Anniversary Issue: Culture isn’t convenient

Pub date October 22, 2008


San Francisco is the playpen of countercultures.

— R.Z. Sheppard, Time (1986)

I live near Church and Market streets, which means I’m stumbling distance from an organic grocery store, my favorite bar, several Muni stops, and a 24-hour diner. It also means the street outside my apartment is usually loud, the gutters are disgusting, there are rarely parking spots, and transients sleep, smoke, panhandle, and play really bad music near my front doorstep.

Actually, until recently, they did a lot of this on my front doorstep. Then the landlords — without asking us first — installed a gate. And I hate it. Yes, my stairs are cleaner. I suppose my stuff is safer. But I’m no longer as connected to my community. I’m separated from the life that’s happening on the street — the very reason I moved to this neighborhood in the first place. I fear I’ve lost more than I’ve gained.

Lately our city’s approach to entertainment and nightlife has been like that fence. While protecting people from noise, mess, and potential safety concerns, we’re threatening the very things we love about this city. Thanks to dwindling city budgets and increasingly vocal NIMBYs, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to manage nightclubs, plan street fairs, and organize outdoor festivals. And as we continue to build million-dollar condos at a brisk place, the city is filling up with affluent residents who may not appreciate the inherent messiness of city living. We’re at risk of locking away (and therefore losing) the events that make this a vibrant place where we want to live.

The recent history of this issue can be traced to the 1990s, when dot-com gold brought live/work lofts to otherwise non-residential neighborhoods — and plenty of new residents to live in them. Those newcomers, perhaps used to the peace and quiet of the suburbs, or maybe expecting more comfort in exchange for their exorbitant monthly rent checks, didn’t want to hear the End Up’s late-night set or deal with riffraff from Folsom Street Fair peeing in their driveways. Conflicts escalated. The Police Department station in SoMa, responsible for issuing venue permits and for enforcing their conditions, embarked on a plan to shut down half the area’s nightclubs. Luckily, city government and citizens agreed to save the threatened venues and the police captain responsible for the proposal was transferred to the airport, the San Francisco equivalent of political exile. In 2003, the Entertainment Commission was formed, in part to take over the role of granting venue and event permits.

But as Guardian readers know, the problem was not solved. As we’ve covered in several stories ["The death of fun" (05/23/06), "Death of fun, the sequel," (04/25/07), "Fighting for the right to party" (07/02/08)], beloved events and venues are still at risk. How Weird Street Fair was forced to change locations. Halloween in the Castro District was cancelled altogether. Alcohol was banned at the Haight Ashbury Street Fair and restricted at the North Beach Jazz Festival. Fees are still increasing. Rules are getting more stringent. As we predicted, it’s getting harder and harder to have fun in San Francisco. And while it’s the job of the Entertainment Commission to prevent problems while protecting our right to party, it has never been given enough funding, staff or authority to properly do its job.

So why should we care? Our legendary nightlife, festivals, and parades bring international tourists to our city — where they stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, shop at stores, and otherwise pump money into our economy. Street fairs give us ways to connect to our neighbors and our neighborhoods. Free events (which, if permit fees increase and alcohol sales are prohibited, will be a thing of the past) give equal access to fun and frivolity to people in all income brackets — and most raise money for charities and nonprofits. Particular venues and happenings provide an important way for those in the counterculture — whether that’s LGBT youth or progressive artists — to meet, mingle, and support each other. And none of that captures the intangible quality of living in a city where freedom, tolerance, and the pursuit of a good time are supported. And all this is one of the reasons many of us moved here, where we pay taxes (and parking tickets), open businesses, start organizations, and contribute to our already diverse and vibrant population.

But if we don’t establish a way to protect our culture, personally and legally, we may lose it. Instead, we need an overarching policy that establishes our values as well as the legal ways we can go about supporting them. The Music and Culture Charter Amendment, in the works for more than three years and currently sitting before the Board of Supervisors, aims to do exactly this.

The most important part of the amendment, created by a coalition of artists, musicians, event planners, club owners, and concerned citizens who call themselves Save SF Culture, would be to revise San Francisco’s General Plan to include an entertainment and nightlife element, just as the current plan contains an entire section devoted to the protection of (presumably mainstream) dance, theater, music, and art, calling them "central to the essence and character of the city." Not only would this amendment mandate that future lawmakers try to preserve events and venues, it would give a roadmap on how to do this effectively — most notably by creating a streamlined, transparent, online permitting process for special events.

Yet even if this important amendment passes and wins the mayor’s signature (which is hardly a sure thing), that’s just the beginning of a process of figuring out how to sustain San Francisco’s culture in the face of potentially threatening socioeconomic changes. At the very least, the next step will be giving the Entertainment Commission the full funding and staff (it currently operates with five of the eight staffers required). And once our beloved clubs and events are out of immediate danger, it will be time to form a coalition of citizens, government officials, and city planners to decide how and where culture in our city should grow, asking questions like whether or not we want a large-scale amphitheater or if we need to designate an area as an entertainment district. Most important, the city needs to develop a framework for resolving the inevitable conflicts with NIMBYs in a way that promotes a vibrant culture.

Yet there’s also a role in this process for each citizen of San Francisco. We need to remind ourselves and our neighbors that tolerance is one of our core civic values, tolerance for different races, classes, genders, sexual identities, and for the potentially noisy, messy, chaotic ways our culture supports those differences. If we erect a gate — physical or metaphorical — every time we’re uncomfortable or inconvenienced, we’ll turn San Francisco into the sanitized, homogenous, boring suburbs that I moved to Church and Market to escape. *