Laura, an old-school San Francisco punk with dyed red hair, has been fighting with her landlords in Oakland for years. They tried to cut her water. They tried to cut her power. They tried to move relatives into the spare rooms. But she’s made of steel: She’s the kind of person who finds out when cops are going to evict homeless encampments and then shows up to make sure the people being kicked off the streets know their rights.
Today she’s still in her home. It’s the landlords who left.
“My new landlords asked me what my relationship was with the old ones,” she told me, sipping a gimlet in the 500 Club. “I told them: ‘Don’t fuck with me, and we’ll be fine.’”
She urges all her friends who have housing problems to stand up and fight, no matter what. “They tell me, ‘no, I don’t want to have to fight,’” she says, rolling her eyes in frustration. “And I say: ‘That’s why they win!’”
It’s interesting to have this conversation in the 500 Club, a 65-year-old bar which just got a new owner late last year. The transfer created a sense of terror among anti-gentrification activists and lovers of dive bars, who feared that the old warhorse would be replaced with a soy oxygen bar for dogs who Uber.
Those fears were misplaced. Which is a thing you almost never get to say about gentrification in San Francisco. And that’s really nice. The 500 Club is not the bar equivalent of a high-end condo equivalent, or even a high-end condo: It’s still very much a neighborhood bar. And the neighborhood shows up: It had a decent crowd running at 3 p.m. on a gorgeous Monday afternoon. People sat and talked, regulars came in and joked with the bartender, and a guy sat across the bar from me with a deck of cards and played solitaire.
But — Laura and I agreed, looking around — it’s no longer a dive, either. Oh, it’s close to a dive: It has red filters over its lights, three TVs on sports, shitty booze merchandise and velvet paintings on the walls, along with pictures of former staff. The hat of a former manager hangs on the wall over the bar.
It’s very divey, like that. But it’s also just too well cared for to really count. The bar counter is lovely and clearly tended to. Everything works. The bathrooms are remarkably clean. The 500 Club has changed, for sure. It’s just not the kind of change we’re afraid of.
Laura, as an old-guard member of San Francisco’s art underground, has been feeling optimistic recently about the struggle for the soul of the city. Sipping a margarita that the bartender seemed excited to make for her on a hot day while I nurse a gin and tonic, she tells me that she thinks that the underground art scene in the city isn’t dead at all. Rather, it’s just changing generational hands — and all the people who used to know where to find the really interesting parties and challenging events are moaning that it’s all gone, when in fact, they’re just not in the driver’s seat anymore.
“I was talking with someone in the scene who is much younger and much newer to it than me. He’d come up to me because he was sure he’d seen me somewhere before, but couldn’t figure out where. And so he was running down a list of all the cool things he and his friends were part of, to see what I’d been at. And when he was finished I said: ‘I’ve never heard of any of those things!’ And it was so exciting! Because it means that it’s all still happening, even if I’m not part of it anymore. That’s fine.”
We clinked glasses, and she grinned. “Then he said: ‘wait a minute, I know where I’ve seen you now! Didn’t you saran wrap me at a party a couple years ago?’”
I cracked up. That guy.
“And I was SO HAPPY, because I think that party was one of the best things we ever did; it’s probably my favorite thing that ever happened that I was a part of, and I love the idea that the next generation of people are telling each other stories about it. That once there was this amazing event that I got to be part of where …”
This made me incredibly happy too. I was one of the organizers of that event, which took over a parking garage just before it was torn down to build new condos. It was, in fact, pretty amazing — and an example of what you can do when things fall down.
But not everything. As we prepare to go, we agree that we’re profoundly glad that the 500 Club is still the 500 Club, for all that it’s no longer so divey. “This feels like the old Mission, to me,” she says as she walks out the door.
She would know.