Anniversary Issue: Culture isn't convenient

Sustaining entertainment and nightlife in San Francisco requires awareness and a policy shift

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.

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