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San Francisco's soul survivor

Haight-Ashbury remains true to its bohemian roots while balancing trendy eateries and working-class churches

Wednesday, October 2, 2002
Special to The Globe and Mail

SAN FRANCISCO -- Neighbourhoods generally don't pick up and move from one place to another, but if you last visited San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district shortly after the Summer of Love, you'll be surprised to find its iconoclastic heart has not only slid more than a kilometre east, it has survived encroachment by the dot-com trend-seekers and emerged from San Francisco's economic bust with its individualistic roots firmly intact. The migration started 15 years ago, when the original Haight -- the stretch just below Golden Gate Park -- began looking like a hippie theme park, with the scent of patchouli permeating the streets and a few too many shops specializing in water pipe technology. When prices began to rise with the influx of tourists, the arty crowd fled to the nearest low-rent district: Haight Street between Divisadero and Webster, a black working-class quarter known as the Fillmore. Hipsters rechristened it the Lower Haight.

You'll know you've crossed the border when pristine Victorian houses and shops from the Flower Child era give way to something that feels a bit more raucous.

The low-slung tenements, streets strewn with souvenirs of the previous night's revelry and shops selling accessories fashioned from truck inner tubes make it clear this is not an area on a breakneck course toward gentrification.

Like New York's gritty Lower East Side and L.A.'s down-at-the-heels Echo Park, a whiff of danger has pumped the Lower Haight's "cool quotient" into the hot zone.

Indeed, the nearby Baptist churches draw rousing crowds; sidewalk domino games gather spirited groups of spectators and music shops that cater to DJs are interspersed with purveyors of Rasta supplies. Upper Playground, for example, sells soul and jazz on used vinyl, as well as a line of urban style T-shirts designed by local artists. At a lunch counter known as Sister Sarah's Café, diners feast on Jamaican patties and spoon stews from wooden bowls surrounded by African carvings, fabrics and musical instruments. And some enterprises, such as Kate's Kitchen, are an amalgam of the two cultures, turning out hearty Southern fare such as cheese-and-green-onion biscuits in sausage gravy as well as vegan-friendly steamed vegetables with brown rice. Among the Lower Haight's individualistic -- and sometimes eccentric -- business owners is Dave Keene, known as the Mayor of the Lower Haight for his fierce devotion to the neighbourhood. Fifteen years ago, he opened Toronado, a bar built on a passion for beer, whose unrepentant "trash barrel" décor belies its world-class beer list: 32 draft taps and bottles from hundreds of craft breweries.

Like most of the Lower Haight's residents, Mr. Keene came not for the cachet but for cheap rents. But 10 years ago, he says, the economic boom began to push even this bohemian quarter down a modish road as an incursion of young corporate types arrived seeking the newest place to look cool. To the Lower Haight's avant-garde, these fashionable dot-comers in their SUVs were about as welcome as a pair of golden arches.

"You had people standing in line to get in here," Mr. Keene says, surveying the laid-back scene at his bar, whose current patrons appear to regard a shirt with buttons as formal attire. "But we faced down the trendy crowd," he maintains with pride, "and they moved on to places like SOMA, the area South of Market Street."

Mr. Keene also made a few changes to be sure Toronado stayed true to the Lower Haight's modest roots. "We got rid of things like the DJ and made this a more personal bar, a place where the bartender has a name." And blue pigtails.

Bob Kantor, owner of Memphis Minnie's Bar-B-Que Joint & Smokehouse across the street, feels the district has actually been revitalized by San Francisco's financial woes. "Thank God for the dot-com bust," he says. "It gave us our neighbourhood back." But Mr. Keene thinks the Lower Haight's singular character is rooted in something deeper than economics. "People come to this neighbourhood because it's the antithesis of the Upper Haight," he contends. "Not only is there more of an edge, but there's still a layer of working people here."

Mr. Kantor makes slow-smoked barbecue, the kind that cooks for nearly a full day, which even he admits is an enterprise better suited to the fiscal plan of a rural roadside stand than to a big-city restaurant. But like many in the Lower Haight, Mr. Kantor started his business out of missionary zeal, in this case to maintain a regional American cuisine in its honest form.

"Barbecue has been around in the United States for more than 200 years," he says. "A century ago, it was an essential part of the culture." Like many of the Lower Haight's shopkeepers, Mr. Kantor has a unique, eclectic sense of style: His eating place is painted in comic book colours, fully exploits the decorative possibilities of aluminum siding, and sends rough blues riffs through the clouds of hog smoke.

And just to be sure his patrons find the unexpected, Mr. Kantor serves sake with his slow-smoked barbecue. Convinced that the best pairing for America's signature cuisine is some of the more esoteric offerings from Japan, he serves drinks such as Masumi Arabashiri, known to cognoscenti as "sake nouveau" since it's released only once a year. Memphis Minnie's serves a tasting flight of several sakes alongside the Texas beef brisket for $12, or a single glass for $8. Stylish wine bars in other parts of the city charge $14 to $17 for this sophisticated drink -- if they carry it.

But economics is sometimes stronger than the social system and it's anyone's guess what the cultural texture of the Lower Haight will become once the economy gets rolling again.

"Right now, you have owners of $500,000 condos stepping over people sleeping in their doorways," Mr. Kantor observes. "And I think at this point there are too many restaurants and not enough shoemakers." Even so, Mr. Kantor agrees that the Lower Haight is one of the few emerging neighbourhoods that have managed to maintain a balance between its traditional population and the influx of newcomers.

"Everyone gives lip service to diversity," he notes, "but here it's a reality. We never know who's going to walk in the door of Memphis Minnie's; it could be a stockbroker, or a crackhead, or Danny Glover, or someone who drives a big car and doesn't seem to mind getting a parking ticket."

Indeed, Mr. Kantor appears to have confidence that the neighbourhood's bohemian nature will endure, in part because it's so hard to park here. "There are no municipal lots in this neighbourhood," he notes. "Keeps the crowds away."

If you go


Archbishop's Mansion: 1000 Fulton St.; phone: (415) 563-7872 or (800) 543-5820; fax: (415) 885-3193; Web: http://www.thearchbishipsmansion.com. This Beaux-Arts French château on the edge of Alamo Park, a 10-minute walk from Lower Haight Street, is the most elegant lodging in the area. Rates range from $165-$425 (U.S.).


Lower Haight

Memphis Minnie's Bar-B-Que Joint & Smokehouse: 576 Haight St.; phone: (415) 864-7675; Web: http://www.memphisminnies.com. Slow-smoked barbecue served with sake. Kate's Kitchen: 471 Haight St.; phone: (415) 626-3984. Southern and West Indian fare with a vegan spin. Breakfast and lunch only. EOS: 901 Cole St.; phone: (415) 566-3063; Web: http://www.eossf.com. Chic décor and Asian fusion cuisine draws a trendy clientele.


Upper Playground: 220 Fillmore St.; phone: (415) 252-0144; fax (415) 252-1482; Web: http://www.upperplayground.com. Works in the gallery have graffiti and music themes. The shop sells used and T-shirts designed by local artists. The Village Store: 505 Divisadero St.; phone: (415) 922-2442; Web: http://www.reggaerunninssf.com. African and Rasta goods include jewellery, clothes, incense and music.


Toronado: 547 Haight St.; phone: (415) 863-2276; Web: http://www.toronado.com. One of North America's best specialty beer bars.


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