Manny’s, on 16th and Valencia, isn’t technically a bar – but it serves cheap drinks, which for many of us is close enough.
But more than that, Manny’s is being talked about: an attempt to create a space that resists San Francisco’s gentrification, which itself ended up being a flashpoint in the gentrification wars. It is both a café and a reminder that, even in a progressive city, no good deed goes unpunished.
The result has been a storm of local and even international attention. I’d say that’s the kind of publicity in this town that money can’t buy, but really it can – you just have to open a café.
And perhaps that’s the most paradoxical thing about Manny’s: It’s much more interesting and distinctive as a metaphor than it is as a place.
As a place … it’s a three-part space with a conventional small café set-up in the front, boasting a long counter with copper paneling and a pastry selection. The drink lists are on one wall, food menu on another.
Aside from the local sourcing of the food, the only thing that distinguishes any of the offerings is their price points: Coffee starts at under $2, and is mostly in the $3 range. Cans of Tecate also start the beer prices low, at just $2, and most of the booze is in the $6-$9 range. Cocktails are limited to the “sparkling” variety, but, whatever. Nobody’s coming here to drink hard.
The second room, really more of a connecting hallway, is a lovely small bookstore provided by local business Dog Eared Books. Heavy on politics, light on literature, it looks like it was lifted directly out of the apartment of a particularly stern graduate student, with sections on “Immigration & Migration,” “Trans Rights & History,” “Race,” “Disability Studies,” and “Theory.”
The larger back room is the venue area, and has a space for presenters and a living room vibe, with an emphasis on couches and group seating.
Put it all together and it’s … well, honestly, it’s exactly the kind of café you’ll find in every college town across the Midwest. Spacious, cheap, a local venue for community groups, going out of its way to proclaim itself a diverse space … there are a hundred places like Manny’s in Ohio alone, and maybe even just Oberlin.
But there’s a desperate lack of places like this in San Francisco, so Manny’s stands out. And good for Manny’s! But as a cafe what’s interesting about it is that it’s an endangered species.
As a metaphor, though, it is uniquely delicious, both a savory vegan broth and a spicy meatball. The fact that to create this this space, Manny Yekutiel had to undergo a grueling ordeal of consultations with community groups and non-profits perfectly symbolizes the way in which San Francisco makes it as difficult as possible to create something that everybody says they want.
And the fact that, even after going through all that and doing everything right, a progressive anti-gentrification cafe is still getting picketed over allegations of Zionism – Zionism! – and that all those organizations Manny had gone out of his way to consult and appease decided not to leap to his defense but adopted a “wait and see” attitude on whether the café they always wanted might have to close because Israel might not have a right to exist …
… Well, you decide what that’s a metaphor of, but whatever it is, it’s perfect. Evocative, informative – it’s a 10-karat symbol of this city.
But that’s what Manny’s is a symbol of now: The question is what it will be a symbol of in another year.
There was still space when I arrived at Manny’s in the afternoon, but there was no food. The barista explained to me that there were no meals on Mondays, because the kitchen staff needed a day off. Which … okay … sure … no meals on Mondays. Why not? I ordered a tea and a chocolate croissant and sat at an open table in the front section.
Around me was a sea of laptops and people with Bluetooth attachments set in their ears. At a table next to me, two people were conducting a job interview about Salesforce pipeline management.
Not long after, two women sat down at another table near me and had a conversation that might have been an informational interview and might have been a first date. I was shocked, in that moment, at how hard it was to tell the difference.
After a few minutes of what might have been flirting or might have been networking, their conversation shifted to a long discussion about a tech solution to solve homelessness. You see, upon meeting a homeless person, you can use your phone to … ah, screw it, it doesn’t matter. Nothing past the words “use your phone” ever really matters when talking about entrenched social problems. It could be anything. If you’ve talked to literally anyone with a start-up, you know this conversation.
A third nearby table, meanwhile, was also engaged in a conversation that could have been networking, activism, or meeting an old family friend. Literally every conversation I eavesdropped on in Manny’s went like that.
And it seemed, sitting there, that we have managed to collapse all the different kinds of conversations into one data stream. Dating has interfaced with networking which has become philanthropy which seamlessly turns into job interviews which syncs to your political debates and updates your catching up with friends. Tech – as an industry, a set of tools, a lifestyle, a culture – crushes everything into this compact ur-form. Your whole emotional range in 280 characters or fewer. One emoji to rule them all.
And maybe I was just at Manny’s on an off day, but, the fact that this was happening here, in a space explicitly set up to be responsive to everything tech is gentrifying out of San Francisco, was as baffling as the collapsed conversations themselves.
One could say that what’s happening here is that Manny’s is becoming a neutral zone – a place where techies and activists and the marginalized and the politicos can all meet together, something they can have in common. And … maybe that’s so.
Or maybe it’s something else.
Much in the way that marginalized communities and bohemians once created great affordable neighborhoods that tech folks wanted to live in too, they have created a great Midwestern café that tech folks now want to inhabit, precisely because of the low prices, the spacious interior, the cache of cultural programming, and the pleasantness of a diverse staff. And so Manny’s is becoming a microcosm of the very conflict that it was designed to help alleviate.
That’s my take, anyway. We’ll see where it’s at in a year.
While I was mulling on that, a group arrived from the Canadian consulate. Manny Yekutiel met them, as he occasionally does with customers, and showed them around. Apparently they might want to do events here.
Which would be great for Manny’s. Assuming, of course, that Canada has a right to exist.