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A Tale of Two Bars 

Happy toasts -- and sad -- after the latest skirmishes in the Mission's culture wars

Wednesday, Jan 8 1997
Mere blocks from each other in the center of the Mission District, two longtime neighborhood bars are undergoing radical change. One faces a reluctant end, while another marks a hopeful beginning. At the heart of the matter lies a choice facing San Francisco's diverse communities as they struggle to reconcile the different impulses they embody: heated clashes where one culture wins primacy over another, or peaceful coexistence.

The Dovre's Coup de Grace
It's the last New Year's Eve at the last Irish bar in the neighborhood surrounding 18th and Mission streets. At the Dovre Club, the jukebox is playing the same songs it always plays; the pool table is occupied, as usual. The regulars all know that the clock's set to bar time: 15 minutes fast. A requisite nod to the homeland hangs over the front door: "Patrick's Irish Toast -- Let's Drink to the Final Defeat of the British Army in Northern Ireland."

The crowd is surprisingly festive, a mockery of the "not user-friendly" label that outsiders have attached to the place many of the clientele may as well call home.

The Dovre Club, however, is no longer welcome here. San Francisco Women Centers Inc., owner of the four-floor, historic building, is about to launch a $5 million renovation project, which includes evicting the Dovre Club. It is likely to be gone by April.

"No one really believes that it's going to close down," says Sarah Noone, one of the twentysomethings from the neighborhood who've come to be regulars here. "Everyone here is such good friends. I grew up in bars like this."

"Community" can have many definitions, and can be deployed in the name of as many different agendas. It is amorphous, not necessarily defined by geography, certainly not in San Francisco. In the Dovre's case, one community, formed around the allure of a comfortable barstool and a friendly face behind the counter, will be destroyed in the name of nurturing another, which is centered around a just as fiercely held camaraderie, though of vastly disparate origins.

The Dovre Club is a San Francisco landmark, which has occupied a corner of the Women's Building for nearly 30 years. If its damaged walls could talk, they would share three decades of yarns spun, friendships made, politics argued, and relationships broken and mended over a drink -- or five. All the while, on the other side of the cracked plaster, under the same leaking roof in the Women's Building, organizations such as La Casa de las Madres, the Women's Alcoholism Center, and the Women's Foundation were formed, causes were championed, relationships were solidified, and lives repaired. Other tenants include Mujeres Unidas, Family Rights and Dignity, Women's AIDS Network, the San Francisco Chapter of the National Organization for Women, San Francisco Women Against Rape, and the Harvey Milk Democratic Club.

The building is home to people who come from all parts of the Bay Area for services and support. But the Dovre Club is no less a community in its own right -- a meeting place, a gathering of familiar faces, a spot for discussion, debate, and social exchange.

"We want to make it [the bar] more user-friendly for our clientele," explains Esperanza Macias, executive director of the Women's Building. "We plan to make that corner a cafe that is more consistent with the community we serve. We have 12-step groups coming in here, women with children. ... A bar would not be appropriate. In fact, it would be somewhat unfair."

The 30-year-old bar actually predates its landlord, which purchased the building and gave it its present name in 1979. For years the Sons of Norway, a fraternal organization, had owned it. Two relics from that era -- a pair of curious-looking wooden thrones built into the walls of a large meeting room -- still remain.

The building, which has been standing since before the 1906 earthquake, is a serious seismic risk, and the owners are on notice from the city to retrofit or close down. The board of the Women's Building determined that renovation was a fine occasion to shed the Dovre Club.

Thing is, this isn't just any bar. It's a neighborhood living room and a working tribute to its famous proprietor, Paddy Nolan, who died last year. Mission hipsters blend in with neighborhood veterans, journalists, politicians, and assorted others, like San Francisco Independent columnist Warren Hinckle, a fixture as permanent as the Guinness sign here for years. The mismatched family of regulars have shared potluck on Friday nights and held many a surprise birthday party here. Former Mayor Frank Jordan tended bar after he won election.

"I learned to play pool here," says Kim Lew, who's been hanging around for about 17 years. "I'm 'The Chinese Guy' here. Paddy Nolan took me in. He taught me how to play pool, taunting me, playing with a broomstick or with the leg of a chair. I don't go to other bars.

"Paddy told a friend to take over the bar one time and left for Ireland," Lew laughs. "So whenever he said, 'Go behind the bar,' we'd never do it."

Both tenant and landlord agree that there has been no trouble at the Dovre Club.

When Nolan died, he left the bar to his nephew, John Cassady, and bartender Brian McElhatton, who is none too pleased about the predicament.

"It was a kick in the face for me, the last thing I expected," McElhatton says. "I'm willing to do whatever they want, put in an espresso machine, put in a window so it's more open. Women can come in and have a proper coffee or whatever here."

"They wouldn't have been able to do this if Paddy were still alive," adds Terry Dowd, a patron of two decades. "They'd have to carry him out."

But the matter is not subject to debate. McElhatton tried to meet with the board and was turned down. There is nothing to discuss, according to Macias. The organization doesn't want a bar there -- and it happens to own the building.

About The Authors

George Cothran


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