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All of the Hansons should be strapped into a Sod-O-Matic.
-- Head Freezin' Gene

Put the "Life" Back in "Nightlife"
2000-01-17 00:58:03

Viva La Musica

The Man is putting the hurting on San Francisco clubs, but some people are fighting back. Beajolais! Flesh interviews Leslie Ayers of the San Francisco Late Night Coalition.

Not too long ago in San Francisco's past, on any given night of the week, the night life scene was in a class all itself. You could easily move from one nightclub to another, catching several live acts at reasonable prices. Those were the days before San Francisco was overrun by Young Urban Professionals (led by the un-human she-beast Dianne Feinstein) who quickly began to lay waste to the unique culture and environment that was known throughout the world as the "City By The Bay."

Enter Leslie Ayers, a modern urban samurai warrior who realizes that while the day might be theirs, the yuppie scum have yet to turn San Francisco into the first totally gentrified city in history. Catching up with her long enough to conduct an interview is no easy task. To get around the usual games of phone tag and trying to match up schedules, this interview was conducted over several weeks via email. If you would like more information on The San Francisco Late Night Coalition, please visit their Web site.

Pigdog: First, let's talk for a moment about your organization. What is it?

The San Francisco Late Night Coalition is a broad-based group of club owners, promoters, activists, DJs, musicians, artists and community members. Our goal is to protect, preserve and promote San Francisco's late night culture.

We work to encourage understanding and awareness of the regulations and issues surrounding after-hours entertainment in San Francisco, and to provide a voice for the rights and the passions of this diverse community.

We are an integral part of the cultural fabric of San Francisco, and make significant contributions to the economy and artistic diversity of this city.

The need to take action to preserve after-hours venues was triggered when a respectable promoter went to city hall to apply for permits for a well-funded after-hours venue, and was told that was simply not possible. There is no written moratorium on after-hours permits in the city, but it's clear that over the past several years, the police have systematically moved to squash the late-night club scene. We've lost several major club venues of the past years, including DV8, the Trocadero, and VSF/Oasis. While there may have been contributing issues to individual club cases, the pattern has been set that the police would find life easier without clubs operating in their districts.

For instance, Ten15 Folsom, which is one of the premier nightclubs in the world, bringing in the top electronic music talent from all over the globe, has been the target of the most recent attempts to revoke licenses. This club has responded to its neighborhood needs by doing things like spending almost a million dollars on soundproofing, and channeling money into local neighborhood schools and activities. They have increased security to the point that paying guests are frisked like criminals.... And yet, the authorities apparently think this isn't enough.

So the SFLNC is working to turn the tides. We held our first public rally in U.N. Plaza, with DJs and speakers, bringing the issue to the public awareness.  We were invited to speak to the city's committee on small business economic vitality last week for their hearing on the current moratorium on extended hours permits in the Polk Street corridor.

What the SFLNC is about is stepping forward to speak up for after-hours issues. Rather than quietly resigning ourselves to the situation that the police department would rather have us stay home sleeping in our beds at night, we want all of the many responsible citizens who make late-night entertainment a part of their lives to come forward and speak up while we have this chance.  San Francisco is a world-class city, and world-class cities do not roll up their sidewalks at night.

Pigdog: It appears that the targeted clubs in question are dance clubs. How does this affect people who go to non-dance oriented events? Why should they care?

Most late-night permits are for dance clubs; that's true. There is some talk about whether food establishments should have different rules than dance and entertainment venues... but that misses the point, which is an issue of freedom to pursue leisure activities without being told what time to go home.

And yes, the police and authorities are targeting dance clubs to revoke and deny permits. That's today. The scariest part is that what appears to be behind the push to revoke permits for extended hours is a "nice people go to bed early" ethic.

At the hearing regarding the Polk Street area moratorium, some speakers said "It's not that we don't want people to go out at night, we just don't want them out after 2:00 a.m." Now, for someone who is a waiter who gets off work at midnight, or a computer programmer who works into the night, 2:00a.m. is the equivalent of 8:00 p.m. for those who work a "socially acceptable" 9-6 day.

