August 23, 2012

Gold Fever in North Beach?

Photo: Chris Cobb

Bars aren’t just for doing cocaine in the bathroom with your straight-acting gay boyfriend and then watching the San Francisco Giants lose again on TV. No, at one time bars were the place where neighbors met each other, shared local gossip and complained about the mayor. It was where people went for birthday parties and had conversations. Nowhere was that more true than in San Francisco’s North Beach.

But it makes me sick to my stomach to see what’s happening in San Francisco. First they put a GAP on Haight Street, then they made the Cliff House unrecognizable. Then they moved Musee Mechanique to Fisherman’s Wharf, and a few years later the Golden Spike restaurant lost its lease after 86 years. Now, according to, Tosca Café’s rent has just gone up to $8,000 a month. If they can’t pay up they will probably get evicted.

I could be wrong but it looks like greed might be the primary force motivating the raise. The landlord, Roger Forbes, owns Déjà Vu Consulting Inc., and operates more than 75 very profitable strip clubs around the country. Unsurprisingly, Déjà Vu is headquartered in Lansing, Michigan, a world away from San Francisco where you can buy homes for under $100,000. To me it sounds like the rent hike is probably nothing personal — just business. But kicking Tosca out? Maybe Déjà Vu doesn’t really care about what neighborhoods it penetrates, but a lot of people do.

So while I am not personally against strip clubs, North Beach is a tourist destination largely because of its small businesses AND its strip clubs. It has had a red-light district for more that 100 years, but as times have changed, places like Tosca remain labors of love and making money is not the only reason for their existence. Like Vesuvio and Specs nearby, it has employed literally generations of aspiring artists, actors, and poets. If it was suddenly gone, that would be one less place for artists to work.

Some might argue that the landlord has every right to force Tosca out of business — and he does. But my point is that a whole ecosystem of people has coalesced around that bar, and they have made it a part of their lives. Removing such places then disrupts not only the property but the connections people have forged there over the years.

Unfortunately for Forbes and Déjà Vu Inc., Tosca is also known as the cop bar, because a number of off-duty police officers go there. Oh, and let’s not forget that on any given night local politicians and lawyers can be found there laughing and making jokes while sipping beers with friends. Even to the casual observer it kind of looks like they love the place. Did I mention movie stars show up there, too? They go there for a number of reasons, but I think mostly because people don’t hassle them or antagonize them. A few heads might turn, but that’s about it.

Once, I was with friends and felt very stared at. It was some guy sitting across the mostly empty room who, when I looked over at him, wasn’t staring at me at all. He was actually looking right through me. It was Sean Penn. Something was concerning him deeply, but it wasn’t me. People often say he is an intense guy, and they are correct.

Another time I went there when Mayor Willie Brown was drinking soda water and speaking quietly with the manager. As I entered I noticed the eyes of Brown’s bodyguard following me and my friend across the room as we found a seat. His body didn’t move an inch, just his eyes. I remember Willie had the radiant presence of a movie star, and everyone took notice, whether they knew him or not.

So would North Beach really be better off with yet another strip club, or if a sports bar replaced City Lights Books? Would the residents be better off if the 100-year-old Liguria Bakery, which sells fresh foccaccia every day in four styles, was turned into a cell phone store? What if Vesuvio and Specs were renovated into condos or turned into Domino’s Pizza shops? And wouldn’t Caffe Trieste’s prime location be a great spot for an upscale hair salon? Imagine all the money you could make!

While we’re on the subject, look at what has happened to the Mission district in the past few years. Bohemian cafes have vanished one by one. Book stores have almost all closed except for a few. Even Adobe Bookshop is near to closing its doors after 24 years of art shows, concerts, and poetry readings. In North Beach the old book stores are long gone, and from what it looks like, San Francisco is dangerously close to losing almost every last trace of its bohemian past.



Comments (6)

  • We’ve known Jeanette since she worked with Diane (my wife) in NYC as Port Receptionist in the early 60’s and have been in there having coffee or a cocktail primarily late but sometimes before dinner even though we live north of the GG Bridge. The darned place is almost a hundred years old and Jeanette….well, she’s a character for sure. Her mother used to run it and it’s long been a spot for ballet stars. Rent, schment……places like Tosca need to stay and be real.

  • Chris Cobb says:

    @Dean – I don’t know what you mean by “Modern” focus, so I cannot address that point. However I do know that some people don’t prefer Tosca, and in that case i agree with Karla. In fact, some people do not go to bars at all and so this discussion might be lost on them altogether. That said, advocating the preservation of a place where a lot of artists meet and have met for decades doesn’t seem to very “glossy-eyed” to me.

    In regards to the rent issue at hand – here is a comment I agree with from Nevius’ follow up article today that I can’t link to directly so I will quote it here:
    I don’t know what article you have been reading, but it states very clearly that she contacted Forbes to see about a rent reduction 10 years ago and he never got back to her. Then she started to pay the reduced rent 10 years ago. The time to correct that was 10 years ago. I’ve never been to the place, and don’t really care about the spectacular patronage or any of the history. I don’t really have anything invested either way. But the landlord is asking for back rent from an uncontested rent reduction is ridiculous.

    As for the raising of the rent, that is his prerogative. Technically he is not raising the rent from $7,500, to $8,000, which would be 6.25% (and rather reasonable). He is raising the rent from $6,500 to $8,000, which is 18.75% (a little steeper raise). But most importantly, commercial rental laws do not dictate any form of rent control, so it is up to the landlord to decided at what price the rent is. Period.
    His article is here:

  • Nearly always empty – that sounds great to me. I lived in North Beach for many years and I’m in no way riding Beatnik nostalgia, those places just have character and history and if some people don’t want to go because they think the owner is cantankerous, that’s their prerogative. Don’t go! Then I can get a table when I do.

  • The reactionary nature of this column puts it at odds with MoMA’s “Modern” focus, doesn’t it? I live a few blocks from Tosca and have found it very unwelcoming, chilly even, nearly always empty. No one I know goes there, but then I don’t know many celebrities. The woman who runs Tosca has a widely-known reputation for being an unpleasant person — oh, excuse me, a “real Bohemian character — who is banking on the sort of glossy-eyed nostalgia this article exudes. Bottom line: she lowered her own rent a decade ago and is in arrears for $100,000. We’re not talking The Gold Dust here, we’re talking an entitled “local” who thinks she’s entitled to a rent-free business, treats regular people badly, and then calls out the celebrity troops when the landlord acts against her. Hogwash. North Beach could use a few swift kicks in the butt for all the years it’s been riding on Beatnik nostalgia. It’s a living neighborhood, not the Museum of Ye Olde San Francisco.

  • Specs, Vesuvio’s, Tosca, Liguria Bakery, Caffe Trieste, Il Pollaio = North Beach love. I really hope they don’t get priced out, ever.

  • Chris, old sport, this is Panic Porn. SFGate says “In June, Forbes raised Etheredge’s rent from $7,500 a month, which was already more than the $6,500 she said she could afford to pay monthly, to $8,000.” Does anyone think that Jeannette can’t make, some how, the $6,000 or so difference? This is the same hysteria I witnessed when they said that an American Apparel MIGHT move next to ATA and that meant that its rent MIGHT go up and it MIGHT have to close or move. The response was totally a “lets put on a show” reaction complete with petitions and painted bed sheets of protest.

    Besides the SFGATE article points out she has many friends in the neighborhood that won’t allow such a demise and that the ignoble Deja Vu strippers might, in future, find horse’s heads in their garter belts.

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