San Francisco is a troubled city, staggering through a particularly unpleasant down phase of its perpetual boom-and-bust cycle. The encroaching malaise is not evenly distributed around town, however. Post-Covid, the city’s neighborhoods have displayed wildly different degrees of recovery, with North Beach largely thriving even as nearby Downtown’s implosion seems to be accelerating.
People dissect the city’s woes in terms of its neighborhoods, but it may be more useful to look below the level of ZIP codes, to more granular “microhoods” where vibe shifts really happen. Right now, the best example of a corridor on the upswing may be one that had its last heyday in the 1990s: 16th Street.
In its entirety, the street runs halfway across town, from Chase Center in Mission Bay, skirting the northern edge of Potrero Hill and on through the Mission District and the Castro before dead-ending just below the basketball courts in Corona Heights Park. But a single, two-block stretch of 16th, from Mission to Guerrero streets, contains San Francisco in microcosm.
With new brunch-y wine bar Cauliflower and empowerment wonderland Sour Cherry Comics, longtime punk dive Kilowatt under new ownership and lesbian-centric Mother Bar opening in a location that’s near and dear to longtime queer San Franciscans, there’s a palpable optimism that contrasts sharply with the FiDi’s doom loop. Coincidence or not, most of these new businesses are women-run.
It’s debatable whether 16th Street’s current liveliness could properly be called a resurgence, given the longevity of some of its best-known spots. Anchoring the corridor are the 110-year-old Roxie Theater and the 165-year-old Elixir, whose plaque claims it’s the “second oldest known operating Saloon location in San Francisco.”
Not everything is sunshine, either. The beloved, L-shaped restaurant Sunflower Vietnamese closed for the second time, and piercing studio Body Manipulations recently relocated to Dogpatch. Wealth disparities are evident: There’s a single-resident occupancy hotel cheek-by-jowl with million-dollar listings, and a check-cashing place and an unsanctioned BART station sidewalk market in close proximity to upscale Thai restaurant Lers Ros and world-renowned cocktail bar ABV.
Fresh blood is still fresh blood though, and optimism can be contagious. People have been snidely observing for decades that the Mission isn’t as cool as it used to be, but scruffy 16th Street suddenly feels defiant—magical, even. This is San Francisco as the people who love it most want it to be.
The only endeavor more quixotic than opening a bookstore in the early 2020s is opening a lesbian bar, but that’s what Malia Spanyol did a few months ago with Mother Bar, a long and mostly purple venue that took over the corner space that was most recently Bond Bar.
“It’s been great! I went out on a limb and did this, and it turned out that I’m not alone,” said Spanyol, referring to the need for a hangout for women who love women. “I was told the new generation didn’t need it as much as I needed it, and it feels good to be able to have space for everyone.”
Before Bond Bar, the space had been Esta Noche, a delightfully raucous gay bar with a mostly Latino clientele that closed almost 10 years ago. Its enormous wooden back bar remains intact, a comforting reminder to anyone who still misses Esta Noche’s uniquely gonzo vibe.
“It’s got good energy, and it’s a great history,” said Spanyol, who also owns the Potrero Hill live-music venue Thee Parkside. “That space was gay! It was so gay! And it provided a place for the Latinx community back when they needed it. We have so many people that come in that used to be regulars at Esta Noche, and it’s nice to bring that space back.”
The Mission—Valencia Street, in particular—used to have a much stronger lesbian presence. Comics like Marga Gomez got their start at the long-gone club Valencia Rose, while the Japanese-style, women-only bathhouse Osento did a thriving business for years. The biggest missing piece is the Lexington Club, perhaps second only to The Stud in terms of vanished queer bars that people continue to lament. Spanyol, a Mission resident for a quarter-century, remembers them all.
“Hopefully, the Mission can go back to being a little queer,” she said.
In the strictest sense, the cash-only Mother Bar isn’t a lesbian bar. Like nearby Jolene’s, it’s probably better described as a femme-forward queer space. Spanyol is aware of the evolving terminology and the way even casual descriptors can inadvertently become exclusive. She’s open to whatever the future brings, starting with a rotating cocktail list.
