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Chasing Gentrification

Brian Hibbs

Nothing has really inspired me to want to write comics reviews the last couple of weeks, and it’s really appalling for me to not have content for my own blog, so I want to write a bit about my neighborhood.

This isn’t, in any kind of direct way, about comics; and it’s only really loosely about “retailing” like I categorized it, so maybe you won’t care about any of this, and I’m going to put the rest below the jump….

I also think this is going to be a good deal more rambly than usual, for what that’s worth — I haven’t outlined it or anything, but I’ve wanted to make a post about this for the last few months. See, a Chase bank recently moved in, displacing a number of small retail businesses.

Well, maybe I need to start somewhere way earlier than that.

(you might want to go open google maps and street view and look around the block, maybe, to make this easier to follow along? Maybe not, I don’t know)

(Oh, and to start the earliest note here, Comix Experience has been in the same location since the day we opened, April 1, 1989 — 23 years ago this writing)

So, the commercial corridor I’m on is Divisadero St., which, essentially, runs from Haight St (where Divisadero makes a small turn and becomes Castro st.), all the way down to Sacramento St., basically a 20 block stretch. Now, the Divisadero Merchant’s association says that the neighborhood actually is Haight to Geary (14 blocks), but that seems unfair to the UCSF-side retailers.

The bottom end of this corridor, Haight, puts us between two neighborhoods — the “Upper Haight” is like where Haight/Ashbury and all of the Hippie shit is/was, and there’s a separate commercial corridor up there, six blocks on Haight from Central to Stanyan. At this point, the “Upper Haight” is nearly exclusively  “hip” clothing shops, restaurants, and Head Shops. And lots of street kids.

There’s also the “Lower Haight” which is pretty much Scott to Webster (five blocks), but except right there at Haight and Fillmore, I’d say is not a “bustling” shopping street.

So, if you’re looking at the map, I guess you can see that Divisadero is really between two neighborhoods, and part of neither?  There’s also the notion that Divis is a major transportation through-street, being 4 lanes wide.

OK, so down at the bottom end of the commercial bits Divis, the first block is kind of strangely zoned/used — the eastern side of the street is all shops (Head Shop, cafe, pizza, boutique clothing, flower shop, sandwich shop, copy shop, yoga studio, mexican restaurant, bar), but the western side really only has a single store front, which once upon a time was a magic/occult store (we still get people asking “where’d they go?!?!” a decade later!), and right now is empty. There’s a church on the western side of the first block, and a space that’s zoned commercial, but has never been used, and down on the Page side corner the little convenience store, but if you’re walking on that side of the street, your brain isn’t saying “stores!”

On MY block, from Page to Oak most of the “stores” are on the West side, with the East side being a lot less so (they run: Hair Salon, Thai restaurant, dry cleaner, orthopedic supply, pet food, gym, paint store) — on my side, it’s produce store, ME, upscale pizza, hotel, yoga, facial place, consignment store, game store, used cooking supply shop, boutique clothing, dry cleaner, cafe. Frankly, I think that Gamescape and I anchor the block, but I would think that, wouldn’t I?

The next block along (Oak to Fell) is utter retail wasteland. Right now, it’s three gas stations and now a Chase bank. Oak and Fell are the major east-west traffic paths to/from downtown and 101 — each are one way streets with four lanes each (one goes east, the other west), hence the THREE gas stations! These are relatively safe, traffic-light intersections, but they carry a ton of east-west traffic, and, from my POV put a pretty big barrier for making Divis a truly good retail walking street.

On the other side of Fell, retail thickens back up again, but, up until a few years ago, this wasn’t exactly a stretch of street that was too exciting — for a good long time the Popeye Chicken’s (the only other chain on the entire Divis strip) was the most commercial element of that section. That side of the neighborhood was heavily urban black, with a ton of government housing.

But, of course, with housing being scarce in San Francisco (we’ve never built the kind of dense rental housing towers that you’ll see in a New York or a Chicago), and Silicon Valley minting millionaire after millionaire, of course here comes the gentrification.

It’s been moving in that direction a good long time, of course, but I think it really solidified when NOPA opened in 2006 — a really delicious, pretty upscale restaurant.  “NoPa” means “North of the Panhandle”, though, if you look at a map, they really are much more “East” (2 east, 1 north), but “EoPa” doesn’t sound very good.

