In an in-depth study of a severely rundown area of San Francisco, we explore an unconventional story of urban renewal Around the corner from San Francisco's mayoral trophy collection of city-booster accomplishments - including the Sony Metreon, a megaexperiential retailing centre, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a $44 million art and entertainment complex, and the Moscone Convention Center, the city's newly expanded exhibition facility - lies Sixth Street, San Francisco's notorious 'skid row'. Habitat to the picturesque city's disenfranchised populations and concentrated social problems, Sixth Street hastens the stride of passing pedestrians and induces those vehicle-clad to slyly secure the armour of their car doors.
Unlike the nearby high-couture shopping mecca and tourist pocket of Union Square, Sixth Street is nowhere near ready for window shopping.
Crack cocaine dealers shamelessly service their frenzied addicts along the main thoroughfare leading on to the recent highway extension. Dirty needles and human defecation line the street's gutters. Spray paint graffiti climbs building walls just as brazenly as men urinate against them.
And while one-third of the storefronts sit vacant and boarded up, their doorways provide shelter for the drug dealers who prefer privacy above sidewalk dealings and for the homeless men and women unable to afford a room in one of the street's 30 single room occupancy (SRO) residential hotels, which together account for about 2,500 individual rooms rented by the hour, day, week, or month.
Walking down the Sixth Street corridor is no doubt a risky venture.
Most days Sixth Street fulfills the recent observations made by an Armenian tourist that 'it is as bad as the worst place in the world', and a local business owner: 'I've been to many, many places in this world and Sixth Street is as bad as it gets'. However, if you happen to travel down Sixth Street on one of those few deceptive early mornings, after an especially cold or rainy night, the street's problems appear momentarily mended. The night's sterilising shower and the dawn's crisp ocean air tease a fresh start for the street. But as the day grows and the people emerge into their sidewalk living rooms, all chance for a new beginning for the four city blocks fades quickly.
At extremely high density, the SRO residential hotels dominate the landscape of Sixth Street's early 1900s architecture and assemble a large percentage of San Francisco's dwindling affordable housing stock. Aged pillowcases serve as window coverings and slap against the cracked windows of the upper-level residential rooms.
The ornate facades of the turnof-the-century structures are camouflaged with symptoms of their property owners' neglect. The overdue deferred maintenance of the hotels mirrors the hard lives of their residents. Sixth Street testifies to more than just the broken window theory; it is San Francisco's symbol of broken people and severed hope.
In the hours following the bimonthly dispersals of government financial assistance payments, the sidewalks of Sixth Street morph into a bazaar of illicit dealings. Instead of forming lines to buy food, men and women huddle to buy crack cocaine along the sidewalks, displacing passing pedestrians and SRO residents into the congested commuter traffic of the street. Paroling police officers attempt to pose a threat to the preying drug dealers, who often travel from neighbouring cities to conduct business in San Francisco. With citywide budget constraints and low tax revenues from the neighbourhood, the police officers and their firepower are often outnumbered and ignored by their targets. Popular with the homeless addicts and disgruntled businessmen alike, crack cocaine seems to be monopolising the street's active black market. It is no secret. For years now, everyone in San Francisco knows why you do or don't go to Sixth Street.
Sixth sense Like most urban 'skid rows', Sixth Street and its community are caught in a Catch-22. Sixth Street needs more businesses to generate more tax revenue to improve street conditions, but to attract new businesses that will generate the incremental tax revenue, Sixth Street needs to be safer and cleaner.
For those San Franciscans living in Sixth Street's low-income SRO housing, and for those running small businesses along the corridor, even daily routines can be a battle. Many SRO residents are recovering from drug and alcohol dependencies and don't want the threat of drug dealers waiting for them in their doorways.
They want their neighbourhood and the gang graffiti cleaned up. They want a local grocery store with fresh produce and local coffee shop too.
The business people currently running small restaurants and businesses on or near Sixth Street want revitalisation as well. They crave more foot traffic and customers. But as it stands, with only 29 per cent of current business operators reporting they feel safe on the street, and 67 per cent reporting they have had negative experiences while working around the corridor, Sixth Street is a hard sell.
The historical reputation and reality of Sixth Street sours even grass-root and bottom-up plans for revitalisation. Dubbed 'the Money Pit' in a recent San Francisco newspaper, the city's liberal taxpayers have yet to see a return on their years of public investment and revitalisation efforts. This is partially a result of the contradictory priority to maintain the city's stock of affordable housing. According to a city ordinance, the current count of SRO residential hotel rooms along the Sixth Street corridor, although often in massive disrepair, must remain available as affordable housing, unraveling any possibility for developers' gentrifying speculation or, some would say, revitalisation.
But fortunately for 'skid row', despite previous failed business and clean-up efforts, a handful of entrepreneurs see the potential for a different landscape in the future of Sixth Street. Fuelled by unwarranted business decisions to invest in Sixth Street, these new business owners have handed the corridor a fresh slate.
