I’d been meaning to post a photo of the picket-fence minipark at Butter. It’s a classic of nostalgic apples-and-oranges irony, subjecting the nightclub block of post-industrial 11th Street to a rural/suburban standard of quaint. The point of the fence is heightened, not weakened, by its resemblance to a stage set when viewed from the side. It’s there to say, only half as a joke, “Well, we’re trying to live up to the American ideal here, but just look at the poor materials available to us.” It fits Butter’s only-half-joking offer of nostalgia cuisine: microwaved, fatty American suburban standards “just like your babysitter used to make.”
This past weekend a fire damaged the warehouse building two doors away, heightening the visible contrast between rural/suburban ideals and the ugly side of urban life. Neighborhood organizer Jim Meko reported tartly on his site that the damaged building has its own history in the 15-year-plus running dispute over the future of 11th Street. That debate has mainly concerned whether the street shall remain exclusively for entertainment and business uses or whether residential development can coexist with either. As Jim notes, given current economic pressures the fire is likely to hasten the upward economic climb of 11th Street no matter how the damaged property is rebuilt. Tech is already very much on that block. Heroku, for example, has offices in the big brick Jackson Brewery building on the corner.
Suburban residential expectations made their first appearance South of Market with the Web 1.0 tech influx and loft boom. Condo conversions changed the neighborhood radically during that time, peaking between 1998 and the Nasdaq plunge of 2000. Noise and other factors perceived as nuisances were the initial wedge issues between older and newer uses South of Market.
Fundamentally, these disputes had to do with whether South of Market, then being renamed “SoMa”, was inside or outside the respectable city.
It had been presumed for years that South of Market took in the businesses and people rejected from more manicured city neighborhoods: loud or rude entertainment sites; immigrants and others who faced discrimination elsewhere; poverty services; loud or noxious factories; meat packers with their smells; auto body shops with their paint fumes; bus yards and delivery garages; latterly, artists’ and artisans’ studios.
Harsh policing driven by social rejection had pushed the gay bathhouses and related gay leather culture to South of Market. After the bathhouses were closed, their places were often taken by other institutions viewed as being difficult neighbors. As this report of a local history tour explains, the former Club Baths at 8th and Howard became the Episcopal Sanctuary shelter and the Sutro Baths became the 1015 Folsom club.
That all changed — or rather, began to change — with the late-1990s loft boom. Condo buyers began to arrive from suburban upbringings, bringing with them suburban standards regarding noise and nuisance. Existing business owners and rent-controlled tenants feared new residential uses, not from fear of new housing per se, but from fear of monied, politically able newbies enforcing rights to quiet enjoyment of their premises — rights that, legally speaking, they did often possess.
Considering the history of noise South of Market, many past residents would have found it laughable to suggest that clubs harboring loud music and noisy drunks should preclude people from making their homes on the same block. Our own apartment, quiet now, is near a condo-converted warehouse that used to be a furniture factory. The landlord who originally rented to us had lived in our unit when part of its price was tolerance for bandsaw noise amplified by concrete walls.
Suburban ideas of neighborly duty have moved into South of Market to stay — at least, compared with late-1990s conditions, I’d say they have. I benefit from them personally. I can work at home undisturbed day or night, except when the yuppies in the converted furniture factory get to partying. But I continue to wonder if these currently applied noise and nuisance standards are any more suited to our dense downtown area than Butter’s comical picket fence.
A thing people forget in their nostalgia: that picket fence had Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly standing behind it, shouting at him. Tom (or anyway, his author) ran away to San Francisco to escape her.