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The SUB-Mission Refuses to Tap Out 

Wednesday, Apr 22 2015
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The SUB-Mission gallery, a performance art space that has existed in the Mission District for almost 20 years, may be closing down within a month. Hefty building code violation fines, the cost to renovate and retrofit the space, and a rent increase of $3,000 a month has the venue — one of the last all-ages venues in the city for smaller bands to play — on its last legs.

Txutxo Perez, the SUB-Mission's 45-year-old founder and co-owner, opened the first version of the club in '96 or '97 (he can't remember exactly). The space started as strictly an art gallery on 24th and Mission, but slowly transformed into a full-blown performance space before moving to its current location between 17th and 18th. Since then, the venue has become a go-to spot in San Francisco for small- to mid-sized bands looking to play all-ages shows. Local bookers can pay the venue less than $200 (plus a cut of the door) to rent out the space for an entire night. The venue even throws in staffers to run the door and sound.

The SUB-Mission is lucky when it comes to many issues facing San Francisco venues, according to Perez. Its landlord is "pretty cool" and its neighbors don't complain about the noise. But the venue is locked in a protracted battle with the city's Department of Building Inspection.

"When we got the building it had been vacant for five or six years," Perez said. "We had to fix all the wiring. There were lines going nowhere to nowhere, which is a huge risk. We reinforced walls. Now the city is being a little hard about the requirements."

The problems date back to 2008, when the venue was first notified various features of the building weren't up to code (like the boarded up storefront that doesn't allow sunlight into the building). The problems were ignored by both parties for a while, until recently, when Perez was informed if he didn't bring the building up to code he would be fined $40,000. His five-year lease was also coming to an end, and the landlord said if Perez couldn't bring the venue up to code he wouldn't be allowed to sign a new one.

Perez quickly hired an architect to make renovation plans that would satisfy the city's requirements, but the costs of the lengthy process (and lack of income while the venue undergoes the construction) could bankrupt the small club. According to Perez, the city requires a wheelchair lift to the private artist studios above the venue, and another for the patio out back. It also requires a smaller stage, an emergency exit corridor that reaches toward the back of the venue, and sprinklers. Then it says the building must be retrofitted, including the demolition and reinforcement of various walls.

The city estimates the budget for all the renovations and retrofitting shouldn't be any more than $360,000. Finally, it wants $15,000 for the proper permits.

"It's a legal way to kill you," Perez said of the slow process of getting approval to start the renovations. "They just give you the runaround [until you run out of money]," he said.

According to Perez, shortly after the SUB-Mission opened, the neighborhood began to change, little by little. Art projects such as the beautiful Clarion Alley Mural Project were helping to improve the neighborhood and make it attractive to creative types.

"When we first came here there was a lot of gang banging and drug dealing in the neighborhood. Half the block was all boarded up — including SUB-Mission's building (it used to be a Chinese restaurant back in the '80s). The first year we spent here was hard. There was a lot of Sureños gang stuff going on, lots of violence, and drug dealing."

Or, as Ryan Mattos, 34, a Bay Area punk and hardcore guitarist who played his first SUB-Mission show with his band Jealous Again at the venue's old 24th and Mission location in 2004, joked, "It used to be terrifying, now there are poetry slams on the corner."

According to Mattos, a city's music scene needs cheap, reliable venues like SUB-Mission for smaller touring bands to play in order to grow. Solid venues like SUB-Mission, that local promoters can book at affordable prices, save bands from having illegal shows shut down by the police. If the SUB-Mission falls, smaller DIY bands that don't fit the bill at other venues in the city will have nowhere to go.

"Slim's and Bottom of the Hill don't care about us. It's places like the SUB-Mission where we're going to end up every time," Mattos said. "I've always seen Bottom of the Hill as a bar that has a stage. For bands that don't draw big bar crowds, and where the music takes precedent over hanging out and drinking, places like SUB-Mission are really important."

Matt Bartels, 25, a Tenderloin resident, has been attending shows at the SUB-Mission gallery since he was 16. As he grew and matured, Bartels remained active in the DIY punk community, and began looking for new ways to contribute. Two years ago, he started booking shows at the gallery.

As a promoter, Bartels sees closing SUB-Mission as a stiff blow to an already fragile all-ages music scene in San Francisco. He's noticed a steep decline in the number of youths attending shows and starting bands, and fears the end of the SUB-Mission could cause even more touring bands to skip San Francisco in favor of Oakland or other East Bay cities.

"I've seen huge bands play SUB-Mission before they were huge — like Title Fight, Tigers Jaw, Have Heart, and Verse — you know, and those bands are on different levels now," Bartels said. "Title Fight just played Slim's. Tigers Jaw just played The Great American Music Hall. If SUB-Mission is gone where do bands like that play before they get to that level?"

According to Bartels, the SUB-Mission is one of the last all-ages venues in the city where a promoter can book an up-and-coming band that only draws 50 people without everyone involved losing large sums of money. It also never lost the creative energy from its art gallery roots, which made it a unique space.

"Movies were always playing in the background, their sound booth is a van, there's always art on the walls, you know? It's just a very art-centric space and lot of spaces like that are being lost in San Francisco," Bartels said.

Anastasia Kiriy, 24, who worked the door at the SUB-Mission for three years until she was recently let go due to budgetary constraints, said she hopes the venue overcomes the odds, but fears it can't win the fight.

"We used to be sincere, convenient, affordable, and friend-based. I remember sold-out shows and people shaking our hands for giving them a good service — but something went wrong," Kiriy said. "We got into a critical situation. We started losing promoters, money and people weren't showing up anymore."

The gallery on 24th and Mission, according to Perez, was a survivor from the first dot-com boom. The landlord had tried to rent it to dot-commers, but the art gallery won. This latest tech boom, however, may be too much for the small DIY venue that hosts musicians, painters, and other artists to handle. But Perez, backed up against an out-of-code, soon-to-be demolished wall, is digging in his heels and vowing to fight. He's drawing from his personal savings, and even enlisting the help of a crowdfunding campaign to keep the art space alive.

"There's been long hours, where I'm frustrated and spending my own money, and think about giving it up and just moving on to something else. But when we see the response of the bands and people who support us, I know we need to keep going," Perez said. "We are like the last independent space in the Mission, surrounded by expensive bars."

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About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

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Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.

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