Left out of the celebration

For the past five weeks, the nightclubs and bars of San Francisco have gotten global advertising through the revelry of fans of the World Series-winning San Francisco Giants.
Yet the largest entertainment spot on Third Street was empty, because the San Francisco Police Department had objected for the past two years to their alcohol license.
Owner Clarence Williams has invested hundreds of thousands into restoring Club Long Island to its glory during the 1960s when Emmitt Kennedy made it a fabled night spot in the “chitlin circuit.”
But he had only gotten vague verbal inferences from the precinct permit officer, blocking a license which he already held. And the Catch 22 was the state Alcohol Beverage Control department was threatening to take the license unless he opened for business.
During our third Preserving California Black Heritage conference–Bayview’s Last Stand–last October, we pointed out that a group of long-time black property owners still held substantial parts of the oldest commercial buildings in San Francisco — property destined to skyrocket in value just like the Painted Ladies on Alamo Square.
Black families sold those iconic houses in the 1970s for less than $20,000 apiece. Now their value is in the millions, because their historic value has been documented.
Mr. Williams is among the largest of those property owners. In San Francisco, like most cities, the appreciation of property value has always happened after black owners lose control of the property. Bayview’s owners have been doggedly determined not to suffer the fate of their prior counterparts on Fillmore Street. They’ve hung on with their own money while millions in taxpayer money has been lavished on newcomers to open up new bars and restaurants in the demolished and rebuilt Fillmore.
For me, there was a deja vu feeling because the plot of my new historical novel Cakewalk is about the efforts of the San Francisco Police Department to curb the success of black nightclub owners just after the 1906 earthquake.
In search of answers, we wrote to the Police Chief George Gascon and the Redevelopment Agency executive director Fred Blackwell in April. Blackwell came out to talk to Mr. Williams.
In July, we addressed the San Francisco Police Commission, led by Dr. Joe Marshall. We made the point that regulatory abuse was just as much racial profiling as shooting someone in the back on a BART platform.
The curious thing was, how could the Police Department oppose someone who hadn’t opened yet? Isn’t there a constitutional presumption of innocence?
Finally, this week, the inspector in charge of ABC liaison citywide came out to Club Long Island along with the precinct permit officer and a deputy city attorney. I joined Mr. Williams along with Rev. Shad Riddick of Metropolitan Baptist Church and business consultant Antoinette Mobley.
It became obvious that Mr. Williams was being held hostage to some stereotypical ideas. The inspector explained that there had been too many liquor licenses granted in the Bayview area, contributing to violence and crime. Despite all the bar scenes we’d seen, he was opposed to the 300-seat facility operating as a bar. Once we had those ideas out on the table, Williams, a retired city employee, could knock them out of the park.
“When you have black owners who operate the businesses and have their own sweat and money tied into it, you don’t have those problems,” he said. “I’ve been going to Sam Jordans for 40 years and they’ve only had one problem that I can remember.”
As I’ve reviewed the history of Bayview in the 1960s, one thing that stands out are the neighborhood bars and restaurants, holding athletic competitions, sponsoring youth leagues and school events.
At places like Sam Jordans and Monte Carlo, those traditions are still in effect. Williams is seeking to restore Club Long Island, as the largest venue on the street, to that continuity.
Rev. Riddick noted that the problems had sprung from the liquor stores operated by owners who didn’t live in the community.
I suggested that the proper benchmarking of Mr. Williams’ operation would be those long-time establishments, along with other successful black restaurants around the city. I also gave the city officials a background on the historic character of the community.
The conclusion was that the citywide inspector promised to put the Police Department’s draft conditions in writing for the first time by Monday.
I left them with this thought: aren’t you sending a terrible message by impeding someone who is investing in his community with his own labor and money? It is obvious how well respected Mr. Williams is in the community, even among folks hanging out on the sidewalk. He can do more to calm things down than 10 squad cars.
It was a brief lesson in cultural competency that seemed to sink in.
We’ll discuss the continuing threat to black historic properties in Bayview and the rest of the city during the fourth annual Preserving California Black Heritage conference on Friday, Nov. 12 at 4 p.m. at Marcus Books, 1712 Fillmore St. Our sponsors include ParkSFO and CafeGolo.