Weighing Housing Against History
There was once a time where San Francisco was known and loved for being a big city with a small town feel; full of classic bars and coffee shops, mom-and-pop businesses galore; a self declared home of the freaks. San Francisco was once a place made for, and made by, people from nowhere.
As the city expands, sometimes harsh changes inevitably come with it. Even San Francisco’s Mayor, Edwin Lee has admitted that the city is indeed in a housing “crisis.”
As San Franciscans scramble to make rent with combusting housing and living costs, City officials are tasked with making room for city and population growth, while simultaneously attempting to preserve the “uniqueness” of San Francisco that has made so many want to move here in the first place.
Mayor Lee recently offered a solution to city’s housing crisis that involves the construction or rehabilitation of another 30,000 new homes over the next six years – the fastest rate in the city’s history.
As Lee stated in a speech obtained by the Chronicle, “In San Francisco, we’ve tried to have it both ways,” he said. “We want more money for affordable housing, but too often we oppose or scale back the very projects that generate those funds.”
Although the call for more abundant affordable housing is slowly being heard among the city’s residents and leaders, fully addressing the situation may mean inevitably giving up other parts of the city many residents love.
A concerted effort on the city’s behalf to construct new homes for a continually growing population is generally regarded in a positive light by many residents; however not everyone is benefiting from the city’s rapid expansion. ABC7 estimates that 4,000 local businesses in San Francisco will close this year alone, including some historic establishments that have been in operation, in some cases, more than 100 years.
The Empress of China To Close this Year
The announcement that Chinatown’s beloved restaurant would be closing its doors at the end of this year, came as a surprise to many San Franciscans. The Empress has hung high above the busy streets of Chinatown since the 1960s. Its lobby is covered in dusty pictures of decades of actors, politicians and other public figures, posing at the dinner table. The restaurant itself is decorated with jade and gold chandeliers, and mimics the inside of a Chinese dynastic temple, while offering expansive views of North Beach, Coit Tower and the Bay.
There is no place quite like the Empress, and that’s why SFGate’s Indie Scoop columnist, Paolo Lucchesi argues that the closure of such a restaurant could mean San Francisco is in danger of losing its unique edge.
The building is currently set to be converted into condos starting next year. Norman Fong, the executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center told SFGate that the “new generation” of property owners in Chinatown has to be very careful, as many of them have inherited their property and have less of a sentimental tie to it than generations before them.
“If it’s just about the money,” Fong said, “then we all lose.”
Russian Hill’s Lombardi Sports opened in 1948 on Clement Street, and moved to the corner of Jackson and Polk in 1993. Now, 66 years later, the 50,000-square-foot building is closing to make room for a six-story condo complex, with ground floor retail space.
SFGate reported that a combination of two bad ski seasons, and increasing pressure from online retailers, finally caught up with Lombardi Sports, and the Lombardi family made the difficult decision to close the store.
The Lexington Club
The closure of “The Lex,” as it is often referred to, is taking a toll on San Francisco locals in ways that a more than just “losing a bar” – The Lex is a staple of queer culture in San Francisco, and helped create and define both San Francisco’s lesbian community, and greater LGBT community, outside of the Castro. It is considered the only specifically devoted lesbian bar in San Francisco.
The Lex is a first-of-its-kind and a one-of-a-kind, “friendly neighborhood dyke bar,” and although the bar has always been known for its large, often rowdy parties, historically it has also always been a safe haven for sex-positive and women’s rights activists throughout the city.
Lila Thirkield, the owner and founder of The Lex, posted a Facebook announcement to inform the community of her decision, in which she said that a few years before, her rent had been increased to market rate, making it difficult to keep the drinks flowing. But her rent wasn’t the only rent increasing, as many of her customers, simply could not afford to live in the neighborhood anymore. She alluded to many of the City’s gentrification woes as the reason she was forced to close The Lex.
“When a business caters to about 5% of the population,” she wrote, “it makes a big impact when 1% of them leave. When 3% or 4% can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood, or the City, it makes the business model unsustainable.”
Following the recent closure of other historic gay bars in the City, such as Esta Noche in the Mission, and Marlena’s in Hayes Valley, it appears San Francisco is even losing important parts of its LGBT community; a community that exists as a vital piece of San Francisco’s culture.
The Empress of China, Lombardi Sports and The Lexington Club are only a few of the local businesses being pushed out in the development boom. We can also add Sam Wo, Joe’s of Westlake, All Star Donuts, Woodward’s Garden, La Cucina, and Cuco’s to the list. We’ll continue to follow this story as San Francisco’s local economy continues to evolve in 2015.