When I moved to San Francisco from England in 2007 the city was still a glorious, fun mess. I’d made it to the raucous edge of America that Rudyard Kipling called a “mad city, inhabited by perfectly insane people.” For every young Brit watching ‘Bullitt’ under a poster of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ in their university dorms, San Francisco was the coolest place on earth.
Though it was half a century since the Beats had wandered the streets and bars of San Francisco, the city, and the perfectly insane people, didn’t disappoint. In lieu of a ’69 Mustang GT, I joyfully drove my old VW Jetta over the hilly intersections of Nob Hill like Steve McQueen (but with more respect for bike lanes). I moved into an apartment on Golden Gate and Baker in what was still called the Western Addition, securing the place over the phone, unseen, for around a third of what it would rent for today. I discovered that the apartment was the bottom half of the duplex where Patty Hearst was held captive by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. That was pretty cool. Everything was pretty cool.
I formed a band and spent my nights in the city’s dingy dive bars and music venues, either listening to, or playing, abhorrently loud guitars. We rented a shared rehearsal space in SoMa’s community studio/street drinking institution, Lennon Studios, chipping in $75 each a month for the space.
Our band played shows to small whiskey-soaked crowds, mostly made up of friends coerced by Facebook events at the Hemlock, Kimo’s, the Elbo Room and debriefed over shots of Fernet with ginger chasers at The Summer Place and Koko. We’d watch better bands, with bigger crowds at Slim’s or 330 Ritch. I wrote about the shows for the SF Weekly and my English friend who also made the journey to California photographed them. We’d wake up and watch Liverpool at Mad Dog in the Fog and guzzle Bloody Marys before our hangovers could kick in.
As you can see from those links, every one of those places mentioned is now permanently closed.
By 2007, the first dot-com bubble was mostly just a joke about the brief life of pets.com and boo.com, but the growing disdain for techie culture, often voiced from the artistic community, was real. The Great Recession juxtaposed with the rise of more robust tech giants in the city like Twitter, Facebook and Google (and their moneyed, transplanted employees) forced artists out as landlords cashed in. A rise in homelessness, a chasm-like wealth divide and protests over “Google buses” (remember them?) epitomized the city that felt like it was suddenly bereft of the art and music and freewheeling spirit of mad creativity we’d come here for. The mood can be pretty well summed up in an incident at the punk dive bar Molotov’s in the Lower Haight, when a patron wearing Google glasses was given a frosty welcome.
The city was changing again, as it had so many times before.
By 2016, it was harder to find any messy trouble, or bands to while away the nights. Most had moved to Oakland, Portland or L.A. — the all-surface-no-feeling SoCal rival traditionally smirked at by San Franciscans for its lack of real culture. But by then Los Angeles had seemingly become the destination for all the hedonistic creative types that had left the suddenly not-so-interesting streets of San Francisco.
Many of the rehearsal spots and warehouse art spaces disappeared, to be replaced by start-ups, e-scooter stations, condos and artisanal gyms (yes, they were a thing).
I wrote an elegy to the scene that frustrated the people with genuine hope still trying to hold on to the heady days of yesteryear. I regretted being the naysayer, but really, the city — where the rent for a one-bedroom apartment was getting close to $4K a month — was demonstrably not a destination for artists anymore.
But creative kids will always find a way, especially in San Francisco.
This year has been an unending s–t tornado, whichever way you look at it. People love speculating and reading about stories of seismic cultural shifts in the city, whether it be hate-clicks from the political right happy to see the final destruction of Nancy Pelosi’s modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, or from native San Franciscans anxious about the move into all things tech. This can often lead to hyperbole around changes to the city, but 2020 is not just any year.
Over 100 restaurants and bars have permanently closed in San Francisco this year, and many more are shuttered, for now, temporarily. Rents have plunged in SoMa and downtown by over 20%. Many of the tech companies around mid-Market have told their employees that they can work from home forever, laying waste to any remaining hope for a tech-fueled renewal to the struggling neighborhood. And wealthy homeowners in the city are selling up, like never before.
It’s not a pretty picture, but could there be a grace note to the tumult in a return to the city’s artistic roots? Some think the city will move back in that direction, and these hopes were buoyed by the $12.8-million round of annual grants announced by Mayor London Breed last week for arts and culture across the city, including many organizations advocating for city musicians, such as Intermusic SF and the Women’s Audio Mission.
Musician and longtime S.F. resident Jeff Knutson is optimistic that the scene will rise again, but it may not happen soon. “I really hope that we might see a resurgence of bands and musicians and performers in the city,” he says. “I haven’t seen so many apartments available in S.F. in over 15 years, and rents are definitely coming down. But let’s be honest, rents here are still really, really high.”
One of the founders of the San Francisco Arts Collective, Tshakie N, sees some light at the end of the tunnel. “I am hopeful that the arts are going to come back in a greater wave in San Francisco,” she says. “What is evident is that S.F. residents are avid supporters of the arts; they have demonstrated this through donations, support of online services, and demand of work from local artists.”
Outside of bands and artists, some residents have noticed a welcome slowing in the speed of day-to-day life in the city.
Konstantin Kosov, AKA Fruit Jesus, the man who has been biking custom trailers full of farmers’ market fruit around the city since 2014, sees something happening through the chaos of the crisis.
“I think San Francisco is going to see a renaissance,” he says. “So much happened in the last couple months that feels like old S.F. to me. People are moving out, but thank God, it was getting crazy here! Too many people, it was just, I don’t know, I kind of like what’s happening, people just at the park, or beaches, just hanging out. I remember when the recession hit, I lived by Dolores Park, people just were people. You didn’t have to schedule a hang three weeks out because they were so busy.”
What’s next for the bars and music venues in the city that over the decades have gone from lubricating blue collar S.F. natives and artists to serving moneyed tech employees to closing their doors through the pandemic?
Martin Cate, co-owner of Smuggler’s Cove and Whitechapel, thinks that a return to “normalcy” may be ahead, whatever that means in San Francisco. “As vacancies rise, rents fall, we could see the return of hospitality, firefighters, teachers, all these professions that are struggling to live in S.F. We could see them repopulate the city and support a diverse sector of industries.”
As the large established music venues like The Fillmore and The Warfield wait with bated breath for a timeline on when they may be able to hold thousands of sweaty concert-goers again, the DIY punk scene that recently emerged out of the garages of Ingleside and the living rooms of the Sunset is ready to continue the underground explosion that unintentionally found itself as the haven of rock music in San Francisco.
In the same way that thousands of square feet of street art and murals took over the boarded-up storefronts when the shutdown hit in March, when those painted wooden panels finally get pulled down and bar doors are reopened, the city that emerges from its cocoon may look different.
While the rental drops and newly emptied corporate spaces could eventually make room for artistic endeavors, in reality rent in the city is still one of the highest in the country. Unless the rates continue to drop, it’s unlikely that the demographics of the city will shift abruptly. But after a decade of the second tech boom that pushed San Francisco’s Bohemian roots back into the soil, there’s some hope that pockets of something more nurturing may grow back.
“It’ll happen eventually. And when it does, maybe it’ll be better than ever. San Francisco is a special place, and it’s always been a draw for creative people,” Knutson says. “In a way, the city’s opened up and gotten less crowded, which is kind of cool. The real San Franciscans are still here, they’ll be here — they’ll find a way and they’re not going anywhere. Hopefully we come out of this with some more balance, more space for everyone, not just the privileged few, to be a part of what makes this city great.”
This won’t be like Detroit which saw severe urban decay, barren streets and a subsequent influx of artists. Short of an almighty earthquake, San Francisco’s 47 square miles are too hallowed to be abandoned. And it won’t be a regression to the romanticized scenes of the past. North Beach won’t suddenly fill with Beat poets, the Fillmore won’t regain a jazz scene that was desecrated by crooked urban development. The Haight won’t be teeming with rock-and-roll bands again. But after the unprecedented chaos of 2020, San Francisco will change again, as it did when I first found this magnificent city thirteen years ago.
Andrew Chamings is an editor at SFGATE. Email: Andrew.Chamings@sfgate.com | Twitter: @AndrewChamings