“All good bars evolve,” she said. “I think that’s necessary to find the bar’s character, and you can create something a little bit. The rest of it has to happen organically.”
Across the street, the decades-old punk dive Kilowatt is under new ownership as a trio of nightlife vets recently bought it from longtime owner Peter Athanas. Its famously lax approach to indoor smoking seems to have faded away, but it’s still a place to shoot pool or watch a Warriors game—or, increasingly, to see live music.
Co-owner Katie Rose is acutely conscious of her bar’s legacy of if-you-saw-them-you-legit-get-to-brag-forever performances by the Murder City Devils and the Oblivians. She came to Kilowatt by way of Bottom of the Hill, a venue she had read about before moving to San Francisco—eventually talking her way into a job there.
“Bottom of the Hill is owned by three women, and I wanted that badass energy,” Rose said, attributing the decision to buy the bar to their mentorship. “Not only the inspiration, the encouragement and guts to go for it came from them. It’s been in my blood.”
Along with Casanova and the 500 Club, Kilowatt is part of what’s occasionally called the “Bar-muda Triangle.” Rose and her team brought in a historian who explained the history of the building, which dates back to the 1850s, which renewed her feeling of being a caretaker for something that may outlive all its current patrons. Other, more personal histories are popping up as well.
“Do you know how many times I hear people say, ‘This is where I had my first beer, underage’?” she asked. “I’m like, ‘Uh, that was before we came here.’”
More than a decade ago, freak-folk singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart put out a song called “16th & Valencia Roxy Music.” The lyrics are somewhat opaque, unrelated to the Mission or to the 1970s glam rock band, but the title pays homage to the street’s best-known cultural institution, the Roxie Theater.
Lex Sloan has been the executive director for the last four years. The cinema—actually two single-screen theaters, the Roxie and the Little Roxie—doesn’t have an owner because it’s owned by a nonprofit organization. One of the oldest movie houses in the United States, it was purpose-built as a theater more than a century ago, but a more important anniversary commemorates something more recent.
“On May 21, we’ll have been reopened for two years,” Sloan said in the Roxie’s low-ceilinged projection booth, home to two 35 mm projectors dating to the early 1940s as well as contemporary digital projectors with surround sound. “We were closed for 400 days.”
The 233-seat Roxie has survived on a devoted fanbase, its offbeat programming and a very understanding landlord. Although the age of streaming has altered people’s viewing habits, there’s something ineffable about the soft flicker of celluloid.
“When we reopened, it was such a reminder of why watching a movie in a movie theater is such an experience, something you can’t get streaming at home no matter how big your TV is,” Sloan said. “It’s never gonna be the same experience as watching a film or movie in the dark with strangers, cheering at the screen or laughing together or crying together.”
A quintessential neighborhood theater, the Roxie exists in the shadow of its much larger and mostly dormant neighbor, the Castro Theatre, whose programming has essentially been in suspended animation since early 2022 as lessee Another Planet Entertainment gears up for a massive and highly controversial renovation. The Roxie has filled that void with a film series pointedly named Castro in Exile.
“We kicked that off with a Grease sing-along, which was really fun, and definitely brought a new audience to the Roxie,” Sloan said. “We’re going to do another one with Moana. It’ll be strange to see our theater filled with kids, but we’re looking forward to that, because we know there’s a big hole in people’s hearts with the Castro not being operational.”
Diverse audiences have spillover effects, introducing people to what Sloan calls a bumping commercial corridor. Some relationships are direct, as with Dalva, the elegant cocktail bar sandwiched between the Roxie’s two theaters, where Sloan often sends filmmakers for post-screening receptions.
Others are more nebulous, a function of people leaving a theater at 9 p.m. to get some tapas at Picaro or a late-night burger at Monk’s Kettle, or coming back during the day to browse discount designer fashions at Cary Lane and handmade jewelry at Fiat Lux. Then there’s Manny’s, a cafe and progressive-leaning community hangout that Manny Yekutiel opened, which has become a must-stop for barnstorming politicians at the national level.
