I remember the first time I went to The Owl Tree. Bobby was still alive and working behind the bar that night. He greeted my girlfriend and me with his polite but taciturn demeanor, asked us what we'd like, and then gave it to us, setting a bowl of popcorn on the bar along with our drinks. It was midweek, and apart from one guy seated at the end of the bar, we were the only customers. My girlfriend and I talked quietly to each other, and watched the fog roll down Taylor Street toward Geary through the bar's open doors.
"It's a perfect night for a murder," Bobby said quietly from behind us, looking out the doors as he cleaned an ashtray with a cocktail napkin.
It was the moment I realized I had found a home.
Bobby's been dead for years now, and while there's still a bar called The Owl Tree at Post and Taylor, the one I used to haunt died shortly after he did. What took its place is something I don't recognize and have no interest in knowing -- a strange, unwelcome offspring born of opportunity, like something from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the bar's owl paraphernalia its most obvious victim but not its most important one. I often walk by it on my way home and the place is frequently packed, as it often was when it was Bobby's, but the faces aren't the same. Lit by large TV screens Bobby would have never tolerated, the loud and boisterous crowd I see through the windows as I walk by doesn't look like the mix of tourists and restaurant people who used to stop in after their shifts at the Bohemian Club and Postrio. They aren't talking to one another as people used to do in bars during the 90s. They're shouting over the din of the TVs and loud music.
Back in those days if one made their way to the Mason Street Wine Bar before the windows were boarded up around 1:30 AM, or knew enough to knock on the door after that, one could enjoy drinks and a convivial atmosphere until dawn with musicians, waiters, and bartenders who worked around Union Square and lower Nob Hill. Those city-dwellars really knew how to have a good time, and along with the beer and wine an easy camaraderie flowed under the Otto Dix-inspired mural of the bar's owners and regulars. It too, has been gone for years now, ever since one of the owners succumbed to a disease no one talks much about anymore.
The Plush Room, John Barleycorn, the Motherlode, The Swallow, The Blue Lamp -- all former haunts of mine, all disappeared, as are the days when one could walk into Lefty O'Doul's and Madeleine would be at the piano (a real piano), accompanying the regulars, and the Gold Dust was still the Gold Dust. The Oasis still had a swimming pool, and across the street stood the Paradise Lounge, now also gone. I watched movies at the Regency, Alhambra, Vogue, and Alexandria theaters, which are all just places in memory now, even if some of the facades remain. Time passes, places change. Do I miss those days? Sure. They're places where I made friends and created memories. Now they're places where other people do those same things, and maybe I'm not their demographic. There's no reason to take that as a personal affront to my tastes or lifestyle.
I should also mention that back then no one went to Crissy Field because it was a forlorn, empty space. Or to the Ferry Building, which was an empty shell. Or took a walk along the Embarcadero, where the remains of the freeway could still be felt. The Giants played at a shithole known as Candlestick. Hayes Valley was pretty dodgy, and Precita Park wasn't considered safe. There was no SFMOMA on Third Street, or Yerba Buena Gardens. Amoeba Records was still a bowling alley, and there was another bowling alley in Japantown. I could go on, endlessly, and if you've lived here for any amount of time, so can you. Good spots disappear, but new ones take their place. At least some of the time, especially here in San Francisco.
Back in the early 90s, I lived in a tiny, dark, studio apartment on Aladdin in North Beach. My $400 monthly rent included indoor parking for my motorcycle and my car. The people I met at the time often told me how great San Francisco used to be, back in 60s, 70s, or even the 80s, whenever it was when they arrived. At least that hasn't changed.
What has changed, and what feels new to me, is the sense of entitlement people have regarding their own San Francisco reality, based on their own past, present, and future, as if they are the first to feel the weight of change bearing down upon them. As if their vision of what San Francisco is, was, and should be what remains, and everyone else's vision for the present and the future must match their own personal one of the City. They believe change is bad, growth is worse, and the City is being destroyed by a new generation of residents lured here by tech money dreams who don't give a damn about anyone or anything else, who want to navigate every human experience via an app. Changed? Yes. But destroyed? No.