Running north-south through central San Francisco, can Sixth Street finally develop a potential far beyond its current status as the city's main artery for commuter and urban drug traffic?
Bar none Recently, Sixth Street has earned the additional reputation as a lively nightlife district. Seven bars and nightclubs hosting world-class DJ artists and staffed with security personnel open their doors in the evenings and interrupt the corridor's predictable sequence of iron-barred storefronts and SRO hotel entrances.
While Sixth Street has been home to two internationally known nightclubs - the End Up and 1015 Folsom - for 30 and 17 years respectively, these latest nightlife pioneers occupy the southern and 'safer' end of the corridor, and sit just around the corner from San Francisco police captain William Davenport's district police station. It is only in recent years that the northern and seedier stretch of Sixth Street attracted fresh entrepreneurs to try their luck at the nightlife game.
Club Six and Pow Bar opened just over four years ago and, in the last 16 months, Anu, Arrow Bar and Mezzanine opened their doors. These recent additions, although infants in the San Francisco nightlife landscape, are making a name for themselves and joining the 'Best of San Francisco' ranks with their world-renowned Sixth Street neighbours.
Underneath the radar screen of San Francisco's revitalisation experts and their masterplan solutions, 'skid row' organically sprouted a gulch of DJ bars and nightclubs, constituting what could be the first step towards bringing more business and services to the Sixth Street community. One by one these new business owners opened their bars on Sixth Street for the same reason the corridor's residents find themselves living in one of the city's infamous Sixth Street SRO hotels: rent is dirt cheap. While the amenities of living or operating a business along Sixth Street include the persistent odour of urine, the steadfast howling of emergency sirens, sidewalks speckled with missing chunks of cement and camped-out communities of belligerent or comatose homeless people, the corridor most San Franciscans refuse to walk by day is developing a fresh appeal by night.
Of course the wares pushed by these new bars are, by unbiased definition, no different than those found in the numerous liquor stores interrupting the street's 33 per cent commercial vacancy rate. They are selling beer, wine, and the hard stuff, but in a prettier package than their next-door neighbours. Instead of delivering booze in a brown paper bag and a complimentary seat on the sidewalk's curb, the new DJ bars and nightclubs present their patrons with Martini glasses, lounge-style couches, and rotating eye candy created by local artists. Once inside the tight security-lined doorways of the Sixth Street bars and nightclubs, it's even possible to forget that just steps away from the bars' well-lit entranceways lies the dark reality of San Francisco's homeless epidemic.
Anu lease Sixth Street has long been a 'sticky' political and public relations nightmare for the San Francisco mayor's office, Redevelopment Agency, Department of Public Works, Public Health, police and the various commissions on housing and homelessness. A herding corral for San Francisco's urban poor and the number one drop-off location for high-risk parolees released from the California prison system, Sixth Street, by its own vices, holds its residents and small mom-and-pop businesses prisoner.
The beleaguered and captive state of Sixth Street is precisely what makes the growth of a Sixth Street nightlife gulch so fascinating. Each of the owners of the five new bars and nightclubs came to Sixth Street without handouts or other inducements. They opened their businesses on the worst street in San Francisco with just their entrepreneurial judgement leading them.
Without the dangling carrot or cushioning of corporate and government subsidy, and with the knowledge that the SRO hotels will be their long-term neighbours, they came to Sixth Street with a determination to make their businesses work and the intention to make their new neighbourhood a little bit better. As one new bar owner explains: 'I think the more you put on Sixth Street, the better it will become, because folks won't be as afraid to go down there. It doesn't matter, as long as there is business, as long as it's not another empty storefront.'
The two co-founders of Anu, recent immigrants from Ireland, saved for several years to gather enough money to open, what they say is their laddish dream, a bar of their own. When the final dollars were counted, the two Irishmen, just over 30 years of age, had enough to rent a dingy spot on Sixth Street.Driven by the naive hope that if they built a fabulous DJ bar then their patrons would come, they opened Anu. Like the neighbouring Arrow Bar, it spent well over US$40,000 (£23,560) just to open its doors onto a smelly sidewalk. From the looks of its fantastic multi-level interior, Mezzanine spent much more.
With the exception of Mezzanine, all of the Sixth Street's new bars and nightclubs took over commercial storefronts previously zoned and operating with a liquor licence. The original establishments, although haled by SRO residents as local hangouts, were under siege by the street's drug dealers and career alcoholics.
According to the police, the original bars equated to watering holes for the neighbourhood's drunk and destitute. As Police Captain Davenport describes: 'I have noticed a big change in the bars on Sixth Street. In the past, they were mostly dives: low rent, low class, and catering mostly to people who were down and out with alcohol abuse or drug problems.
Now, a number of places opening up are higher-end and catering to a younger, more affluent crowd from outside the area and bringing in outside dollars to the neighbourhood. It is a positive thing.'
Admittedly, the new bars are not trying to serve alcohol and entertainment directly to the local community oflow-income residents, but the bar owners do believe the economic fate of Sixth Street is congruent with the success of their businesses and the increased foot traffic they attract to the corridor.
