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Invasion of the Coffee Shops 

Forgive and Remember

Wednesday, Nov 25 1998

Didn't they used to have neighborhood block committees in Cuba to spy on people with less-than-zealous-enough revolutionary impulses? I seem to remember this. Anyway, we have something similar in my neighborhood, Noe Valley, except the enemy isn't counterrevolution. It's coffee.

This state of affairs may be difficult to imagine in a cafe town, so I'll try to explain.

A bunch of folks with too much time on their hands and far too little experience with public policy or basic economics have decided that coffee shops -- especially those that dare to serve sandwiches, cookies, and muffins -- are ruining the character of Noe Valley. The neighborhood busybodies want coffee shops banned, and they are about to get their way.

The Board of Supervisors is poised to approve an all-out and forever ban on new coffee shops on 24th Street, between Chattanooga and Diamond streets, at the heart of Noe Valley.

The ban will be imposed, even though all available reality says it shouldn't. There is no onslaught of coffee shops in Noe Valley. And the four (count them, all four of them) java houses that currently exist are far from the trash-and-traffic-generating, neighborhood-character-destroying problem the busybody neighborhood activists say they are.

The shops are, on the contrary, a community resource. People from the neighborhood fill them night and day with conversation. One Noe Valley resident said in a letter to the neighborhood paper that the coffee shops serve as an indoor variety of town square.

I understand and oppose the negative effects of unrestrained gentrification. When it hits a neighborhood hard and ugly, social and cultural institutions tend to be eliminated.

The Lower Haight has been suffering an onslaught of self-absorbed, ill-behaved arriviste hipsters for some time now. An example: A church that once rattled and hummed with the redemption songs of the poor was wiped from the Earth to make way for yet another pretentious hair salon.

But stylemongering does not equate to coffee-shop camaraderie. In Noe Valley, as in many neighborhoods, the cafe is the only remnant of the institutions that once helped America's cities build what social scientists call "social capital." We shouldn't be trying to limit the number of coffee shops; we should be assisting in their creation, because they help create community.

The tale of the targeting of Noe Valley coffeehouses is an instructive one; it illustrates the unintended consequences often created when people play with public policy and economics, even the small-scale variety, and don't rightly know what they are doing.

As with many a San Francisco folly, this one has a history. A 14-year history.

In 1984, Noe Valley had an enemy, but it was not coffee. Back then, restaurants were the scourge of 24th Street.

Noe Valley activists had become alarmed. A few new restaurants had opened. They feared something like a wall of restaurants would soon line 24th Street. They feared that they would lose the diverse mix of commercial enterprises that inhabited the street, and that everyday needs, such as hardware and shoe repair, would go unfulfilled as chichi restaurants serving outsiders spread like fungus.

The neighborhood activists never tried very hard to document whether their fears corresponded to reality. If they had, they would have found no wave of restaurants ready to come crashing down on Noe Valley. For the activists, fear, on its own, was enough to lead to a 1989 ban on new restaurants in the neighborhood, passed by the Board of Supervisors and dutifully signed into law by the mayor.

Ever since, the street has offered just 21 different eating opportunities. Some have come and gone, but there have never been more than 21 restaurant locations on 24th Street.

Having lived in Noe Valley since April 1996, I can attest, with extreme confidence, to the results this ban has had on choice and quality.

If you like burritos and like to eat them in Noe Valley, you have one choice. Casa Mexicana, the sole taqueria in Noe Valley, serves possibly the worst burritos in the city.

If a sit-down Italian meal is to your liking, you have two choices: the dull mediocrity of the chain-cloned Pasta Pomodoro, or Little Italy. Little Italy is possibly the worst Italian restaurant in the world.

If you like sushi, you have one choice. Matsuya offers wonderful sushi and the chef, Yoshi, is a real wiseacre, but the only way you can enjoy Yoshi's product more than twice a year is to be rich. (Hamano, another sushi joint on Castro Street, outside the restaurant ban area but within the neighborhood, is, like Matsuya, good but too expensive.)

If you like Chinese food, you have two choices: Tung Sing and Tien Fu. Two words: yuck and gag.

With the help of misguided neighborhood activists, these truly bad and/or too expensive Noe Valley restaurants no longer have to worry much about competition. There is very little possibility that some new upstart establishment will move in, make them look bad with better prices or better food, and -- God forbid -- force them to improve. Expensive mediocrity is protected by government fiat.

With restaurants in Noe Valley safe from capitalism, the neighborhood activists sighed a little sigh of relief and looked around for other busybody activities to take up their time.

They found their restaurant victory to be short-lived. The pursuit of food and drink by the pesky masses was again threatening the neighborhood: Coffee shops had gone to City Hall and gotten the Noe Valley restaurant ban changed, so they could legally serve muffins, croissants, and -- when the croissants were sliced in half and placed around subversive meats and cheeses -- sandwiches.

To the barricades!
The neighborhood activists immediately dubbed this change in city law the "Starbucks amendment," to color it with the patina of corporate evil, and, therefore, to arouse mindless hysteria.

But for purposes of this column, let's call it what it is: the muffin amendment. Whether connected to Starbucks or muffins, this amendment to the planning code set the Friends of Noe Valley and the East and West of Castro Improvement Association into renewed action. And renewed flights of unlikely fancy.

About The Author

George Cothran


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