BY CHARLIE INNIS
PROSPECT PARK — The day George Ryan returned to Brooklyn from Vietnam on August 6, 1968, he sat on a grassy knoll in Prospect Park, cracked open a beer with a few friends and lit up a joint.
He stayed on that hill for three years … or at least hung out there as much as possible.
“I went from something that was the ugliest and most horrifying year of my life, to coming here, decompressing and learning how to hug people and be a human being again,” said Ryan. “It was magical.”
Over 100 people lazed around on the hill every day until around 1972, when life events started pulling the friends in different directions. In the summer, they slept on the grass. They called it “Hippie Hill,” and dozens of them met on the grassy knoll for a reunion 50 years later, though some of them brought canes and most of them had long since cut their hair.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams proclaimed August 5 as “Hippie Hill” day, in 2017, and since their 50-year reunion, the Prospect Park hippies have held annual gatherings on the same hill.
How did they find each other after all those years? Facebook.
Antonio Montes, the main organizer who now lives and works in Washington D.C, found several of his hippie peers through social media searches.
He created a Facebook group, and after he collected over 100 of his old friends together online, he called on Adams to support an official gathering.
Adams agreed, helped Montes secure $5,000 for party funds and dedicated a commemorative bench to Hippie Hill at Bartel-Pritchard Square.
At each gathering, they sip on beer, eat sandwiches from a nearby deli or order catering, and catch up on their lives. Most of them have scattered across the country since 1972. Some don’t make it to the reunion, some have died, but every year, over 50 people show up.
One of the group’s traditions is to hold a memorial ceremony, “Spirits in the Sky,” for all of those who have died over the years.
“Every year, we end up adding names,” Montes said.
Jackie Martin was 14 years old when she first mingled with the hippies in Prospect Park in 1969, and remembers the day her parents found her sitting on the grass.
“I wasn’t supposed to be there,” Martin said. “And they caught me and my father took me in the car and said, ‘Say goodbye to your friends.’”
That was her last day on the hill as a child, but now she moderates the Facebook group and helps organize the meetups.
“When you see the look on people’s faces who haven’t seen each other in years, and it being the hippie generation, just knowing they made it through the 70s is a nice surprise,” said Martin.
This year’s reunion coincided with the 50-year anniversary of Woodstock, the famous rock and roll festival that brought 400,000 young people to watch sets by the Who, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix.
Several group members, including Ryan, had gone to Woodstock, so a handful of them went to a showing of the 1970 Woodstock documentary at Nitehawk Cinema to celebrate.
He remembers the festival for its vast crowd and communal vibe, how everyone shared everything.
“If you had a hamburger and you took a bite and you passed it on, it never came back to you,” Ryan said.
The Prospect Park hippies plan to meet again every year, according to Martin. She doesn’t want the memory of her friends to die.
“I don’t know if it’s important that it’s Hippie Hill we’re keeping alive, I think it’s more the camaraderie that we had,” said Martin. “We were such a community. It was a time when kids didn’t want to go home.”