(The “panhandle” is that eight block bit that juts off from Golden Gate Park, that’s totally obvious when you look at a map)

NOPA, the restaurant, was successful enough that real estate agents, those paragons of fair naming, renamed the entire neighborhood “NoPa”, which is how people refer to it today, though old timers like I just kind of giggle at the idea. BUT, the neighborhood really is kind of actively not urban and black like it was when I opened in ’89. In fact, “Old Man Joe” (I never knew his last name), who used to hang out on the corner of Page street with his buddies, drinking beer and just generally watching over the neighborhood, died last week. I was pretty genuinely bummed when I heard. He was an awesome old guy.

So, the “NoPa-ization” (which, like I noted, really WAS in motion before NOPA moved in, but it’s a convenient marker) of this neighborhood has also gotten a number of the landlords to think greedy thoughts. For example, we used to have a great vinyl record store across the street — Open Mind Music — who got booted when the landlord raised the rent way way up. Now Black Nose (A pet food place) is in the space, and while I hope they are doing enough business, we don’t get the kind of crossover walking traffic from them that we used to from the Comics/Game store/Record store trifecta, that’s for sure. Plus, we used to also have a medical marijuana place (it’s now the gym) that I don’t think hurt business at all.

Maybe the most visible examples of “landlord greed” was the NW corner of Oak and Divis which is now where a Chase is. The space they’re in used to be three separate retail store fronts — a Cheese Shop which had been there for, like, ever, and a coffee/truffle joint that never actually really looked like a viable business to me, but they were paying the rent I guess. There was also a corner space that used to be the dry cleaners that moved onto our block, after they had their rent raised to the ceiling.

The corner space then sat open for at least two years… maybe it was 3 or 4? God, it was an ugly blight on the neighborhood, but the landlord wanted more rent than anyone other than a chain was willing to pay.

For a couple of weeks it looked as though a “Batteries plus” would go in — a store that sells nothing but batteries… and my god doesn’t that sound a lot like the  Saturday Night Live sketch about the mall store that sells nothing but scotch tape? But I guess a few people in the neighborhood complained (SF *is* NIMBY-ville), and the franchise-ee got cold feet and pulled out, leaving the blight for another year, and then finally Chase bank wanted the space.

Except, in order for Chase to make it a bank, out had to go the cheese shop and the truffle place. Too bad, so sad!

(Plus, understand, we have a Bank of America a block away, and a Wells Fargo ATM station right there as well, so it isn’t like there’s a paucity of banking options…)

See, the thing for me is that I’m not exactly sure what the thinking might be to enter into (what I imagine must be) a long-term lease for a physical banking space when it would certainly appear that more and more people are shifting to online banking… and when you have TWO other Chase branches within a half mile — one is nine blocks away, the other is 10 — well, it makes way way even less sense to me.

When Chase went in, there was a brief “Occupy” set of protests there, but it never really amounted to anything — just a day or two of 2-3 cats standing on the street with signs.

Here’s the thing, though, I think that the neighborhood kind of HAS responded, because whenever I walk by the branch, I never ever ever see any customers in there. Ever. All I see is 3-4 tellers milling about, talking to one another. Meanwhile, I go to the BofA around the corner at almost anytime, and there are people waiting in line there.

I’ve seen people in Chase’s ATM foyer thingy, but not once in the bank itself. I’m fairly certain that someone MUST be going in eventually, but never in any hour that I’ve personally witnessed — I walk past 3-4 times a week, maybe? Now, I don’t know how commercial banks rate the viability of what they do, but, from my point of view as a retailer, they’ve got to be losing thousands of dollars a month in that location as it looks like very few people are using it.

So, this is what kills me: not only did Chase help to hurt the neighborhood by evicting (even if THEY didn’t Do the Deed) two local businesses, and the potential for a third (if the landlord wasn’t unreasonable), but they did it on a block that NEEDED retail in order to connect OUR block to the rest of “NoPa” — now we’ve got this block long no man’s land there where at least we had a trickle of people shopping at cheese and truffles.

Seriously, though, walk-by is the lifeblood of any retail business, and we need to be encouraging retail that brings more walk-by for everyone. I’m dreading what’s going to go in at the old magic store, kinda… because I’m suspecting that Swankety Swank disappeared they way they did because the Rent Was too Damn High.

I don’t mind if the neighborhood is, y’know, safe to walk at night (well, relatively… there’s been a rash of grab-and-dash celphone robberies going on in the hood), but I fear that gentrification will eventually boot me out, as well. I have what I think is a very good relationship with my landlord, but with commercial space, at any moment I could have my rent tripled or just be flat out booted out, and there would be very little I could do about it. We’re successful, yes, but mostly because the rent is affordable — if I have to pay “NoPa” rents, I’m going to be in trouble, because there simply isn’t enough daytime walk-by to justify THAT kind of expense.

