from 1960 of 44,182, or 117 percent… By 1970, 55 percent of a much larger city were under 24 years of age, split fifty-fifty at age 18. More than a quarter of the town’s population was between 18 and 24. In 1970, the town’s median age was 23.5 years.”

I recently spent time reading local newspaper articles on the counterculture from that period. There were frequent conflicts with the “straight” world. Sheriff ’s officers raided camps of young people in the foothills and on U.S. Forest Service land. On the Hill, merchants complained about barefooted panhandlers using foul language and blocking store entrances. Boulder residents were angry about loud music and lack of sanitation in Central Park. In response, outdoor concerts were banned.

In the summer of 1970, an anonymous letter circulated in Boulder calling for vigilante action against the outsiders. People were to gather at Central Park on July 4th with clubs, shovels or any kind of weapon to “clean up the city.” Fortunately, the mob attack never happened.

The cops got tougher on hitch hikers, raided the Hill Youth Hostel and punished loiterers blocking sidewalks with fines that could be as high as $300 or 90 days in jail. Two people were ticketed for patching their clothes with parts of an American flag.

On May 1971, police carried out a round-up of “street people” on the Hill for obstructing sidewalks, disorderly conduct, interference with a police officer and use of obscene language. At the end of these sweeps, both the city and county jails were overflowing.

This provoked a riot. Patrol cars were rolled and one of them was set on fire. Damage and theft losses for 18 businesses totaled nearly $50,000.

In June 1972, the Boulder city council discussed the “summer transient problem” and decided to spend $15,000 for additional law enforcement and $9,000 to the Boulder Council of Churches to hire five social workers to work in the Hill area.

In September, the social workers issued a report about the young people coming to Boulder. They could be divided into “transients” and “street people.” The “transients” came from middle class families, stayed in Boulder for about three to four weeks and were “on a road to maturity.” They had more schooling and were younger than the “street people,” who came from poorer families, had become permanent residents of Boulder and were “on a path to selfdestruction.” The report predicted that “the street life question” would persist for some time to come.

The social workers found that the “street people” weren’t escaping affluence and living a voluntary “lifestyle,” but were rather desperate poor kids seeking the American dream. We didn’t know it then but the right-wing was rising due partly to a backlash against the social changes of the ’60s. Income inequality was increasing. It wasn’t just “street people” who were disappointed in the American dream.

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This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.