While offering a revived DJ music and dance scene to a city recovering from years of over-regulated nightlife, the Sixth Street bars are luring crowds from a wide geographic area.
Although 10 per cent of the patrons actually live close by in the South of Market district, 25 per cent of patrons live in cities as far away as Honolulu, Vancouver, and London. The bars are beginning to dilute the negative 'skid row' reputation that has come to define Sixth Street in the media and in the minds of most San Franciscans. By adding a musical and artistic character to the neighbourhood and drawing media attention to the positive aspects of the corridor, the Sixth Street bars and clubs are attracting a more diverse mix of people to the street, people who potentially avoided the corridor two years ago.
Clubbing together Together, the Sixth Street bars and clubs serve an estimated 439,400 customers per year. This translates to an addition of 8,450 people visiting the Sixth Street corridor per week or approximately 1,207 customers per day for the purpose of socialising, leisure, and music and art appreciation. A majority of these patrons are spending US$20-60 (£11-16) in the bars, while also buying cigarettes in the liquor stores, paying for parking in the adjacent lots, and eating in the neighbourhood. Sixty-five per cent of patrons reported that they had dined in at least one local restaurant, and 22 per cent of patrons said they ate dinner in the neighbourhood that night. Sixth Street's infamously delicious hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant, Tu Lan, is a favourite among bar patrons. Places like El Balazo, next door to Mezzanine, Chico's Pizza, next door to Pow Bar, Haveli Indian Restaurant, next door to Anu, and Teriyaki House and Chile Verde Taqueria, nestled near Club Six and the Arrow Bar, are also receiving spillover economic benefits from the nightlife presence.
Traditionally, the city's police and urban planning departments have criticised bars and nightclubs for inducing increased levels of crime and public nuisance, but Captain Davenport says the Sixth Street establishments are inducing just the opposite impact. The Sixth Street bars are actually making one of the most economically distraught and crime-ridden rows of San Francisco feel safer and appear more attractive to both potential businesses and patrons.
Interrupting the street's spiral of blight and decline, the bar owners are sourcing supplies from local neighbourhood vendors and, as active tenants on the street, they are cleaning up their plots of real estate. They are keeping their quadrants of sidewalk in order, their overhead lights shining bright on to the walkway below, their facades painted and maintained, and they are providing the neighbourhood and the budget-strapped police department with additional eyes and ears on the street. The bar and nightclub security personnel are just one mobile call away from the police dispatcher. And behind every beer poured, Martini mixed and record spun in a Sixth Street bar and nightclub, there is also tax revenue generated and a cast of unseen characters working in local ancillary industries that support and thrive on the existence of San Francisco nightlife. In sales tax alone, the Sixth Street bars and clubs deliver US$340,000-510,000 (£200,000300,400) in tax revenue generated from their gross alcohol sales, which they estimate to be US$4,000,0006,000,000 (£2,350,000-3,530,000).
(Mezzanine alcohol sales & tax revenue is not included. ) These tangible and positive structural impacts to Sixth Street's built environment and to its economy are benefiting the neighbourhood as a whole.
Captain Davenport agrees: 'I think it is important that these businesses take root on Sixth Street without displacing the SROs, but providing a thriving economic environment, because with that comes pressure on city services to provide better service. When you have these new bars, shops and businesses come in here, they give the area more clout with city government and all sorts of agencies that deal with the issues.
And they start having a voice, and then more city services are provided to the area and the whole area starts to look better, and it's safer.'
Unlike the neighbouring pawnshops offering high-fee check cashing, the sex paraphernalia shops lined with private XXX video viewing closets, the liquor stores stocked with cheap wine and malt liquor, and the various small ethnic restaurants mingled in between Sixth Street's many abandoned and boarded up storefronts, the bars and clubs are speaking up and being heard. The owner of Club Six attests: 'Street cleaning is good now. They do it every day on Jesse Alley. But it took eight months of me calling the Department of Public Works daily to get them to come out and do it everyday. It was bad, a really bad public health issue.'
Simple demands for adequate public services for one of the most densely populated areas of San Francisco, no different from the previously ignored calls of their neighbours, are now being answered.
Is this a sign of more public services and healthy commerce to come? It is still unclear. But what is evident is that a few gutsy barkeepers took a financial risk on a street paralysed by economic and social blight, committing themselves and their capital to improving the neighbourhood in some small way. Captain Davenport has high hopes for Sixth Street but concludes: 'The one thing I don't want to see is responsible SRO hotels, like the Rose and the Seneca, put out of business by this. We need to allow the people that are living in these places to benefit from the economic revival on Sixth Street. The business plan should not be to displace these people.'
With a stake in the neighbourhood's success, the bar owners are metaphorically and literally fixing one window at a time. If their actions gather momentum, as contagious as the street's blight, maybe all of Sixth Street will realise its long overdue chance at revival.
Mercy Ringelmann studied urban and regional planning at the London School of Economics and is preparing a report to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency