Unrepentant nostalgia can be a hell of a slippery slope. There’s always the temptation to lionize one’s formative years – the ones in which you were younger, more interesting, more open-minded and far better-looking. I try not to stumble down that path too often, but it’s sometimes pretty unavoidable to laser-focus my writing attention on telling stories from those years that spanned from my childhood to young adulthood. I’m sure someday I’ll write a real stemwinder about that time I turned fifty, or that time I missed a property tax payment.
Speaking of young adulthood, mine could be said to have started around 1989, the year I graduated from college and hightailed it back to the San Francisco Bay Area, the place where I’d grown up. I’d had this notion even back in high school in San Jose, California that the #1 thing I wanted to do upon leaving college was to move to San Francisco. It was probably the sum total of my life goals at that point. What I was going to do with the rest of my life was very much up for debate. My undergraduate English degree was tailor-made for just about any low-paying career option available, and I sampled them all: warehouse worker, parking lot attendant, telemarketer and, eventually, customer service rep.
After a lifetime of suburban living, transporting myself to the center of the beating cultural heart of San Francisco – home of dingy punk clubs, record stores, weird cinemas, freaks, bars etc. – was my be-all and end-all, and I committed myself accordingly. Of course, the city’s natural, topographical and architectural beauty was also a huge draw. My family had taken my sister and I there quite frequently while we were growing up nearby in Sacramento and San Jose, and it always gave me a bit of an energy jolt even to look out the window at the various savory & unsavory street scenes in The City as we made our way to Grandma Kay’s house in Sausalito.
I moved back in with my parents in San Jose for five months & worked to save money to afford the exorbitant $300/month rent to share a San Francisco flat, and to find gainful employment up there. I got to experience the 6.9 magnitude 1989 earthquake at their house, in fact – and yes, I was watching my San Francisco Giants in the World Series at that very moment. I spent several days a week in San Francisco despite living an hour south of it, either interviewing for jobs or, far more likely, seeing local bands like the Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, World of Pooh or The Mummies in small clubs, while trying to aggressively shoehorn my way into underground hipster/doofus urbanism.
After months of searching for work, I finally landed a role in December 1989 at the South San Francisco company at which I’d spend the next six years, Monster Cable. (You can read all about that here). My pal Uli set me up with some friends of his at 941 Stanyan Street (pictured here) in the Haight-Ashbury/Cole Valley neighborhood who needed a roommate, and in January 1990, I moved in. I was un-hyperbolically delighted to be there. I was like Marlo Thomas in the opening credits to That Girl: ready for all that the world had to offer. Life could now begin.
This was a decidedly different San Francisco than the one I live in now. This whole notion of “San Francisco before the Internet” is not my own; in fact, it’s the secondary title of a documentary film currently in production, one which I’m naturally quite excited to see. Culturally, politically, economically and across countless other dimensions, San Francisco before the tech booms was in many ways a better and in some key ways a worse place than it is today. Rather than enumerate those pros and cons, I thought I’d share my own highly subjective view on what this place was like during the years 1989 to 1993 or so, with the latter year being the one that internet-connected personal computers started showing up in the homes and workplaces of people I knew (with my mom being the earliest adopter of all – go, Mom!).
First of all, it was cheaper. Back in 1989, San Francisco was only the third or fourth most expensive place in the US to rent a flat or buy a house; when we’d complain about it, we’d say “at least it’s not New York / Boston / Washington DC”. Now their residents say the same thing about us, when they’re not thinking about moving to Portland / Nashville / Atlanta / Chicago. I paid $300 a month in 1989-91 for my own room at 941 Stanyan with three other roommates, and that was affordable enough for me, enough so that many of the freaks and great unwashed punk rock hoards with whom I went to school at UC-Santa Barbara found that they, too, could more or less afford to live in San Francisco.
That continuing surge of weirdo creativity was part & parcel of what had made the city such a longtime haven for hippies, gays, artists, filmmakers and punks – which was then reflected in the sorts of unique businesses and institutions that could be found merely by walking the streets. A few favorites of mine included:
Naked Eye News & Video – 533 Haight Street
A sub-underground VHS video rental store and alternative newsstand. Naked Eye carried music fanzines, far-left wing political agitprop and a wide variety of newspapers and mainstream magazines. As a video store, their focus – at least as reflected in what they’d feature and highlight in the windows – was on the offbeat and bizarre: think Survival Research Laboratories, Russ Meyer titillation movies and Dario Argento Italian horror. At least that’s how I remember it. I know it’s where I rented “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill” for the first, second and third times.
Freedom’s Forum Bookstore – 1800 Market Street
You know who willingly settled in San Francisco, because he and his wife loved the city in all its weird, wacky diversity? Milton Friedman, the prototypical Chicago School free-market economist, and the father of “disaster capitalism”, if you believe Naomi Klein. Me, I went through big post-college “libertarian phase” in my politics, which I very thankfully grew out of. Ground zero for the magazines, pamphlets and free minds/free markets radicalism I used to feed my ideals – such as they were – was Freedom’s Forum Bookstore, in a beautiful and run-down Victorian that now houses the LGBT Center & Museum.
The two dudes I recall being there every time I went in just happened to be oddballs right out of central casting – always up for a rant about the shackling of capitalism or gun rights or marijuana rights if you so much as touched a publication or book that addressed one of these topics, let alone asked them a question about it. It got to the point where I’d have to quickly leave the store if I merely wanted to buy something and not engage. Oh – and I was always the only person in there whenever I visited. Great memories!
The 6th Street Rendezvous – 60 Sixth Street
There were a number of long-gone music venues that nurtured my odd tastes during these years before the internet – the Covered Wagon; the Chatterbox/Chameleon; the Nightbreak/Thirsty Swede; the Blue Lamp, I-Beam, VIS Club/Kennel Club, Paradise Lounge, Morty’s and so on. I’ll highlight “Chel’s 6th Street Rendezvous”, a short-lived makeshift club located at the gauntlet-running intersection of 6th and Jessie Alley, between Market and Mission.
A nattily-dressed booker whose name escapes me brought in a variety of lowbrow underground local and touring musical acts to this decrepit bar, owned by “Chel”, an older Filipino man looking to jazz up his revenues on what was easily one of the most unsafe blocks in the entire city. That half-block walk between Market Street – where I’d get off the bus – and the 6th Street Rendezvous doors was a pulse-rushing crucible to not merely be endured, but survived. Between dodging the derelicts trying to sell me either “late-night transfers” (a freshly-stolen MUNI bus ticket that allowed for unlimited nightly rides) or drugs (the hard stuff – not the pedestrian “buds, doses, doses, buds” for sale up on Haight Street), I found myself kicked, insulted and one time even chased off the block (“Get the fuck off my turf!”), simply for the crime of trying to hoof it over to the Rendezvous for a ‘lil goodtime rocknroll music.
Casa Loma Bar – 610 Fillmore Street
This entry really could have been any of the many bars that Liz B and I used to go to, sometimes six at one go on a Friday or Saturday night, repeated ad nauseum. While she and I weren’t dating, she was my best drinking buddy in 1989-90, and Casa Loma at Fillmore & Fell was one of her favorites. It was on the ground floor of what is still a cheap hotel, walled off from occupants and featuring an ambiance that was a little bit divey, a little bit classy, with a few nascent “microbrews” on tap (I’m talking Red Hook and Anchor Steam). I can’t even remember the layout, but I certainly remember imbibing there a dozen or two times. It’s been gone for decades now.
My favorite at the time was The Uptown, at 200 Capp Street – still there! Honorable mention goes to the now-defunct Lloyd’s at 1099 Mission downtown – “shot and a beer for $1.50” – as well as a multitude of other dive bars that are somehow still standing: the Silver Spur in the Sunset; Murio’s Trophy Room and The Gold Cane in the Haight; The 500 Club in the Mission and Mr. Bing’s and Li Po in North Beach/Chinatown. While the planet surges into AI-powered automated everything, the great San Francisco dive bars remain.
Artists’ Television Access – 992 Valencia Street
An absolutely timeless, frozen-in-amber 1980s San Francisco gem that is still there to this day. ATA was and remains an experimental film venue that showed Super 8 films, strange collages, no-budget feature films, radically queer and leftist performance-art movies and more. There’s no reason why it should still be there, and yet the fact that it is means it’s really the most visible and unchanged link to pre-internet San Francisco’s underground culture.
Record Vault – 2423 Polk Street
Online, this store is lionized as the home den for the Bay Area thrash metal scene that spawned Metallica, Exodus and many others. I don’t remember it that way at all. “Speed metal”, as we called it then, was an unfortunate constant in the 1980s, and if you were out shopping for punk records, metal records were bound to be nearby. So I personally recall Record Vault as a relatively messy and crammed store in a tidy and upwardly-mobile neighborhood – Russian Hill – that was the antithesis of everything this no-morals/no-values store stood for. By way of example, I bought an original copy of the Fuckin’ Flyin’ A-Heads’ “Swiss Cheese Back” here. I was there the day that the poster for Big Black’s San Francisco show was being put up in the window, and everyone in the store was abuzz about it.
Other top-drawer record stores around this time were Rough Trade (especially the location on 6th Street – it went downhill when it moved to Haight Street); Aquarius Records; Reckless Records; and starting around 1990 or ‘91, Epicenter Zone, run by the folks behind Maximum RocknRoll fanzine.
9th Avenue Books – 9th Avenue between Irving & Judah
The two great San Francisco bookstores back then were, and remain, Green Apple Books and City Lights. Yet because of where I lived, and due to my lack of a car, I’d instead wander into the pre-global warming Sunset District, which unlike now was almost always blanketed in fog, and go book shopping in the area bounded by 9th Avenue, Judah and Lincoln. I remember four distinct used bookstores in the area, all dead now. The best was 9th Avenue Books, an exceptionally well-stocked emporium that had all the William Faulkner paperbacks I could handle. All but one of the shops went kaput before the launch of Amazon.com, leading to a great deal of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing among residents and self-professed cultural arbiters (Borders and Barnes & Noble were the destroyers of the indie shop, if you’ll recall).
So what else was going on in 1989-93?
I think if you ask most longtime San Franciscans about what the city was like back then, the word “grimier” will come to the surface pretty quickly. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. Sure, neighborhoods like Hayes Valley, SOMA and most of the Mission have been utterly transformed by wealth and development over the last thirty years, but by and large, much of San Francisco remains just as grimy and depressing now as it was then. The Tenderloin, save for a few concessions to modernity, is identical in its druggy squalor and filthy streets as it was to a wide-eyed new arrival like me in 1989.
You’ll notice that food – something so central to San Francisco’s popular conception of itself – has thus far not been discussed. That’s because the then-staple of my and that of many other struggling twentysomethings’ diets – the cylindrical protein and caloric delivery system known as the “Mission Burrito” – is still as robustly awesome now as it was in 1989. I ate them most frequently then at El Toro in the Mission and Zona Rosa in the Haight, and both taquerias are still around (though are by no means anywhere close to the finest examples of the form). There were then, as now, expensive and lovely high-end restaurants for people of means. The only big difference today at both casual and higher-end San Francisco eating establishments is that annoying line of underpaid delivery drivers waiting to pick up your app-procured food and drive it to your apartment.
The printed word was paramount in pre-internet San Francisco. It had to be. There were really only two ways to broadcast one’s predilections & preferences to a larger audience than oneself: create your own publication, or – far easier – post up a flyer about your band’s gig, your event, film, political stance and what have you. Flyers were the social media of their time, especially in large cities like ours. They were vitaly important to musicians, filmmakers, theater production companies, politicians, community organizers and event sponsors. San Francisco telephone poles were literally plastered with them. Record stores and theater lobbies had stacks of them. When I did a radio show on KFJC, I’d make flyers and strategically drop them in stores and at clubs to try and get like-minded folks to give me a listen. I couldn’t think of a better way, short of paying for an advertisement somewhere. Today, the only flyers I see around town are for lost dogs or Spanish tutors.
Free weekly newspapers were also a major force at this time. Even well into the 2000s, the big two for entertainment listings & local political coverage were the SF Weekly and SF Bay Guardian (libertarian me severely disliked the latter, and their predictable knee-jerk PC progressivism on every last issue). The gay community had something like five alt-weeklies going at once (Bay Times, Bay Reporter and more). As with flyers, these would all be stacked up in droves just about anywhere interesting that one found oneself. I immersed myself in the Weekly and Guardian each and every week, following every foible of Mayors Art Agnos and Frank Jordan or supervisor/police chief Dick Hongisto, then scouring the entertainment listings for wherever I might be blowing my paycheck next. (I even remember when SF Weekly was called “Music Calendar” in the mid-80s). When Craigslist arrived, it flattened the classified revenues of these papers quite dramatically, and they ceased to be much of a force as the internet took a chokehold on our attention spans.
It would be criminally negligent to not mention the long shadow that AIDS was casting over the city when I arrived in 1989. The city’s gay population was suffering through an untold number deaths of lovers, friends, shop owners and acquaintances. The guy who trained me at my first job at Monster Cable in 1989, David Poole, would be dead from AIDS by 1992. ACT UP – the protest group that helped shake off straight America’s complacency about the disease – were a real omnipresent force in San Francisco. Flyers, fanzines, benefit concerts and even local riots were part & parcel of the gay community’s reaction to the death and shrugged shoulders that surrounded them. I even recall that “fag bashing” was still something that gays in the Castro District had to be on guard for. I went to my first Gay Pride Parade – that’s what it was called then – in 1990. (Salt Peter from The Dwarves had told me it was a “don’t leave town event”). The tone was more hopeful than was probably merited at the time, but it was a great example of the city I had hoped I’d be moving to: unrepentantly & boisterously free, and uniquely & proudly at odds with the mainstream.
Of course, any living arrangement is what you bring to it. The well-heeled and physically toned people in San Francisco’s Marina District, to deploy a often-referenced stereotype, were most certainly not proudly at odds with the mainstream in 1990. Yet it was “they” – the creators of capital, the upwardly mobile, the fit and the well-toned – who effectively won the cultural sweepstakes for the dominant story of what San Francisco would evolve into thirty years later.
No, it’s not like the olde world of 1989 has completely vanished, and I’m certainly no advocate for wishing that it remained as it was. But something about the mass arrival of the internet around 1996-97 really slammed the door shut on that initial era when I attempted to marinate in San Francisco’s low-rent bohemianism. First it disappeared at a trickle, and then vanished with a whoosh in the early 2000s. Then again, that’s when I happened to be personally hitting my mid-thirties, married and with a new kid. I’ve subsequently come to believe that our perceptions are all a cycle-of-life thing, distorted by the ravages of age and heightened by the passage of time. There are new arrivals who are undoubtedly sowing their oats and feeling their way into San Francisco’s dark corners even now, and who’ll be writing pithy purple prose thirty years hence about how cool it all was, and how much they desperately miss it.
6 thoughts on “San Francisco Before The Internet”
Top photo of 6th Street after the 1989 earthquake is mine!
I lived in LA but got up to SF once or twice a year from ’85 to ’90 or so and always had a blast. I still tell people it is, or was, the best city in Cali. The size and topography of the city helped make it so exciting. It is so small, everyone living on top of each other, when there was all that diversity, it really gave it a unique vibe…I think my only 90s visit was 1997 and the gentrification in the Mission was startling…*thanks for the memories*
I loved reading this !
Great essay, Jay. Loved it. It’s almost mirror image to my experience in Seattle over the same timeframe, just change the names and it’s been an eerily similar path here.
That was fun, thanks.
Naked Eye was fabulous, with the weirdest and most interesting movies and zines, and Steve, the proprietor who clearly loved that stuff.
Freedom’s Forum — I’d forgotten the name, but not the address, and yeah, all the conversations with those lovable libertarian wackos. I got my mail there, so we chatted several times a week.
Thanks for the well-written memories, of a better time and place.
I grew up in San Jose – worked at the Tower in Mt View from ‘91 to ‘95. Didn’t really spend much time in SF until ‘92, when I got a fake ID – was with the kiddies in the east bay until then. Moved away from the bay in 1995, but those were magical years. Went to a few of the haunts you mentioned, including Casa Loma.