Please see the end of this post for a link to a Hoodline article by Carrie Sisto about the demolition of the Hemlock Tavern on Polk Street. The Hemlock was a longtime bar and entertainment venue. Many years earlier, a gay bar called Giraffe was in that space (Polk Street was a less conspicuous gay-themed alternative to the Castro for decades).
I’ve lived in San Francisco since 1982, and can recall how my mother used to note the sad changes in the Financial District skyline whenever my parents drove me home on the Bay Bridge from their house in Oakland. I made a different, but equally disappointing, observation. By the 1980s, the nearby Hills Brothers coffee roasting facility was closed, so I wasn’t smelling coffee. The whole mood was different.
My parents remembered the older architecture from the 1950s, when they lived on Ashbury near Haight and owned a liquor store on Haight. That was before the Haight became a refuge for rebellious young people with complicated personal issues. During the ’50s, the neighborhood was working class, with some writers (including my father, who wrote original paperback novels for Fawcett/Gold Metal). There wasn’t much of a music influence until rock musicians settled there during the ’60s.
In 1982, San Francisco was still good for artists. I lived barely above the Tenderloin neighborhood, but at night you’d never know my block was technically outside the scariest part of Downtown. Arriving home before dark was ideal.
My experiences living in that tiny efficiency studio were mixed. I was grateful to be in San Francisco, but the human condition in the building was nearly intolerable. Male neighbors with strong senses of entitlement believed they had found exceptions to the laws forbidding sexual harassment. I couldn’t complain to management because the manager at that time encouraged them and participated.
When management changed after six years — yes, it took that long — the usual quick turnover of tenants resulted in better people moving in. We still had problems, but the frat kid stuff had passed with the management change.
While I was able to breathe more evenly at home, I saw the City changing in some negative ways with the rest of society.
Although bookstores hadn’t begun disappearing yet, the general sophistication of the City was going downhill. There was more fascination with intellectual and emotional sterility. Most people didn’t notice a problem when an expensive restaurant or retailer opened a shop in a storefront where people used to buy records, and the demolition of vintage Financial District office buildings continued to make way for glass towers.
Gentrification of the South of Market (SoMa) area, which had begun during the early ’80s (or possibly the ’70s?), escalated. The 1984 Democratic Convention had been held in the “new” Moscone Center, which at that time had only one building. The surrounding area was pretty drab, and dicey. For convention security, nearby residents had orders to stay indoors with their curtains closed or leave home for the duration of the convention.
Now SoMa is the current chic neighborhood to live in San Francisco. Warehouses where people used to live in lofts — or just squat, and hope not to be arrested for trespassing — are gone, and replaced with expensive condos and leased apartments. If you walk on Mission near Third, you may feel as if you’re in a ritzy part of Los Angeles.
Nearby, the Embarcadero from pre-1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake days is unrecognizable now. The freeway was demolished after the earthquake, and the area next to the Bay is now a plush promenade with a modern ballpark.
One of my vivid childhood memories of sitting in the back seat of my father’s car while arriving in San Francisco is looking out the righthand side of the car on the first exit from the Bay Bridge. A ramshackle duplex had a hand-printed sign on one door which was big enough to see from the car. It said DAY SLEEPER. DO NOT DISTURB.
Being an aspiring writer, I imagined an entire life for the unseen person who lived in that unit. Now that person’s home is gone, presumably replaced by something with sparkle.
San Francisco no longer accommodates low income people who seek only to survive from one day to the next in an intellectually stimulating environment. Given the nice weather and terrain, we were lucky to have the old S.F. for as long as we did.