Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sixth and Market as grit-chic for tech investors

Times Square, here we come. Benchmark Capital, a big Twitter investor, is moving into the Warfield Building.

The Warfield Building. At Sixth and Market, San Francisco. The mind boggles.

Here's what Benchmark partner Peter Fenton says about it:
"It speaks to a place that will be fun and appealing to young entrepreneurs, not a stuffy financial-services kind of presence," Fenton said. "There's always a risk. In three to five years, people may laugh at this decision or say, 'Hey, there was some foresight.'"
He means it's just edgy enough. Wow. That's a change. That corner used to be too edgy.

The Warfield has been a lot of things, including a speakeasy said to have been run by Al Capone. There's a good photo essay on the building and its history, including many pictures from various eras, at a site I've just discovered, Mark Ellinger's Up From the Deep. The theater downstairs, still a major rock concert venue, is where the Jerry Garcia Band would perform when they came to town. On certain days in the '90s there used to be long lines all down Market Street of itinerant latter-day hippies waiting to buy or finagle tickets or just for the doors to open.

For a while I used to look out at the Garcia parade from the next building over. During law school in the early '90s, I helped manage a student-run welfare rights clinic, the GA Advocacy Project, above the Golden Gate Theater. That's between Taylor and Golden Gate on the north side of the five-way intersection where Sixth and Market meet the Tenderloin street grid at a slant. The Warfield is on the other side of Taylor from there, on the northeast corner between Market and Taylor.

The one time my parents came to see the office, we were just heading inside, when -- well, I had stepped ahead into the lobby and didn't see what happened, but they said some guy went chasing some other guy down Taylor Street whirling a bicycle chain over his head. Of course, you know Murphy's Law, how if there's going to be special craziness it will happen when your parents come to visit, and they'll be the ones with the ringside seat. But bicycle chains were not a completely unexpectable hazard on Taylor Street at that time.

That office was very Humphrey Bogart. Frosted glass doors in dark wood frames and Venetian blinds on the windows. Our biggest window looked down Sixth Street. There was always something to watch and worry about on Sixth Street. You'd be standing there on hold, waiting for someone's eligibility worker to dig up a file, staring out the window, and outside there'd be a drunk blundering  in traffic, or someone in a wheelchair trying to ankle-tiptoe the chair backwards up a ramp at the curb, or an all-out domestic dispute on the sidewalk, or some argument between guys in puffy parkas.

A visitor from one of the grantmaking offices stood at that window for a long time, marveling at the Sixth Street landscape of old neon signs for cheap hotels and restaurants. He said it looked more like New York than any place he'd seen on the West Coast.

Later in the '90s, also through work as a benefits advocate, I learned that at least one person lived illicitly for months in an office at the Warfield building. The management tried get him out and eventually succeeded, but they didn't try anywhere near as hard as the security team would have tried at a downtown office. It was that kind of building at the time.

On the other side of the Golden Gate Theater, in the narrow point of property between Market and Golden Gate on the same intersection, is the San Cristina Hotel. That's the white flatiron-shaped hotel building featured at the beginning and end of "Interview with the Vampire." You remember the camera's long travel up Market Street past all those assorted street-life characters? That's the Warfield on your right, just before we swoop up to the third floor for the interview. That's how the street used to look when the Garcia crew were in town. How, on some days, it still looks.

That's where the Warfield is. Or rather, that's one rapidly dating idea of where it was.

Venture capital? There goes the neighborhood.

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