I first interviewed Harvey Kornspan in August, 2010, after I had traveled hundreds of miles to interview many other Diggers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and further up the coast, deep in northern California’s Emerald Triangle. This was a bit strange, given that Harvey lives in Silver Lake, less than two miles from the Atwater Village bungalow I was rented until 2008. For years I had been researching the Diggers, and there Harvey was all along, just a hop away.
But Harvey was not just a Digger, and he wasn’t just a local. Because unlike every other Digger I’ve ever met or contacted, before or since, Harvey had kept the figurative and literal receipts of the era. So not only did he have his wonderful memories — more of less: it was the ’60s, let’s be reasonable — but he also had unpublished letters, manuscripts, broadside drafts and business documents, as well as a sizable collection of flyers, newspapers, and other ephemera, which he was happy to share. (Some of them are shown here. Harvey is a mensch.)
For the uninitiated: in 2022, yes, the Diggers are little-known. But in 1966-8, such was the Diggers’ presence and notoriety that seemingly every reporter filing a story on the Haight included the Diggers in their account. “A band of hippie do-gooders,” said Time magazine. “A true peace corps,” wrote local daily newspaper columnist (and future Rolling Stone editor) Ralph J. Gleason. The Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor would later write, “[The Diggers] were in my opinion the core of the whole underground counterculture because they were our conscience.”
So, as the counter-culture came into being, the Diggers were there, the Diggers were important, the Diggers were well-known, but crucially, though they acted in public, the Diggers were anonymous. Nobody knew who they were, where they came from, or how they did what they did. In short, they had a mystique: a group of LSD-fueled street anarchists with a philosophy/practice of “everything is free / do you own thing.”
I recently came across a March 1967 article from the Foghorn, a student newspaper published by the University of San Francisco, a private Jesuit school, that summed up the Diggers vibe succinctly:
The sign on the door said, “You are a digger.” About 50 people had accepted the invitation and moved into the house high in the hills over the Haight-Ashbury.
A cauldron of stew was cooking in the kitchen. The stew, eventually, would be trucked down to the Panhandle, free for anyone with a bowl and a spoon. No one know for sure who brings the food that goes into the stew. Some is donated, some bought, some stolen. The stew would be good today; someone had brought two chickens.
It’s all the work of the Diggers, a mysterious, amorphous group in the Haight-Ashbury dedicated to given things away free and “doing their thing.” They have been evicted from more than half a dozen flats, apartments, and store fronts in the six months of their existence in San Francisco.
One place of refuge is the All Saints Episcopal Church on Waller, where Father Leon Harris has let the Diggers use his church kitchen to prepare the food for the Panhandle for three weeks now.
“The Diggers are industrious, cheerful and benevolent,” he said. “They also give away free clothing and find lodging for homeless people. It seems to me they put a lot of professing Christians to shame by their goodness.”
What follows is a consolidation of various conversations with Harvey, which, to some degree, builds on my previously posted Diggers oral histories, and, as it includes the inside story of why the Altamont disaster happened, offers something of a conclusion. So, many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. My advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let any unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, you might get something out of the next part.
This is the tenth interview in my series of Diggers’ oral histories; the others are accessible here. For more detailed information on the Diggers, consult Eric Noble’s vast archive at diggers.org
I have incurred not insignificant expenses in my Diggers research through the years. If you would like to support my work, please make a donation in my PayPal TipJar. All contributions, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!
— Jay Babcock (firstname.lastname@example.org), July 27, 2022
Jay Babcock: Where’d your grow up?
Harvey Kornspan: I was born in Youngstown, Ohio. My dad sold used cars, had a very successful business. Not rich, middle class. Jewish, both sides. My mom was a homemaker. I have a sister who’s four years older and a brother with Down Syndrome.Continue reading “How the Deal Really Went Down: Behind the scenes with San Francisco Digger (and counterculture Zelig) HARVEY KORNSPAN”