Saturday, April 7, 2012

Western SoMa: here come the conventionaleers

We got a Planning Dept. notice here yesterday about a restaurant that's intended from the start to cater partly to conventioneers. It's the latest evidence of big change in our suddenly weirdly fashionable "FolSoMa" micro-hood of San Francisco. After arguably 150+ years of gritty differentness, Western South of Market is losing its defenses against the good and bad effects of encroaching prosperity.

The notice is from some folks called PPK Holdings, Inc. (these folks, I think), who seem to be owners of a successful Castro venue. They've bought the decaying Rawhide II club building that runs from Seventh Street through to the Langdon Street alley South of Market. They want to put in a basically new building with a restaurant, a dance floor, a couple of apartments.

Clearly they're smart marketers. They turned the Planning Department notice requirement into a PR opportunity by including a flyer with engaging descriptions and photos and an invitation for contact from neighbors. First developers who have done that in the eventful, development-ridden fifteen years we've lived in western SoMa, and good for them. A lot of the content on the flyer is also on their Web site here.

The developers' FAQ describes the crowd expected, and, wow, does it ever mark a change in Western South of Market:
"We will bring our programming and management skills from our 17+ years of operating the Cafe in the Castro to ensure a respectful clientele. We will be a neighborhood-serving restaurant while still recognizing the importance of visitors to the city coming to such places as Moscone Center. Our nighttime focus will be on the diversity you find at an LGBT entertainment venue with the inclusiveness found at CafĂ© duNord or Slim’s. Yes, that means we will have a stage and will be featuring performance as well as dance events. We envision the mix of entertainment as diverse as possible and are planning for a small but well equipped stage for live performances."
Might be a nice place. But note the reference to Moscone Center. That means conventioneers. Also the tech and financial after-work crowd. Like the after-work crowd who already have begun to appear in surprising numbers at the City Beer Store right around the corner on Folsom.

In the past some restaurants around here have tried and failed to attract conventioneer business. But I don't think this new place will necessarily fail. Things are different now. Now our Sixth Street barrier is failing.

The Sixth Street skid-row corridor down the middle of SoMa served for the past three decades as a dangerous-looking (sometimes actually dangerous) buffer that prevented boring or timid people in the convention and financial zones to the east of us from walking very far at all west of the Yerba Buena complex around Third that includes Moscone Center. (Yerba Buena, of course, replaced San Francisco's former Skid Row in the hard-fought 1970s urban renewal rip-out. A lot of the people and functions it displaced moved over to Sixth.)

So even through the Web 1.0 boom, those of us living South of Market and west of Sixth were spared the glass-front high-rises, the loud after-work joints full of junior stock traders in mating plumage, and the restaurants and night spots catering to Midwestern conventioneers venturing out from Moscone Center -- that's all in the alien territory, confusingly also called SoMa, that stretches from Fifth east to the Embarcadero by the Bay Bridge. Over here, things have managed to stay a little more alternative.

Sixth Street, however, is losing its fear factor. It's going hipster. Its function as a containment zone for vice and dysfunction is fading as its property values rise. I think its future really is what a younger-generation SRO landlord predicted to me more than ten years ago: to provide hostel-type accommodations and entertainment for young people who want to go somewhere a bit different, but not perhaps too different.

So over here, we're in for the other kind of hipsters: visiting orthopedic supply salesmen.

I'm not objecting to the new restaurant/club necessarily. In fact the desired crowd sounds way more suited to this neighborhood than the Thursday comedy nights that already go on a few doors away at BrainWash. Thursdays bring in this whole other crowd of big-shouldered chain-smoking would-be players to that place, which happens also to be our laundromat and local so it bugs me. I swear, the males in that crowd, and they're mostly men and boys, are on average twice the width of the typical rest-of-the-week Brainwash customer. They're the mean kids who we moved to San Francisco to escape. The only whole Thursday night session I made myself sit through, the fellows at the microphone were trading in shared majority-group contempt, not irreverence. They varied mainly by their choices among just three targets for hate talk: women, gay men, and poor people. You can't hardly do your laundry in the place on a Thursday without worrying about a wedgie or at least a "drop the soap" joke.

Things were once otherwise. The developers explain, in part, about the old Rawhide II:
"This building has a long history in the gay community of being the largest and then the only Country Western Dancing club in San Francisco."
The Rawhide II indeed does have history. You can find it on this Tales of the City walking-tour guide. It's in the extensive SoMa Tour #9 -- which looks great in general though I'm a tad concerned that the authors claim SoMa means "South of Mission," when of course it really means "South of Market" -- so you have to wonder what else they got wrong.

Anyway the Tour #9 text explains how the Rawhide II appears in Armistead Maupin's novel Sure of You, sixth in his Tales of the City series: hero Michael Tolliver and his lover Thack go out for the evening; Michael falls into conversation with a man at the bar, Larry, about the AIDS medications they both take on a beeper-driven schedule (this is 1989: AZT without much else to help it, the more effective "cocktail" formula far in the future):
"'How's it going?'
The man shrugged. 'I've got six T-cells.'
Michael nodded and counted his own blessings in silence. The last time he checked, he had three hundred and ten.
'I'm feeling real possessive about them,' said the man. 'I may start giving them names.'..."
Larry's irrepressible mom, Eula, has moved to town to look after him and has taken up gay nightlife with surprising vim. She's at the bar dancin' up a storm. During a turn around the floor with Michael, she makes conversation:
"'First time here?' she asked.'
'Uh-huh... well, no. I came here once in the early eighties, when it was called something else.'
'What was it called then?' 'I don't remember, actually.' This was a lie, pure and simple. It had been called the Cave, and the walls had been painted black. Its specialties had been nude wrestling and slave auctions. Why he was hiding this from a woman who frequented the Eagle's Bare Chest Contest, Michael did not know...."
The Cave  is also noted in this lurid Planning Department roster of SoMa gay history sites.
[Correction: the document is posted on the Planning Dept. Web page but in fact is a recommendation for preservation/recognition of LGBTQ sites from the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force. That first-cited document is a draft, and this is a finalized version of the document. The draft version is more fun.]

Eh, so it goes.
"...All the things I'm missin',
Good vittles, love, and kissin',
Are waiting at the end of my ride.
Move 'em out -- head 'em up
Head 'em up -- move 'em on.
Move 'em out -- head 'em up:


  1. PPK Holdings has not sent out notices to residents within 500 feet, and there are more than a hundred very angry condo dwellers who are going to have sign a petition against the ABC license and construction of yet another noisy nightclub; we got rid of Club Hide and three other proposed "entertainment" clubs recently, and now everybody is going to make sure Pornchai doesn't make our neighborhood worse. Very clever distraction in their proposal being a family retaurant, when in fact it will be a LGBT club with very loud P.A, sound sysytems, motorcycle clientele, drugs, etc just like Club Hide. We are going all out to prevent this project from getting City approval. We have already contacted the appropriate City departments and started the process.

    1. Interesting news.

      Funny that you weren't notified. My item was based on a Planning Dept. notice that our household did receive here, but then we specially placed ourselves on a Planning Dept. notice list many years ago so our names may be more solidly in the system than some others.

      Who is the "we" behind this effort to stop the club? Have you talked to Jim Meko of the SoMa Leadership Council about it? He is often very active on club noise issues, often critical of the noisier venues, but I haven't seen this item yet on his site or weekly newsletters.

  2. Sorry, I can't seem to fix the SoMa Leadership Council link above so I'll repeat it. This should work better.