Our society is moving more towards a 24-hour society. Look at rush hour, which used to be from 7-8 am; now the freeways are full at 6:00 am until 10:00 am or later. Our "flex-time" schedules have been created to adapt to the modern times, and that must be reflected in our leisure activities. It's going to take some planning and attention, but we have to take on that challenge now, before we allow our options to be whittled away.

If the police now target dance venues as being inconvenient to have open after-hours, then we're naive to think they'll want to stop there. What's in their best interest is if all the well-behaved citizens stay peacefully in their homes all the time. But we can't suppress our lives for the convenience of those who should be there to support and protect us as we live our lives freely.

Again, world-class cities do not roll up their sidewalks at night!

Pigdog: Many people say that the crackdown in SOMA won't effect them, because they don't go to commercial-based nightclubs. How will this affect them?

I'm a part of the underground rave scene as well as a dedicated clubgoer, which is one reason I wanted to become active in saving the licensed after-hours clubs. There are definite parallels between the police pressure on clubs and the police pressure on raves, which increased to the point that it is pretty impossible to have a peaceful all-night underground dance event in San Francisco any more.

If the commercial venues are eradicated, you can be assured that the underground private parties will be next. Because part of the goal for the police, it appears, is that there be as little activity as possible on the streets during the night. They would be thrilled if we all went to bed at 10:00 p.m.

Pigdog: Why should people outside of the Bay Area care?

People outside the Bay Area should know that this would effect them if they ever have any intention of visiting this wonderful city and having any choices of nighttime entertainment.  Not to mention many possible conversations about personal freedom in America, and whether having police dictate what we do for fun, and when we do it, is a frightening case of the tail wagging the dog.

Pigdog: The police, in support for their crackdown are saying that there's a rampant drug problem. In particular, GHB. Is there as bad of a problem as they say?

Yes, the police do use drug use and overdoses as evidence to support their campaign. And it would be ridiculous to deny that there are problems in our society at large from irresponsible drug use. However, as often is the case, clubs are taking the blame for something that happens everywhere.

The other day, several young teenagers got hold of what appears to be ecstasy at school and were taken to the hospital because they were under the influence of drugs. Yet no one would think it would be logical to consider shutting down that middle school. Instead, the media chose to use clips of nightclubs in discussing the drug use at school! This is a ludicrous association. Can you imagine having a news item about teenagers getting drunk at school and showing footage of rowdy bars to illustrate the story?

Pigdog: How would you propose in fixing this problem?

The dance and after-hours communities have begun to address the dangers of irresponsible drug usage in many ways, because they are interested in creating safe and fun environments for their patrons.

There is an organization called DanceSafe, which offers testing, and information services to people who would like to be knowledgeable if they choose to take substances. Through education and information, they are working to make a difference.

And most large dance and entertainment events have strong security in place to keep controlled substances out, and to eject drug dealers. The change is very apparent. Five years ago, you could find fairly blatant availability and use of illegal substances (of course, alcohol use is still blatant, and still dangerous, though illegal). Now I, as a clubgoer, rarely see any evidence of drug use in nightclubs, including rarely seeing patrons who appear to be under the influence of anything other than alcohol.

In part this is due to police pressure to the clubs that they jeopardize their licenses if any of their adult customers are caught with drugs... again, an irony of selective blame. I doubt that Muni would be held responsible if someone were found on a bus with a suitcase full of crack cocaine, yet a club is expected to be responsible if a customer comes in with something hidden in their sock.

I do think that public awareness of dangerous substances like GHB must be increased. Contrary to some reports, information about GHB says that it's not likely to kill anyone, but it does induce a coma-like state if taken with any alcohol or in a hard-to-predict overdose quantity. And people who appear to be in comas need medical attention, even if their state is temporary and doing no apparent physical harm to them. And certainly we need to discourage this in public places.

