Neighborhood Place-Making Essentials: The Neighborhood Bar - Part 3

Building Genuine Neighborhoods (and Real Cities)


Minnie Baker by Nicola Lane (1973)

Minnie Baker by Nicola Lane (1973)

Will there be a Next Generation of Neighborhood Bars in SOMA to replace the last one?

The 21st Century SOMA Neighborhood Bar?

A great threat to all SOMA (and San Francisco) neighborhood character is certainly “the rent” (aka, “market capitalism”). Few local bars own their own building, and as the value of SOMA business space continues to spiral upward any existing commercial tenant can be priced out when the lease expires. Full bar leased spaces are particularly valuable because their hard-to-get full-bar liquor license stays attached to that specific address. So there is a strong financial incentive to convert a modest SOMA neighborhood bar into an up-market or up-scale “cocktail lounge.”

For example, 30 years ago there were several bars in the Sixth Street district that might have been considered some kind of neighborhood bar – but with a very, very down and out personality. Gingers Too at 43 Sixth Street closed sometime in the 1990s, and several owners later is now the generic new San Francisco-style OMG club. The local bar at the corner of Mission (name i can’t recall) also closed about the same time and several identities later is now the very ambitious and very hip Monarch Bar. Few over 40 can be found at either, as Sixth Street still retains its very “edgy” vibe.

And all local bars/cafes go through routine life cycles. The owner who sets their tone must age and retire some day, and then there is not always a family member or business associate who wants to take it on, so it goes on sale (like Dave’s did). If their core customer group is mostly just one generation, they will also age and gradually dwindle away at some point (like several of the 1970s-era Folsom Street Gay bars have done). Or if it is mostly local workers in a certain industry and that industry departs SOMA due to macro-economic trends, their drinking spots will disappear too (like all the one-time newspaper bars have done). This is normal – “change.”

But optimistically, one can hope that if there are always potential customers for a modest local spot of some kind from some current group of residents or workers or habitués, then someone with a distinctive personality will find a way to open it up someplace in SOMA, somehow. But whether it can then survive for the years – decades really – it takes to acquire and sustain real personality and character is not so certain.

So perhaps most concerning of all, with the cost of our SOMA Neighborhood housing also spiraling upward so drastically, and many local small businesses being pushed out by rent jumps, what potential SOMA customer groups will be left in future who themselves have much real character and personality to support Neighborhood Bars?

Two Recent Openings – and Brew Pubs?

Showdown Bar


Directly across Sixth Street from the OMG Club is the much more traditional but fairly new Showdown. Back in the day this was the popular Charleston Club, and after a series of ownership and name changes it remains much the same, if cleaner. The customers are not local SRO tenants or any particular age group. They instead reflect the various constituencies of this Central Market location, which typifies a neighborhood place. And with time it may take on a distinct personality.

Pink Elephant Alibi

Pink Elephant Alibi

I think this is the old Alibi Bar, which was a long-time spot for functional alcoholics working in this part of town. Now it is definitely a local dive bar on Minna Alley with kitchen and  young audience. The Academy of Art is close by too with its thousands of “art students,” but i’m not sure if it has got a character set yet.

Black Hammer Brewing

Brew Pubs

The saloons of old are gone, but breweries are back! Not big industrial plants like the Falstaff Brewery that occupied the entire SOMA block where Costco and its mammoth garage stand today, but at least half a dozen new SOMA “craft breweries." 21st Amendment and Thirsty Bear were first, both with large restaurants, joined recently by more modest storefront brewers – Black Hammer, Cellarmaker, Local Brewing Co., and Pacific Brewing Laboratory. And there are two dozen more throughout the City.

The atmosphere is convivial, but i don’t see a lot of diversity. There is a sense of ownership though, of pride in the brews. So they might turn in to something. Give them time.

Ultimately, Who Will Care?

Mario Crismani c. 1990

Mario Crismani c. 1990

All my life i’ve met many San Franciscans who love good drinks, good bars, and real neighborhoods. Not because it’s hip, stylish, or fashionable but because it captures an essence of city life - the milieus and mixtures of humanity whose interactions define the special character of a place like San Francisco or SOMA. And we cared for that from the day we arrived as 20-somethings. Which is why Minnie’s Can Do Club on Fillmore (portrait at the top of Minnie Baker 1973 by Nicola Lane) was my first after-work home base in 1970, and the corner table in Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store in North Beach has been my favorite personal urban locus in the whole world since it opened in 1973.

But i’m not feeling that vibe in SOMA much anymore, not with today’s generation of new arrivals. The clubs and bars are full certainly, but they feel like a package, like tourist places do, not authentic and rooted. Am i just missing it?

Maybe it’s just in my blood. My great-grandfather Valentino Nerio opened up a saloon on 10th Street near Howard in the 1890’s for his fellow Italian immigrant workingmen of west SOMA’s factories and warehouses. He was forced by eminent domain (long before the Redevelopment Agency!) to sell it to the Ocean Shore Railroad in 1902 to build its San Francisco terminal. No doubt he was very unhappy about that, but then all SOMA was lost to the Great Fire in 1906 anyway. There is just something about real Neighborhood Bars that is timeless.

(Any additional info is appreciated, please add in the comments)