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All We Want to Do Is Dance

[whitespace] Illustration San Francisco may not be facing the end of nightlife, but we are looking at the end of the mega-club, the end of the club-as-institution

By Michelle Goldberg
Illustrations by Katherine Streeter



At 3pm on a Saturday, the EndUp is still going from the night before. On the dance floor, a girl--totally bald except for a tiny gelled spike of hair like a baby unicorn--gyrates in lime-green platform shoes and fluorescent orange hip-huggers. A stunning white-blonde from Austria sits on a banister and sways while her boyfriend, a compact man from Ethiopia with a long, black goatee and tiny rectangular glasses, moves with funky, serpentine grace on the dance floor. He's been at it since midnight the night before, she tells me. The dancers spill out onto the Edenic back patio, where the sound of fountains mingles with the insistent thump of house music. Bright and lush with palm trees, the back yard of the EndUp is a kind of country club for the underground, where people who still look shockingly attractive after nearly 20 hours of partying stretch out in the San Francisco springtime sun. No wonder local scenester Miss Polly called her book I Found God at the EndUp.

But the EndUp, like nearly every other club South of Market, could be gone by 1999, forced out by a locust-like invasion of lofts and their attendant noise complaints. "It's a basic struggle for life. It's almost like the Native Americans that were overrun," says Carl Hanken, the EndUp's avuncular, white-haired owner, a former research chemist. "The EndUp could go. It's a distinct possibility. It's almost a week-to-week existence for the club industry. Each week I hear of some other problems."

San Francisco may not be facing the end of nightlife, but we are looking at the end of the mega-club, the end of the club-as-institution. It's one of many ironies in this unfortunate situation that San Francisco's booming economy is threatening the very vitality that accommodated so much of our region's famed technological development. The fate of SOMA could indicate something much larger--whether bohemia can coexist with our decade's gonzo postindustrial hypercapitalism.

"Money has destroyed San Francisco's bohemia and attitude," says Hanken. "Young people were once more driven by idealism; these are more driven by the buck. They operate more with the head than with the heart. That's why we have the confrontation."

Hanken says that it would be impossible to open up a club like the EndUp today, and most club promoters agree that for the last few years the club scene has been moving to smaller bars and lounges. There's currently a moratorium on after-hours permits in SOMA, and while some of San Francisco's best parties are held in small bars--Kate O'Brians, Liquid, The Top--they can never approach the grandiose decadence of a 1015 or a Club Townsend.

Whether or not SOMA nightclubs are able to survive depends on whether the notoriously apolitical nightclub scene can pull together to fight a gentrification process that has become so ingrained in big cities that it's seen as inevitable--first the "pioneers," the nightclubs and artists, move into an industrial wasteland, making it both habitable and hip and popularizing its new name. The yuppies follow, rents skyrocket, and the nomadic creative types start the whole process again somewhere else. Many see it as a foregone conclusion that what happened in New York's SoHo--where an artists' neighborhood became a shiny maze of chichi boutiques--will also happen to San Francisco's SOMA.

"What happened in SoHo is clearly happening here," says San Francisco senior planner Paul Lord. "In New York, Alphabet City wasn't far behind. Here, Alphabet City could be the back side of Potrero Hill or the South Bayshore, but where's Manhattan's Alphabet City now? That's gone yuppie, too." New York's quality-of-life-obsessed Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been padlocking nightclubs and yanking licenses for years now, and San Francisco is following in his ignoble footsteps.

Of course the greatest irony in all this is that SOMA is becoming a victim of its own coolness. The professionals who are moving into SOMA lofts go there seeking hipness--the new live/work spaces are essentially condos built to look like converted warehouses, their faux-industrial chic as transparent as that of an Urban Outfitters or a Starbucks. And just as the notorious coffee monolith has strangled so many of the boho java joints that inspired it, so SOMA's culture is being trampled by developers selling "authentic" hipster lifestyles for half a million bucks.

As a result of land-use laws passed in the '80s in order to make SOMA more hospitable to artists, the area is zoned for both living and light industry. That means that nightclubs are being forced to comply with the same noise-abatement limits as residential neighborhoods. SOMA lofts were supposed to go to artists, people who really did live and work in their spaces. But here we have the situation's second great irony--there are no guidelines in place to decide what constitutes an artist because the artists themselves resisted efforts to legally define them. They didn't foresee that SOMA would become a hot address for technology professionals who can afford to plunk down the $250,000 to $500,000 asking price for the area's new lofts or "live/work units."

Loft development has risen exponentially--there are 1,000 units pending right now, according to land-use attorney Sue Hestor. And as new residents with early bedtimes move in, they're calling the police and demanding enforcement of noise laws. As a result, the VSF is close to having its permits revoked, the Holy Cow has had its permits temporarily suspended, and other clubs are feeling an increased police presence. "We haven't had a noise complaint in 10 years, until last weekend, when noise abatement was knocking on people's doors and asking them if they had a problem with us," says Robin Reichert, owner of the Paradise Lounge. "In large cities, noise ordinances are a way to select or select out what kind of businesses are going to be in an area. In the next three or four months, we could lose all the clubs." The officer in charge of noise abatement, Edward Anzore, responded that Reichert is "a pain in the butt" and said that knocking on neighbors' doors is standard during noise-abatement investigations, which are conducted "the same way we would do a criminal investigation. We knock on neighbors' doors and say, 'Do you hear the music?' If the noise can be heard inside a person's apartment, it's a violation of the noise ordinance."

SOMA loft-owners don't see themselves as interlopers but as a fledgling community. "Longtime SOMA residents are bitching and moaning about yuppies like me moving in," says one new-media professional who recently bought a $350,000 loft at Seventh and Brannan. "There's a core group of people who won't be satisfied until SOMA returns to what it was five years ago, an industrial no man's land, but the bottom line is that people like me outnumber people like them 10 to 1."

He continues, "The fact that they close SOMA's nightclub district doesn't mean that San Francisco is going to lose all its nightclubs. They're just going to have to find a new place. If you go to China Basin, it's like SOMA used to be. Very few people live there, and more and more nightclubs will be moving into that neighborhood."

But the yuppification treadmill has speeded up tremendously in the past few years, and San Francisco is only about 50 square miles. Perhaps the clubs could move to China Basin, but the lofts will surely follow, and after that, there's just ocean. "We are right now in the middle of a white-hot economy where the pace of change is very fast," says Richard LeGates, director of the urban studies program at S.F. State. "Processes which may have taken 20 years in Greenwich Village are happening in the space of a few years in San Francisco."

Illustration Besides, club owners who have owned their buildings for decades can't just pick up and move every few years--the EndUp has been on Sixth Street for 26 years. The argument that neighborhoods necessarily go from clubland to yuppieville is just "onanism of the mind," says Hanken. "They like to massage themselves in comfortable places. It's a sugar-coated excuse. These people are nine-to-fivers. They're not involved in the club scene, and they see us as transient. That is their problem. They simply do not understand us. We cannot move. We have many encumbrances. There are handfuls of licenses to maintain. All they need is another buck, or five hundred thousand, and they'll move. We're stuck."

Lord says that even if the clubs did move, they can't be assured that the new neighborhoods will remain conflict-free. "Until we get some controls in place, the club owners don't have a high degree of certainty about where they can locate and not be in proximity to a residential development," says Lord. "Right now all of the industrial areas are fair game for live/work development."

The building that houses the Holy Cow has been a fixture in San Francisco's nightclub scene since 1966, when it opened as The Stud. Last year it was bought by Jeff Thompson, Matt Goodrich and Bill Herrmann, three 31-year-old guys who met as barbacks in the club in 1990 and traveled the world together in 1992. The three work in the club up to 20 hours a day, and under their ownership the Holy Cow had been an overwhelming success. Then, a month ago, they lost many of their permits--they can no longer allow dancing, DJs, pool or pinball. While they wait for provisional permits, their business is down 70 percent. It's like some kind of twisted version of Footloose--they're forced to patrol their club and make sure patrons don't start dancing.

"Moving for us means bankruptcy," says Thompson. Adds Herrmann, "For the people who have told us to move to China Basin and Hunters Point, my answer to these people is that if you like that area so much, you move down there. That's a long way for people to go just to go dancing, especially for tourists. There's a need for residences, but you can't blanket the whole city and turn San Francisco into a suburb."

Then there's a third irony. Tourism is San Francisco's No. 1 industry, and the nightclubs are a huge part of our city's draw. Mayor Brown is often criticized for being wildly pro-business, yet he's sitting back as developers blithely destroy one of San Francisco's most vital industries--entertainment. What's even stranger is that Brown is known as the party mayor--he's been spotted at the EndUp and at the New Year's Eve Treasure Island rave, and his son, Michael Brown, is one of the city's biggest club promoters.

"Maybe Willie Brown's son should be sensitizing him to this problem," says Lord. "If you have that natural sort of entry, maybe the nightclub owners really need to get to the mayor's son and say, 'Look, you've got to bring this to his attention or get us a meeting with him so we can bring it to his attention.' "

Lord continues, "What seems strange to me is that this city will sit and watch while certain types of nighttime entertainment disappear for youth, while things like Crazy Horse and the Gold Club are going in their place. I don't understand the city's priorities when it comes to giving young people an alternative. Dancing is a healthy thing to do. A lot of people have seen that if young people do not have some place to go and let off all this incredible energy that they've got, it's going to lead to trouble in one way or another. I don't know what the state of the rave scene is anymore, but that was something where people said, We want to keep partying, and we're going to do it after-hours, we're going to get into buildings that maybe we shouldn't even be in."