Those same folks are feeling despondent after yesterday's election because the anti-Air B'n'B and the moratorium on development in the Mission propositions failed, while the one supporting Mission Rock's development passed. They think the City is dying, and the election outcomes are obviously the result of special interest money. They're also either historical revisionists, NIMBYs, or just plain ignorant, of both the historical past and present reality. At their core, they're just one entitled group railing against the other entitled groups, perhaps riddled with class envy because they don't work for a company that chauffers them to work in a plush, comfy bus and are resentful because they can't afford to drop $100 on a casual dinner for two every night (for the record, neither can I, and I take MUNI to work with the rest of the hoi polloi).
What they don't seem to want to acknowledge is San Francisco's history as a boom town, a magnet for those with dreams of making it big or joining in on something big, be it gold, free love, an openly gay life or a world driven by the internet, a place always reiventing itself, while its landmarks stay the same. It's never been a cheap place to live (though it's certainly been cheaper), and the Mission hasn't always been a Latino neighborhood. It's a City that keeps changing, not a museum for one's own personal nostalgia. And whether you like it or not, no one is entitled to live here. After all, someone left to make room for you, and your life here. There might come a day when it's time for you to do the same.
I count myself among those who may not last, though I consider this my home and hate the thought of leaving. I've lived in California my entire life, and I love living in San Francisco despite the shit-stained, stinky streets strewn with syringes of my own neighborhood (the Tenderloin). Despite its myriad, seemingly unsolvable problems, corrupt government, and distressing quality of life issues. Despite all of that, this is still a wonderful place to live, which is why people keep coming and why most people want to stay once they get here.
But the truth is my life would be much easier if I moved to Chicago, Detroit, or somewhere in the South. For a single person with an average income, just getting by in the Bay Area takes a lot of effort. This is something I think about nearly every day, not because I think San Francisco is going to hell, but because there may come a point when I'm no longer willing or able to deal with the high cost of living here. That won't be Air B'n'B's fault. Or Twitter's. Or Ed Lee's. It will just be my choice, even if I don't like having to make it.
Meanwhile, the election said the majority of voters (in most cases an overwhelming majority)support building homes for those who can afford them as well as the creation of housing for those who are less affluent (or not at all affluent). That's progressive thinking, despite what some people identifying themselves and their agenda as "Progressive" would have us believe, because it moves the City forward in dealing with its acute housing shortage. In this election cycle, what the so-called Progressives wanted sounded more like "regressive," an oppressive effort to thwart change so San Francisco can stay exactly as they like it.
It's too late, and that faux-progressive agenda feels closer in spirit to far-right-wing intolerance than good ol' left-wing "San Francisco values," which shone through in the passing of extending parental leave for City employees regardless of gender. On a matter of principle, if they're not breaking the law, or hurting someone else, I don't care what anyone does with something they own, whether it's an apartment or their body. It's none of my business, and it's none of yours. Air B'n'B's marketing department may be full of smug cluelessness, and some of their operators may be selfish, greedy jerks, but Air B'n'B is not the problem; decades of unwillingness to develop new housing is the problem, sustained by people who, having gotten theirs, didn't want anything else to change. Did San Franciscans get everything right this time around? Not in my opinion, but on the whole, yeah, it was a pretty good day for the City.
As for the impact of what's happening in San Francisco on artists and the performing arts (a topic frequently associated with the issues in this election which hits close to home for this endeavor's interests and presumably yours if you're reading this), the climate certainly isn't an easy one for creative people who aren't digitally oriented. However, while I keep reading about the mass exodus of artists from the Bay Area due to displacement and how economic factors are taking a disastrous toll on the Bay Area's art scene, I'm not really seeing it. Sure, some artists have left, but others keep arriving. I know this because I've met them -- they actually do exist. What I also know is when I sit down to work on this site's calendar, or on the weekly posts looking at the week's upcoming performances, or wade through the announcements and invitations arriving daily in my inbox there doesn't seem to be any less art being created or performed, though the art, and its intended audience, may well be changing. Just like everything else around here.