And, y’know, I deeply miss the Church of Saint John Coltrane that used to be on our block, and were the first victims, I think, of being rent-increased out off the block. (They used to be at 351 Divisadero)

At the end of the day, I think neighborhoods depend on neighborhood businesses to give them character — I despair when I go out of SF and hit one mini-mall after another, going from chain formula retailer to chain formula retailer. How gross! Do you guys even know what it is you’ve lost in most of this country? And, in San Francisco specifically, I worry deeply about the loss of the working class — home prices in my neighborhood have gone up like 200% in the last 12 years, which is nice for my equity, I suppose, but not good for people trying to live here without tech stock options.

I worry about these things.

Anyway, thanks for reading this far!

 

-B

20 Responses to “ Chasing Gentrification ”

  1. “(Oak to Fell)”

    Kid of sums it all up, I think.

  2. Wow, I dunno. I get in talks like these with my NYC peeps. I think gentrification only happens in thriving megatropolises like NYC, SF, and Chicago. Because in the MidWest, and in the other city I go to a lot, Honolulu, neighborhoods just die and become nothing but liquor stores and nail salons before completely falling apart and becoming wastelands. Cleveland and Detroit are utter wastelands where walk-by traffic is the stuff of old people talk.

    Do I know what we lost in the rest of the country? Yes, jobs, safe neighborhoods, and just about everything else.

    For real, though, I dare anyone who thinks LA or NYC is gritty to spend one night inside 8 mile in Detroit or anywhere on the East side of Cleveland away from the Clinic and tell me you think the same the next day.

  3. I believe Michael Chabon’s upcoming release, TELEGRAPH AVENUE, has something to do with the subject of gentrification in your neck of the woods, Brian. In an interview, anyhow, he said it was a part of what motivated him to write it.

  4. eh! landlords are evil for getting the most return on their investment they can?

    The rent wasn’t ‘too dammed high’ if someone was prepared to pay for that rate.

    Unreasonableness is my local council(who own the retail units where I live) who have raised rents forcing small shops to close and having NOBODY willing to pay the high rents leaving empty retail units.

  5. You know, I think our story ties into yours as well. We never lived in your neighborhood, but close enough that we could walk there. But there was no place in San Francisco that we could afford to buy a house, so when the second baby came along we moved to Oakland. And now we hardly ever get to drop by your store. In fact we pretty much just stopped reading comics, except for a few that I buy digitally. Whereas we used to drop a couple hundred dollars a month on our subs.

    San Francisco is making itself a city of the very rich and the very poor, with a middle class that’s increasingly squeezed out. That trend is happening everywhere, of course, but the Bay Area is our home so we see it most clearly here.

  6. Thanks for the interesting piece (I love geography so thx for the map link too.)

    I do see what we’ve lost in most of the country, because I’ve seen it happen in Columbus (Ohio) over last couple decades. Most of the expansion around the city is of the generic housing and strip mall variety, but small pockets of character do survive. It takes effort, though, as the areas that retain character are the result of conscious choices to keep it.

    I also see gentrification here, first around the Ohio State campus and moving south towards downtown, and now on to other areas. In my observation, it just shunts the poor/distressed areas out of the way to other areas, which then are also open for gentrification (not least because the costs of opening a business/renting/buying are reduced.)

    And that’s kind of what it comes down to- attracting money and business to the area. Columbus is the state capital, so people will always tend to come here. But if the city loses its base- say, as Detroit has with auto manufacturing- then it’s over, unless there is that conscious effort to make choices that build up a new base (and character.)

  7. @BD Montgomery

    You’re lucky. Laughing Ogre is one of the best comic stores of all time!

  8. Winter is coming…

  9. I know what you mean about banks– they’re terrible contributors to the urban fabric. Here in Fairfax City, VA, outside DC, it seems like half or more of new stores opening up are banks. But it always pisses me off when I see that, because I know most people will never go in there. I mean, a new restaurant or clothing store anybody can use, but banks are generally only used by their specific customers. And they can afford to eat up all the best, most prominent retail sites for this use that hardly generates any foot traffic or visual interest or anything that makes for a good neighborhood.

  10. Thank you for this post Brian.

    Gentrification has long been an issue in San Francisco (and most US urban areas) for some time now. But the pace seems to be quickening in San Francisco and, as a result, it is more and more on my mind.

    I am all for making neighborhoods safer and increasing neighborhood retail. But I wish there was a way these two goals could be achieved in order to benefit the residents and businesses that are already in a neighborhood. What seems to be occurring is an increase in safety and retail vitality achieved by replacing residents and business.