The club owners will need an economic argument to counter the financial powers behind loft development, says Lord. "One of the major industries in San Francisco, one of the things that drives our office market, is insurance and real estate," he says. "Mortgage brokers and financial institutions, they're making the loans on these properties that are selling from anywhere from a quarter of a million to half a million dollars. There are literally billions of dollars involved in the live/work development process. If you look at the major downtown businesses that are involved as brokerage agencies, as mortgage companies, as title companies, as lawyers representing the condos, these are major, major players in the San Francisco political scene.

"The club owners themselves need to be organized to protect their rights," Lord says. "They are a legitimate business concern in San Francisco that brings large numbers of tourists and visitors to the area. In fact, a case could be made that the proximity of the nightclubs to the Yerba Buena center has an influence on people deciding to have conventions in San Francisco of one sort or another. The club owners need to let their decision-makers, from the mayor to the Board of Supervisors to the Planning Commission, know what is at risk. If you look at the gross receipts, payroll taxes and other influences that the clubs have on attracting visitors and tourists to San Francisco, it's an important aspect of the richness that is San Francisco and the diversity that is San Francisco. Visitors and tourism are the No. 1 industry in S.F. [Clubs] need to be able to demonstrate that they are a significant and important player in that sector of the economy and, in doing so, show the city what's at risk if they aren't here anymore."

The organization that Lord spoke of has already started. On a recent Tuesday night, a hundred or so club owners, musicians, artists and old SOMA residents gathered at the Transmission Theater to form a coalition aimed at fighting development in SOMA and saving the area's businesses. Hestor, who's been in the thick of the loft controversy for years, explained the conflict's history to the crowd of political novices. Said Brainwash owner Susan Schindler, "We need to know what we're talking about besides knowing what pisses us off." The crowd got increasingly passionate as Hestor elaborated on live/work abuses. One girl shouted, "They're for people who want to live like pimps with their exposed brick walls!" Someone else added, "We created the fad, that's the whole problem!" To which a third person replied, "We can't help it if we're cool!"

But despite Tuesday evening's energy, some in the club scene feel that it's not necessarily the city government's job to safeguard hipness, and others are just giving up on San Francisco. Even Martel Toler, who with his partner Nabil Musleh is the owner of Sushi Groove and the club mogul behind parties like Release, Eye Spy and Leopard Lounge, says he was thinking about splitting. "San Francisco already is not a major party town or a town where there's a ton of places to go out at night. I was even thinking about moving, especially in the last year, to Miami, New York or L.A."

Some of the city's biggest promoters and DJs believe the club scene thrives on adversity. "I don't want it to happen, but I also believe in the natural evolution of things," says Kato, the impresario behind Royal Jelly. "Until alternative art culture and club culture have no place to go, it's a matter of not holding on to situations and realizing that maybe we do need to be uprooted sometimes. I actually have been getting tired of the same old spaces."

DJ Charlotte the Baroness is reluctant to blame gentrification for destroying the nightclub scene. "You haven't been able to open up a major nightclub in this city for years, but we have a Catch-22, because while the gentrification that's going on in SOMA is definitely affecting the ability to have more nightclubs, at the same time gentrification has really helped the nightclub scene. Those people are the ones going to clubs and spending money on drinks. Those are the people who are paying our bills."

She continues, "This challenges people. The rave scene has now moved back into the big club scene, and now if there's going to be a problem there, it will motivate people to start doing underground parties again. It's just another chapter in the dance-music scene. I would welcome people starting to get more innovative about parties again."

DJ Pollywog says she's so frustrated with the lack of venues to play at in San Francisco that she's planning on moving to New York. "Clubland for the most part has been pretty weak," she says. "It's the same old clubs doing the same parties. I love San Francisco and I wish there were more opportunities out here. If there were a more thriving nightlife here, then there would be no reason for me to leave."

Like Kato and the Baroness, Pollywog thinks that clubland could find new energy away from the SOMA corridor. "When you change to a different location, you change the vibe of your party. That's why, in a lot of ways, San Francisco nightlife is tired. It's 'Oh, same club, same thing.' It's a little bit stale if it's the same spaces over and over. Part of the underground is wanting to stay fresh, and it takes those creative, pioneering types to build up something. Established clubs make it easier because all you have to do is show up. Creative people in the underground are almost against that, because it's important to have fresh energy."

Still, Pollywog says that without the big clubs, San Francisco can't attract big-name DJs. "If we lose these big clubs, we're going to lose so much credit on the international scene. No small club has the capital to fly in Dimitri from Paris or Dimitri from New York. Some underground people are like 'Oh, the big clubs suck,' but I know that they definitely have a place and are vital in keeping the scene alive. It's important to have yin and yang."

Back at the EndUp, DJ Jason Hayes says that the lack of replacements for the big clubs is affecting his career, and his friend Peter Letourneav fears that San Francisco is being turned into a kind of faux-chic Disney World. Inside, though, manager Alison Page is smiling as she surveys the crowd, convinced that bulldozing developers are no match for the ecstatic energy that keeps people dancing through the dawn and into the next evening. "After the comet hits," she says, "after the earthquakes and tidal waves, the EndUp will be left standing."

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From the May 18-31, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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