In another city, or with another building, it might merely be a case of a landlord evicting a commercial tenant at the end of a lease. But this is a battle for the heart and soul of San Francisco, where the city's power players, activists, and grass-roots organizers jumped into a social, political, and economic drama set within the walls of a tired old building. And when all was said and done, there was a glimmer of hope for the Dovre Club.
The pending renovation of the Women's Building -- brought about by mandatory seismic retrofitting -- includes plans to evict the Dovre (see "A Tale of Two Bars," Bay View, Jan. 8), which occupies the corner at Lapidge and 18th streets. The Women's Building Board convened what became a community forum on this issue following a groundswell of opposition and media coverage.
The Women's Building is the only one of its kind in the world, having been purchased, owned, and operated by women for organizations serving women and girls since 1979. It is, in the truest sense of the phrase, a place of their own. Meanwhile, the Dovre Club for the past three decades has been the center of old-line politics, social exchange, and community nurturing that extends from the Irish working class through Mission hipsters. Both institutions are intricately tied in to the city's history.
The idea that one may have to leave in order to make room for the other is tearing at the fabric of the city's social order, as natural supporters of both sides find themselves in a difficult position. Suffice it to say that a number of speakers felt compelled to start their presentations with statements like, "I'm an Irish-American, lesbian feminist who's lived in the Mission for 10 years. ... I've benefited from programs at the Women's Building, and I'm a patron of the Dovre Club."
At the very least, it was a retrospective discussion of social issues.
"When the Women's Building became a property owner, it put them in a [different] position," said Luna Nichol, of the advocacy group Radical Women. "It's not right for the Women's Building to turn around and not work out an agreement with the Dovre Club.
"The mission has traditionally been home to a colorful array of Latinos and commies and gays and lesbians and all sorts of others. Now the coffee shops and the big businesses are kicking us out. We do not want to see the Women's Building take the same position."
Labor leaders were there. Politicos were there. Elected officials were there. Neighbors, patrons, clients, and tenants were there. Everyone, it seems, has something to say about the state of the Women's Building and the Dovre Club.
Supporters of the eviction told of the painful struggle of scrimping and saving for the building that was truly theirs to do with as they want. And how they're still fighting for that simple right.
"We were formed to change the world," SuShawn Robb, head of the Women's Building Board, said in her introduction. "We are still committed to doing that. We have had a number of meetings about how best to use the space of the building. We still have that commitment to changing the world and how the world operates."
The renovated building will house a child-care center in the back of the first floor, near what is now the Dovre Club. The Dovre space is open to bid for a cafe or some other use. In the end, Robb told the group that the board would listen to ideas about coexisting on the corner, which was more hope than the bar had seen before, but far from a guarantee of its existence. The Dovre is not likely to remain an Irish pub, but perhaps morph into something that includes a daytime cafe as well as a nighttime social spot. And its rent -- which the Women's Building will not disclose, but argues is well under market value -- is likely to go up.
The hours wore on, filled with speeches -- some eloquent, some not so eloquent, all of them passionate -- that would reach into tenants' rights, welfare cuts, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, civil rights struggles, gender equity, labor movements, and political campaigns. And, over and over again, they revisited history.
Joe O'Donohoe, head of the Residential Builders Association of San Francisco, political consultant Jack Davis, and Roma Guy, a founder of the Women's Building, all told a version of the tough negotiations hammered out (before many of the audience members were likely even born) between Guy and Paddy Nolan, the Dovre's late proprietor.
"I held Paddy's hand as I walked around the Dovre Club and talked about what the Dovre Club would be," Guy told an audience that fell pin-drop quiet for the first time all evening. "A compromise was made that it would stay until he died. Paddy's gone. It's a new day."
Davis didn't remember it quite that way.
"It transcends Paddy Nolan's death," he said. "I remember those negotiations. There were assurances given before the women's community took over the building that Delancey Street and others would fight the efforts of them raising money to buy it if the Dovre Club was not allowed to exist." Yet, so far anyway, nothing memorializing that in legal form has materialized.
"If they break those commitments, it will be a breach of trust and there'll be a fight which will include all levels of battle -- building permits, courts, we'll tie anything up that would allow them to evict the Dovre Club."
In the midst of this there was a call for peace, compromise, negotiation, and mediation from an array of voices -- many with clout behind them.
"We're urging both sides to sit down and work something out," said Jeff Sheehy, president of the Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Democratic Club, which meets in the Women's Building. The group had voted a resolution to that effect earlier. "I hope we're not at a point where the two sides are unalterably opposed to one another. My understanding is that there are discussions going on. We'd like to do everything we can to see that happen."
So does Community College Trustee Andrea Shorter, chairwoman of the political action committee of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, which is also a Women's Building tenant.
"I think that [the meeting] was a very critical part of what should continue to be a dialogue about the fate of the Dovre Club and the fate of the Women's Building and what it's about," she said. "I think there was hope when you see a community come together -- it was one of the best showings of why people love San Francisco.
"Mediation, mediation, mediation.