    Some random thoughts:

    San Francisco has a great track record of building affordable housing. But what happens when there are no businesses or restaurants left (let alone jobs) that cater to the residents of affordable housing. It’s great that the stretch of Valencia across the street from the Valencia Gardens projects is safer and full of seemingly successful businesses. But I can’t imagine that any of the hundreds of residents of those projects can afford to shop there.

    I agree that that Chase branch looks deserted. It seems that Chase is pursing a strategy of saturating SF with new branches. It might be more important for their brand to be visible, even if one or two branches are unsuccessful.

    I believe you left out one business: Vinyl Cafe, accross the street from Chase.

    Again, thanks for the great post. Most local press focuses on the new, trendy businesses and rarely mention the perspective of business owners who have been in a neighborhood for a while.

    Basic A

  11. Vinyl is there — after the 2nd “Dry Cleaner”

    (It took me a REALLY long time to find *some* link for each business… and it almost shocks me how few have their own domains…)

    -B

  12. @Brian.

    Ah, right, my mistake.
    Also, I agree that it is amazing how many established businesses have not website at all. Not even a homepage with hours and location.

    Basic A

  13. @ Chris Hero-
    Thanks. I am lucky- I worked at the Ogre for over 10 years. It is an awesome place!

  14. Thanks for this – I had a holiday in SF last year and had a very enjoyable walk last year along Divisadero to visit your store. Had lunch in a bike store and cafe, which also seemed very SF.

  15. Thoughtful post and nice to read from a retailer on the block. I, for one, was happy for the Chase bank. I’ve been in hood for almost 10 years and the amount of cash-only places has always been a pain. Yes, there is a BofA a block away and a Wells Fargo ATM, but they do charge extra as well. Yes, there are numerous sketchy ATMs in the area too…not worth the charge and the risk.

    So, with the new Chase, I have found that I am going to the Page, Mojo, and Kingfoot more…so, for those retailers, they’re trip generation and revenue has increased.

    The cheese shop, while nice, in reality at this point wasn’t a viable option (competing v Faletti and eventually Bi-Rite), and Truffle place is prospering in new location. I’ve patronized both of those places but see the bigger picture in this respect.

    PS-I’ve been to your store as well and you run a great business and I hope you thrive for a long time. The area needs conscientious owners like yourself.

  16. Old man Joe? Is that the same homeless Joe that would hang out in front of Nopa acting as a friendly doorman?

  17. Like it or not, that Chase is a destination for many. Since it’s opened I’ve found myself on many occasions making a run to the bank, and “since I’m in the area” going to the Page, Kingfoot, KK Cafe, Little Chihuahua, your store, and others in the area.

  18. @Chris & @Josh: mostly, I’m unconvinced that we need a full scale branch — a kiosked ATM branch would have filled the needs of the majority of people who need a Chase, AFAICT. They could have just taken the corner store, and left the spaces where the truffle and Cheese stores were alone.

    @GR: “my” “Old Man Joe” was not homeless, no — he lived within a block, I think.

    -B

  19. Hi Brian,

    I’m a neighbor of yours at Waller and Divis; I found this blog from a link on Haighteration.

    You may be pleased to know that when I moved into the hood back in Dec 2006, I DID think you and Gamescape anchored the block. Partially because I was a one time comics fanatic and my brother’s a gamer. Lamely enough, I don’t know if I’ve been in your store past once or twice when I first moved in.

    I’m found your comments about the Oak-Fell block interesting. When I moved to the street, it wasn’t its own destination; it was the western end of the Lower Haight, and I kind of liked that it wasn’t a center of attention and somewhat more relaxed. From the stories I’d heard from folks that moved here in the 90s, I’d heard the neighborhood had been gentrified in the last tech boom, and, at that point, things had pretty much leveled off. I really liked that, though I’m not surprised to learn that others see a much longer time frame for the changes in the neighborhood.

    I appreciate that you want a lot of foot traffic for your business, but I see Oak and Fell as desperate lifeblood for getting around this city given how much of a (to put it lightly) “mess” Muni is. With the exception of uber-thin Manhattan and soul-sucking Washington, DC (my residence before SF), I can’t think of a major city that doesn’t have an easy way to go East/West across town. I move around by bike most days, but I find having a car a necessity, and therefore love the Oak/Fell/Lincoln/Fulton axis, our closest thing to a great east-west corridor.

    Jim

  20. As another data point, every so often on the weekends I’ll drop by Chase to get cash and then inevitably wander down to check out both Gamescape and Comix Experience. So at least for me, the Chase gets me down that part of Divis and the stores there more often.

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