Building Genuine Neighborhoods (and Real Cities)
An occasional blog about things that make a difference …
All the timeless SOMA bars are not gone. But it takes cycles of owner and customer renewal – and a good landlord – to survive.
Perhaps a half-dozen long-time local bars still live on in SOMA today.
What Remains in SOMA
The landmark Hotel Utah bar at Fourth and Bryant is a SOMA icon, an exemplar dive-bar that thankfully has not been “improved” for decades. It has survived changing times thanks to a landlord willing to accept a reasonable rent (while gradually converting the SRO rooms upstairs into a hip pensione), and booking local music for its small performance space to draw new audiences. The biker bar-ish staff keep things down to earth, and the kitchen offers tasty chow. Its customers are some undefinable mix of locals, oldish hipsters, and whatever comes in the door (even a few techies now and then). Let’s hope it is immortal.
The Tempest was the funkiest of the newspaper bars back in the day, and by the 1990s had drifted into a run-down watering hole for local alcoholics. But then less than ten years ago a new ownership group somehow reinvented and rejuvenated it, and has become the hot dive bar for SOMA’s young-ish hipsters. Few visible improvements were made, but the result is a place crowded with local Fifth and Mission habitués, creative types, and general purpose slackers (my own true nature 😌) – with lots of tattoos visible (and probably some techies too, in disguise). Its hole-in-the-wall Box Kitchen on Natoma alley next door cooks good burgers, and the pool table keeps it funky. I’m usually 25 years older than anyone else in the house, but it feels natural.
Its future though is uncertain. This small three story brick building is owned by the newspaper Guild (the Chronicle/Examiner union that represents news workers throughout the Western US) which has its offices upstairs. And it’s right across the alley from the $1.5 Billion 5M office/condos/apartments mega-project that will start construction in a year or two. That will make this bar location tremendously valuable one day, and when the Tempest’s lease expires it could easily become one more pretentious up-scale cocktail bar paying 5 times the rent, like the (very techie) pseudo-exclusive Playroom bar in the Hotel Zetta directly across Fifth Street. Cross our fingers.
Back in the day when cops could be seen drinking together in bars a block away from the Station (like they still do in fictional TV cop shows), for many years this Seventh and Harrison Streets bar was the Line Up. That name harkened back to the gritty 1950s TV police procedural series (and one full-length movie) of the same name, kind of a San Francisco version of Dragnet, that was entirely filmed on-location throughout the City from 1954 to 1960. It was famously killed suddenly in 1960 because, having just been expanded to a one-hour full color format, it’s initial episode of that season featured the North Beach beatnik scene (a very Hollywood-cliché version) and some naughty things going on there (sex and drugs). This totally outraged then-Mayor George Christopher (the last Republican mayor of SF) and the very Catholic-Irish Police Chief Tom Cahill, who were determined to clean up the City’s beatnik scene by raiding its gay bars, closing after-hours joints, and busting poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and comedians like Lenny Bruce for obscenity, supported by the Chamber of Commerce, the Arch-Bishop, the City’s daily newspapers, and most local politicians. So the Police Department immediately refused to allow any more on-location filming, and that was that – series suddenly cancelled.
The cops are long gone, that memory has passed into the City fog, and it doesn’t feel like that kind of place any more. When new owner bought the bar several years ago they changed the name to Rumors and cleaned it up, but it’s still a local hangout for the workers and residents of that slice of SOMA (few techs in sight).
Showplace Square in the southwest corner of SOMA saw the first widespread “adaptive reuse” of big old brick warehouses and factories, some landmarks, dating from the City’s industrial era for new business functions. The San Francisco wholesale trade showrooms for apparel, furniture, decorating, gifts, and other product lines began to cluster here in the 1960s and ‘70s. Their showroom workers and business associates, along with out of town buyers and salespeople, definitely needed a local spot to hang out, and the Mars Bar at Seventh and Brannan Streets filled that need for decades.
But the wholesale showroom business format has steadily shrunk over the last 20 years thanks to macro-trends including the internet and apparel/accessories globalization. So about half the buildings in Showplace Square are now occupied by tech offices, like the huge 650 Townsend Street built in the 1980s to be the San Francisco Apparel Mart but later converted to tech office space during the first dot.com boom. It is now occupied Zynga games. Likewise the former Jewelry Mart was bought by Dolby Corporation in 1990s for its headquarters (now recently moved to a Mid-Market office block formerly occupied by the California State Workmens Compensation Insurance Fund HQ, which moved to the suburbs). So Mars Bar has gradually morphed with the times, but thanks to owning its own funky building with a pleasant outdoor patio and decent lunch kitchen it still is a locals’ gathering spot (and not overrun by the local techs).
There are several other local spots of various origins, character, and lifetimes –Kate O’Brien’s on Howard Street, the sometimes-really-Irish (otherwise tech-ish) Chieftain, Ted’s on Harriett Alley opposite the Hall of Justice, and others (?).
(Any additional info is much appreciated, please add in the comments)