The Elbo Room Is Far From Dying but There’s Still a Movement to Save It

The sign for the Elbo Room

The sign for the Elbo Room. (Photo: Kevin L. Jones)

The inside of the Elbo Room is barely lit. Much of the indoor lighting comes from unconventional sources — pinball machines, a photo booth that’s across from the bar, a silent film being projected in the back — making the place conducive to bad habits and good times.

Add the soundtrack of unfamiliar soul, garage, surf and proto-metal tracks blasting on the sound system and you’ve set a scene in a Scorsese film about San Francisco Mission District.

On Thursday night, strangely, this dark venue was the staging area for community action. Though the second floor of the club is a concert hall, this meeting had nothing to do with a performance. A small group of activists and concerned citizens had come together to begin mapping out a strategy for preventing the closure of one of their favorite haunts: the Elbo Room.

Earlier this month the building’s owners (who, before owning the building, also started the Elbo Room back in 1991), Dennis Ring and Susan Rokisky-Ring, went public with their plans to demolish the 79-year-old building and replace it with a five-story, nine-unit condominium.

At a Planning Commission meeting on Nov. 6, Rokisky-Ring stated that the couple planned to move into one of the units, where they will “spend the rest of their days,” and that a major motivation for building the condo was mobility — the stairs at their current two-story house are proving to be too much and they need a home with an elevator, according to Mission Local.

Inside the Elbo Room
Inside the Elbo Room

The couple’s plans were publicly met with scorn by a few dozen attendees and even more online, especially in the comments on blogs like SF Station, which has already nailed the Elbo Room’s coffin shut, despite the fact that the bar’s lease runs through Nov. 1, 2015.

But for anyone who loves local music, the backlash is no surprise. Over recent years, there has been a steady stream of smaller venues closing — Cafe Du Nord, the Red Devil Lounge, Kimo’s and 12 Galaxies, just to name a few. Though bigger venues like the Great American Music Hall continue to succeed — its owners recently opened a similar size venue, The Chapel, in the Mission — the spots that max out at around 100-200 attendees, which are the life blood of local music scenes, appear to be a dying breed.

Also, as the Bay Area tech boom continues to send San Francisco rents into the stratosphere and developers attempt to pounce on the action, clubs like Bottom of the Hill and The Independent that are located near proposed developments are facing fears that they could be forced out, too.

Leading the charge against the Elbo Room’s assumed fate are two local activists, Ryan McCarthy and Catherine Lee, who organized the Thursday evening rendezvouz for motivated opponents of the demolition. Though over a hundred people had signed up on Facebook to attend the meeting, which was why they met at the club and not the San Francisco Public Library (the first suggested location), only a couple dozen people showed up to hear the two organizers’ plans for saving their beloved bar.

Ryan McCarthy and Catherine Lee address the gathered opponents to the Elbo Room's demolition
Ryan McCarthy and Catherine Lee address the gathered opponents to the Elbo Room’s demolition

As meeting agendas and a mailing list are passed around, Lee begins outlining a clear-cut vision for the group.

“It’s easy to say that you don’t want condos for rich people, or condos for tech. What you want to say is that you want to save a cultural institution,” she says.

With the building being the property of the Rings, how can this be done? The first and most publicized possibility is that if the building is determined to be culturally historic, it could be subject to more intense scrutiny by way of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). All buildings over 50 years old are subjected to a review of their historical significance before any alterations to the structure are permitted.

In 2006, the Elbo Room was determined to have potential for preservation under CEQA for its previous lives as the Gaslight, a gay disco back in the early ’70s; and even more notably as Amelia’s, which was owned and operated by lesbian activist Rikki Streicher, who co-founded the Gay Olympics and has been described as being “one of the top three most influential lesbians of all time in San Francisco.”

The other less-known option, noted by architect Brynn McMillan, is the shadow analysis portion of the development’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR). A five-story building is sure to cast a lot of unwanted shadows on nearby properties, and if any them are owned or designated to be bought by the city’s Parks and Recreation department, the planning commission will not approve the project.

Matt Shapiro, co-owner of the Elbo Room
Matt Shapiro, co-owner of the Elbo Room (Kevin L. Jones)

It’s around this point when the one attendee who has the most to lose from the club’s demolition, Elbo Room co-owner Matt Shapiro, speaks up. Shapiro and partner Eric Cantu bought the club from Ring back in 2010 and have maintained a working friendship with the Rings since well before the purchase. So, though Shapiro tells the group that he appreciates their efforts, he doesn’t want anything to jeopardize his relationship with them, especially since there is the possibility of the club staying open at that location even after the lease runs out.

“We want to stay here as long as possible,” says Shapiro.

In talking with Shapiro, it appears he has more problems with blogs like SF Station and SFist creating an unnecessary commotion around his bar before its fate is sealed.

“The blogs think we’re dead already,” says Shapiro.

And though he understands the fear of his club joining the ranks of the recently fallen, Shapiro’s also quick to point out that some of the smaller venues listed earlier — Red Devil Lounge, Kimo’s, 12 Galaxies — all closed for reasons that really can’t be attributed to San Francisco’s property woes.

As for his situation, if the Rings do choose to move ahead with the development — he states that they still have a lot to submit for the permitting process — not only does he have a whole year to find a new club, but friends of his have already been reaching out with potential new locations.

“I’m not losing any sleep yet,” he says.

Still, Shapiro gave his blessing as the meeting wrapped up with promises to reconvene the following year, after necessary research into CEQA and how the public can influence the process of getting a building preserved as a historic site.

“It won’t hurt to learn all these things,” said McCarthy as the attendees adjourned.

The Elbo Room Is Far From Dying but There’s Still a Movement to Save It 23 November,2014Kevin L. Jones


Kevin L. Jones

Kevin Jones reports on the Bay Area arts scene for KQED. He loves his wife and two kids, and music today makes him feel old.

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