Nightlife ’War’ Shows Signs of a Detente
Nightlife denizens and club owners have long been pitted against San Francisco police and homeowners in what some have dubbed a "war on fun" that has raged on since the dot-com boom in the late 1990s.
Lately, there have been signs of a detente in the long-running battle. While no one is yet ready to say the "war" is over, it appears to have entered into a cooling off period.
"I think a lot of inroads have been made, but still, a lot more could be done," said Tom Temprano, a gay club promoter and DJ who moderated a recent discussion about entertainment issues held by the city’s two main LGBT Democratic clubs. "There are still hurdles prohibitive to the nightlife industry. You can’t say we are in the clear and everything is roses."
There are signals that City Hall is beginning to see the entertainment industry as an important economic driver rather than a nuisance in need of being reigned in. In March a City Controller’s report found that the "other 9 to 5" economy generated $4.2 billion in spending in 2010 and at least $55 million in tax revenue.
Gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, who called for the first-of-its-kind fiscal study, has now requested that the controller examine the financial impacts generated by the city’s numerous street fairs. Like with the earlier study, the one devoted to open-air festivals is aimed at giving city leaders a better understanding of how policy decisions may impact the outdoor events.
"Street fairs are running into issues where, at some point, the fees get so high that they are losing money and at risk of going away," said Wiener. "Showing the economic contributions specifically of streets fairs is valuable in allowing us to view a complete picture."
The city’s 2012-2013 fiscal year budget, set to be passed later this month, is expected to include funding for the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development to hire a staffer focused on assisting the entertainment industry. Mayor Ed Lee initially proposed the new position be part-time, but at Wiener’s urging, made it full-time.
"Given that nightlife is a $4.2 billion economic sector in San Francisco, a full-time economic development position is more than warranted and will pay for itself many times over," Wiener told the B.A.R.
During the June forum Wiener said the debate on nightlife issues is often one-sided.
"At City Hall we don’t hear balanced opinion on nightlife. We hear a lot of opposition and we don’t hear enough support," he said.
Leaders of the Alice B. Toklas and Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic clubs, in a letter sent to city officials in June, not only called for the street fair study and funding for the mayor’s office staffer, but also requested funding for the Entertainment Commission to hire a staffer to enforce permit violations.
"This work can only be done if the commission has the enforcement tools it needs to do its job," stated the letter. "City leaders have been calling for more effective enforcement of bars and venues that are not following permit regulations, and so it is important to add this full-time position to the budget for the Entertainment Commission."
Laura Hahn, who in March became executive director of the California Music and Culture Association, a local lobbying group for the nightlife industry, believes there has been a sea change in terms of how the city views entertainment venues. Her group now meets monthly with police officials to address security concerns and other issues involving nightclubs and other late-night businesses.
Rather than an antagonistic relationship, Hahn believes the industry and police are finding ways to work together.
"We do have a lot of support within the police department. I think our monthly meetings with the police department are a real testament to that," she said.
Nightclub operators continue to face resistance from the police, however, particularly when they seek the necessary permits from various city agencies. The gay owners of a new venue at 43 6th Street had to fight police objections to open what is billed as the city’s first nightlife spot aimed at the South Asian community. Called Club OMG!, it plans to operate as a lounge most days and as the country’s first weekly gay South Asian club Saturday nights.
Co-owner Rakesh Modi, a former co-chair of the LGBT South Asian group Trikone, could not be reached for comment for this article. In response to a San Francisco Bay Guardian article in March about the nightlife economic study, Modi posted a comment online expressing his frustrations about "getting push back" from city officials and police in trying to reenergize a space that has been a bar for 40 years.
"Not all bars are places of problems. Not all businesses are run badly," wrote Modi, who eventually received his city permits and is now waiting for a liquor license to be approved. "There need to be checks and balances in place to weed out the problem businesses. But, an entire industry cannot be blacklisted because of a few bad apples. San Francisco needs to once again reclaim its lost fame of having a vibrant and fun and safe nightlife."
In an emailed response to questions on how the police decide to oppose permit requests, Sergeant Michael Andraychak wrote that applications are assessed on "a case by case basis" and investigators take into account crime statistics for the business’s location and within a 500-foot radius.
The "primary concern," wrote Andraychak, is ensuring public safety.
"With respect to the 6th Street Corridor, there is a significant demand for police services already in this area and the department is in the process of opening a police substation to more adequately respond to those needs," he wrote.
Nathan Purkiss, a former supervisor aide who worked on the legislation establishing the city’s Entertainment Commission, said during the June forum that what is not readily understood about LGBT nightspots, in particular, is how they play a critical role in fostering community.
"These are not just places to drink," he said. "We are losing spaces because we have a systemic bias against establishments like this. They are not just businesses, these are cultural institutions."
Since the start of the year there has been a palpable change in the dialogue and conversation around nightlife issues in the city, Temprano said.
"There is less of this war rhetoric and more speaking about nightlife for what it actually is. It is an economic vehicle and a cultural vehicle," he said. "We are seeing a shift away from war rhetoric and use of that term and a battle mentality. We have a long ways to go before we can officially declare that war over."