Merchant of Redemption

During his first three decades on Sixth Street, Tom McKnight Sr. used his various businesses to educate his children and counsel them in the doctrine of social obligation. Now his son must balance the demands of activism against the realities of commerce

Doing business on Sixth Street, Ulan says, means following the same rules observed by the police. "If a cops gets beat up, they have to catch the guy. They have to put 'em away. Otherwise you have no credibility."

In other words: Lose once, lose forever. Every punk knows you're an easy mark.

"We can't afford to lose," he says. "We will kill someone before we will allow ourselves to be beaten up. Me and my dad are just dying to jump on someone who tries to pull something. You can't continue to do business if you lose in that situation. If you get me to the point where it's come to blows, I am not going to lose."

For 29 years, this code has served the McKnights well. After leaving the Navy in 1964 -- where he faced off foreign gunboats during the Cuban missile crisis, 72 hours at general quarters, falling asleep standing up -- Tom McKnight Sr. and his brother Phil came to San Francisco. Being black they had a hard time getting union jobs. So they decided to make adult movies.

"Sixth Street was the only place back then where they'd let a black man own a business," Ulan says.

A coin was flipped and it was decided that Tom would go to City College to learn filmmaking. By this time, he'd met and married his wife, Christina, a newly arrived UC Berkeley student from Sweden with the blue blood of royalty running through her veins. She'd arrived in 1961 to do a summer program at Berkeley and, seeing as it was Berkeley in the '60s, decided not to go back, she says.

Early on, the couple decided on their mission: to send all their children to college. City College was Tom Sr.'s only education, and he'd be damned if his sons -- and eventually his daughter, Ulla, the youngest -- didn't have more.

The McKnight kids grew up on Sixth Street -- though they lived in the East Bay. During the skin-trade days, the kids helped their father edit movies; played pool with topless waitresses at the family bar, the 162 Club; and changed videos in the stroke booths at the Film Festival, the McKnights' first business, which opened in '67. The McKnights later expanded their businesses by opening up a movie theater and a topless bar in Stockton, Calif.

"When I was about 11 years old," Ulan recalls, "I was changing tapes while I was playing chess with my brother, Utz. Part of the job meant watching the first few seconds of the movie to make sure the tape worked. I still remember one day sitting there watching the movie trying to figure out what was going on and hearing my brother calling me, saying, 'It's your move.' I still remember not thinking twice and returning to the chess game. I've never seen a porno movie since."

Tom Sr. says he got out of the porno business because of his family. "I didn't want to embarrass them," he says.

But he does like to reminisce about the good old days, palling around with the Mitchells and Francis Ford Coppola, who was running Zoetrope Studios out of a place on Folsom Street at the time.

The McKnights left Sixth Street only twice in their 29-year stretch in business there, once when they opened a mortuary in Bayview-Hunters Point and once to open an adult theater in North Beach. But after a few years they were back, running a liquor store.

In the early '70s, several black street drinkers came to the McKnights and told them they were having trouble getting served in the white-owned saloons. Tom Sr. decided to open up a bar to accommodate them. "It was nice, like a family place, kind of like Cheers," says Christina.

The hard work of 30 years on Sixth Street is etched on Tom Sr.'s stern, unyielding face. But its more lasting expression is the success of his four children.

The three sons -- Utz, Ulan, and Ulrik -- have all graduated from Swarthmore, a highly respected college in rural Pennsylvania. Utz went on to get a Ph.D. in Sweden. Ulla, the youngest and only daughter, just graduated from high school and will break from the brothers' path, attending the San Francisco Art Institute instead. She is already something of a local celebrity, playing in a punk band called Cipher in the Snow. So resolute is the band's desire to remain authentic that it turned down the opportunity to open for Green Day last year.

The music gets mixed reviews from the family.
Mom speaks proudly of her only daughter's upcoming CD. "They sing very angry political feminist songs," Christina McKnight says. "I thought it would be terrible. But there is a melody and sensible lyrics."

Ulan, however, is less than impressed with Cipher in the Snow. "First of all, I can't understand what they are saying and when I do it is usually potentially repulsive," he says.

Whatever her band's prospects, after Ulla graduates, Tom Sr. will leave Sixth Street, most likely for Finland, where his wife's family owns property near a sea channel. There Tom will sit on the porch of the family cabin, read the litany of military novels he has been saving, and watch the ships and sailboats drift by, confidently knowing that he accomplished his primary goal: to leave a lasting mark on Sixth Street by urging his children to use their education for social good.

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