Some people run away to join the circus. Others run away to San Francisco. Those of us who live here know it’s actually the same thing. Since its days as a bawdy port city built on gold dust and dungarees, San Francisco has always been a town where open-mindedness reigns and people live whatever life they see fit. Because of this, the city’s history is colored with subcultures that have looked at the world around them and thought, Hell, we can do better than that. Below is a short list of a few of the many alternative communities that came to fruition somewhere within these 49 square miles. Some are cults, some are pranksters, and some are churches in their own right, but none of them could’ve come about without San Francisco being a city that encourages dreamers to dream and players to play.
Originally founded by journalists and artists in the 1870s as a fraternal club for gentlemen who enjoyed the arts, the Bohemian Club today includes some of the world’s richest and most powerful men. Many of its customs and rituals are shrouded in secrecy, as is its member list, so conspiracy theories about the club abound. This is especially the case during the two weeks the club spends at the Bohemian Grove near the Russian River. All kinds of weird shit goes down there, and journalists have been attempting to infiltrate it for years. Some have published their accounts.
While Jim Jones actually started the Peoples Temple in Indiana in the 1950s, he moved its headquarters to San Francisco in the ’70s. The cult was widely popular and allied itself with socialism and the counterculture. Eventually Jim Jones got super paranoid, so he moved everyone down to Guyana, and then shit got cray. On November 18, 1978, Jones and 908 of his followers committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced-Flavor Aid. This was later called the Jonestown Massacre. Don’t drink the Flavor Aid.
Part street-theater troupe, part left-wing community activists, the Diggers spent the mid to late 1960s trying to create a society free of capitalism. Based in the Haight, the group opened a number of free stores, started what would become the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, served daily free meals in the Panhandle, and threw free parties where bands like the Dead and Jefferson Airplane would provide the music. They fucked with the hippie media madness by doing massive street theater events like the Death of Money Parade and the Death of Hippie/Birth of Free. The Diggers, who came out of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, are sometimes credited for coining the phrases “Do your own thing” and “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”
The Suicide Club was a secret society started in the late ’70s by Gary Warne and a few friends. Credited for creating extreme urban exploration, members of the Suicide Club would do wild shit like climbing the Golden Gate Bridge, discovering long-forgotten underground tunnels, and riding the cable cars naked. They also did things like infiltrating the American Nazi Party, and the Billboard Liberation Front started as a Suicide Club event in 1977. After Warne died in 1983, several Suicide Club members formed the Cacophony Society and more ridiculous mayhem occurred.
I mean, have you walked into a cafe in San Francisco?
So much of the weird street theater that we take for granted as part of the fabric of San Francisco came from the Cacophony Society. Among the things that they created or helped inspire are SantaCon, the Urban Iditarod, the Brides of March, the St. Stupid Day Parade, and most famously, a little desert festival called Burning Man. According to Cacophony.org, “The Cacophony Society is a randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society through subversion, pranks, art, fringe explorations, and meaningless madness.” So next time you’re shaking your booty during a flash mob, you can thank these folks.
Founded in 1966 in San Francisco by Anton LaVey, the Church of Satan actually has nothing to do with devil worship and views any belief in supernatural entities as ludicrous. Some of the Church’s tenets are indulgence rather than abstinence, vengeance instead of turning the other cheek, and showing kindness to those who deserve it instead of wasting love on ingrates. While the Church of Satan had its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s still an active organization to this day, and you can find The Satanic Bible at pretty much any bookstore. Well, probably not religious bookstores.
OneTaste is an organization devoted to the female orgasm. Its key teaching is Orgasmic Meditation (OM), a practice where one person slowly and consistently stimulates a partner’s clit. While OneTaste offers a series of online tutorials, it has gotten the most publicity from its in-person classes, where people get instruction on OMing while performing it. The organization originally started out with commune-style retreat centers, which gave it the reputation of being a sex cult.
Housed in a big purple church toward the top of Portola, HerChurch is a congregation that uses feminist theology to express its faith and belief in Christianity. If you’re all about honoring the Goddess and the Divine Feminine, this church is for you. Besides being invested in empowering women, the group also stands with all people who are oppressed and are denied equal rights. So yeah, there’s a pretty big LGBT contingent here. Birkenstocks aren’t mandatory, just highly encouraged.
This one is a fake cult, but they were too much fun and were too on the nose for this list to not include them. Although Jejune no longer exists, a few years ago you could go to an “initiation” downtown (done via videotape in a ’70s-looking office) that would lead to an amazing, immersive scavenger hunt throughout Chinatown and the Financial District. It was almost like being in the Michael Douglas movie The Game or swallowing the red pill in The Matrix. The Jejune Institute was actually an alternative reality game created by Oakland artist Jeff Hull, and was filled with made-up characters (like cult leader Octavio Coleman, Esq.) and strange organizations (like the Elsewhere Public Works Agency) that fleshed out the wild storyline.