“We’re creating a little village of queer small business owners out here, which warms my heart given this area’s deep history in the queer community—in particular for queer women,” Yekutiel told The Standard by email. “16th street is magical and represents some of the best parts of San Francisco: weird, fun, unpretentious.”
“We need folks to come to the Mission, have a memorable experience and then bring their friends—and then the Roxie lives forever,” Sloan said. “The new places that open up around here have a really good shot at surviving and being around for the next decade.”
Its small size is a boon for the Roxie’s long life span. It’s nimble, taking programmatic risks—its calendar currently lists the horror comedy Beau Is Afraid as well as plenty of anime features, lefty-catnip oddity How To Blow Up a Pipeline and several films for the Asian film festival CAAMFest—plus, the box office has sold more than 2,000 discounted tickets to low-income movie lovers through a program called Movies for All. But there are plenty of constraints on what the theater can do.
“It would be fantastic if we could sell wine and booze, for sure,” Sloan said. “And we can’t sell any alcohol in our little theater. Concession sales are a really important part of our business model: We make more money off popcorn and beer than we do off our ticket sales.”
There’s no kitchen, so the Roxie can’t serve food like the Alamo Drafthouse—meaning Milk Duds it is. Sloan and her staff of 20 also don’t own the building, which complicates their ability to execute upgrades. During Covid, they refurbished the restroom to accommodate wheelchairs, but that’s about it for capital improvements. The marquee, too small to advertise film titles, is another issue.
“It’s a constant struggle to keep that neon on,” Sloan said. “Each piece has to be blown, and very few people work on neon. But it lights up our neighborhood! My favorite part of coming to work and leaving work is seeing our neon on. And when the ticket line stretches around the corner, we’re doing something right.”
Just up the street from the Roxie, Leah Morrett of Sour Cherry Comics took the neon’s prominence and ran with it. She just commissioned an interior mural for her shop by artist Nathaniel Bice that shows the Roxie’s marquee, but it reads “QUEER COMIX.”
The shop and the theater worked together on a screening of Lumpia With a Vengeance, a sweetly campy superhero movie with an all-Filipino cast from Daly City. The cast and crew will be at Sour Cherry May 6-7 for a meet-and-greet during “Sour Cherry Con,” its in-house celebration of National Comic Book Day, along with an artists’ alley and plenty of giveaways.
Sour Cherry is pure id, the kind of shop where any adult with a child in tow might drop too much money and a childless adult might drop even more. Tapping into millennial nostalgia, it’s full of plushies, zines, stationery and plenty of Sailor Moon. It feels like the kind of niche business that would struggle in a city with notoriously high rents—the kind of thing that might open on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland instead. So why 16th Street?
“I live three blocks down,” Morrett said as she screenprinted question marks onto “mystery bags” that will be stuffed with graphic novels and posters. “I did look at a lot of different places in the Mission. Everything in the Castro is too expensive.”
She and her wife kept walking past the space, and last year she signed a sweetheart deal on a three-year lease with landlords who were willing to work with her vision of working with anyone who has an open mind.
“I will say I don’t cater to a certain type of comic-book collector who doesn’t have an open mind,” Morrett said. “But they find out pretty quickly that we’ve got girls kissing on the wall. There’s a lot of pink. It’s a femme-first space! I wanted that to be very prominent.”
The closure of a national department store commands outsize attention, spurring the commentariat to ascribe it to this or that ideology in City Hall. The loss of a Whole Foods can cast a penumbra far beyond its immediate environs, but a small business’s success is quiet. Walking along 16th Street, a person might simultaneously feel a deep kinship with the best of San Francisco and a total disconnect from its economic multicar pileups. Maybe it’s an anomaly, but maybe the green shoots are real. For her part, Katie Rose of Kilowatt is optimistic.
“I feel tingly, in a good way,” she said. “I don’t feel any doom. I feel like we’re embarking on the next time that people are going to talk about. It’s happening again, and we’re part of that next wave.”
Astrid Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org