The problem is worsened, though, when a club offers necessary medical care to a patron, and is then blackballed by police somehow as a place that promotes drug use. We need to make education and medical attention be the benchmark of responsible club management, and not penalize business owners who are dealing with the reality of our society by blackballing them for problems that their customers encounter.

People should care about this -- even if they don't go to after-hours clubs in San Francisco -- because the selective pressure of the police, apparently based on judgments of what's appropriate leisure activity for our citizens has frightening implications for personal freedom everywhere.

Pigdog: Austin Texas realized that the clubs and halls in the area of town were bringing so much money in, that they not only gave up trying to shut down the clubs, but shut the streets down to encourage pedestrian traffic, and tax breaks to the clubs in general. Has anything like this been proposed to the city?

I'm not remembering if it was Austin or Houston, but you're right, they created a special pedestrian club zone. That is one solution to a situation, and a great one, particularly because it acknowledges the economic contribution of clubs. But the SFLNC doesn't think it's one that would work for San Francisco, which is, after all, a large city that is famous for its art and nightlife, and which has existing nightlife venues throughout the city.

Pigdog: What is SF Sheriff Mike Hennesy's opinion (if any) on this situation?

I don't recall any comments by Sheriff Hennessy, but we are in ongoing communication with members of the police department, neighborhood associations and business owners to move forward in creating a sense of community that includes us night owls as well.

Pigdog: Currently, is their any middle ground that may be reached?

Supervisor Gavin Newsome has drawn up a first step of legislation to address how we can define a middle ground, and his initial draft targeted the zone that would include the south of market area that includes 11th street, where there are many clubs.  He shared his legislation with the SFLNC to invite our comments, and we see many potential areas where we'll all benefit from defining what is workable. These include sound measurement issues and how new residential construction would need to address sound insulation in certain areas. We don't feel, though, that "ghetto-izing" late night venues is the solution in a large city. Rather, we're working with him to come up with some guidelines that will provide for the concerns of residents, business owners and customers.  We'd also like to see a new permit process in place, because we currently have the police department in charge of permits, and there must be a better way.

The SFLNC would also like to see better communication between residents and business owners in their neighborhood, so that problems or annoyances can be quickly dealt with without having to take police time at all.

That's a primary goal of the SFLNC. We are committed to creating a sense of community that includes the nighttime businesses, and will be planning a number of events to that end.

Certainly we feel we can find a middle ground. At the Supervisor Committee hearing this month, it was clear that Supervisor Newsome and Supervisor Leno wanted to look at how other cities have addressed the 24-hour nature of entertainment there (such as Houston/Austin (?) and Las Vegas), and how we can retain the creative nature of our city and keep everyone's concerns in mind.

Pigdog: In front of you is a big shiny red candy-colored button. It's a nice looking button. If you push it, the ongoing war against the San Francisco nightlife will stop. But at the same time, a cage will open up, releasing a thousand rabid, starving weasels into the Mayor's house. Would you push it?

Actually, in front of me are several big shiny red candy-colored buttons. They say "Save San Francisco Nightlife! SFLNC" on them, and they're decorating the Christmas tree on my desk.

These buttons are the representation of my personal commitment to the SFLNC, and to saving our nightlife. I had this slightly megalomaniac desire to see a visible sign identifying those of us who thrive in the night, but look like just one of the vast millions in the day.... So I had these red buttons made. At our mayoral forum last week, it blew me away to see every soul in that room wearing a button.

Now, Willie may have suspected that a cage had opened up releasing a thousand rabid, starving weasels, but I'm really hoping he saw that we're not the rabid, starving weasels he thought. Rather, we're really just like every other neighbor, except we like to dance all night long. And we wear big shiny red candy colored buttons.

Sorry, but I'd never sic weasels on Da Mayor. Especially now that he's won re-election, we need to gain his respect, not his horror!

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