Is there a good reason that our Champs-Élysées should look like a neglected avenue in SoCal's Lennox? No, and Gavin Newsom promised to change the pattern of talk-and-do-almost-nothing last year, when he ran for mayor. His staff drew up plans for a "Mid-Market Arts District," which -- if Newsom is serious -- might lead somewhere, for the simple reason that a mayor wants to do it. The very workable idea is to cluster not just a lot of new housing but also theaters, art galleries, dance troupes, and other cultural outfits along the most blighted section of Market, between Fifth and 10th streets.
Newsom can't take credit for this vision, and neither can Bill Schwartz, a local producer who promoted a mid-Market theater district four years ago. The dream of Market as a buzzing cultural boulevard has existed since the city rebuilt the corridor after the 1906 quake. By the mid-'20s, Market had live stages like the Orpheum, the Golden Gate, and the Warfield -- crown jewels of a rough but lively theater scene -- and so many modern movie houses that local historians now refer to Market's "Movie Row." But the street was never great; it was never Broadway. The rise of TV and the flight to the suburbs after World War II thinned audiences, and a "beautification project" running in tandem with BART construction in the early '70s made Market inconvenient to walk on. Bureaucracies have churned away at "revival" ever since.
What San Francisco has not managed to do in decades of dithering, though, Berkeley accomplished in 2002. A downtown block of Addison Street used to be a forsaken-looking business row anchored by a single theater, the Berkeley Rep, until Mayor Shirley Dean devoted a main part of her energies to clustering arts outfits there. Now Addison has three stages, a jazz school, a martial arts cafe, poetry etched in the sidewalk, and a couple of new restaurants. It hums at night, instead of just lying there.
Market could be eight times as cool. The Orpheum and the Golden Gate already host touring Broadway shows. The city's most serious companies -- ACT, Magic Theatre, Intersection for the Arts -- all have a hypothetical interest in moving some part of their operations to Market. (ACT would run a second stage there if it found the right venue.) The Exit Theatre has built a complex of little stages over the last 20 years that has single-handedly brightened sections of the Tenderloin, near Market and Cyril Magnin. The Writers' Grotto on Fell and Lines Ballet in the Oddfellows' Building have moved into the neighborhood, not to mention a busy artists' collective at Sixth and Market called the Luggage Store.
There is, in other words, already a scene down there. But it's disorganized; it lacks a physical anchor. Three former cinemas are strip clubs. A fourth, the Strand, ended its run as a porn-movie house last year (after a vice raid). The Strand's owner actually wants a buyer who won't convert his 350-seat theater to condominiums, but most stage troupes can't afford to buy and renovate old buildings. This is where mayors come in. They can broker deals, extend low-interest loans, give density incentives to landlords. Mayor Dean found a way for Berkeley to help the Rep build a fancy new flagship stage on Addison from scratch; and the city of Chicago itself runs a small theater in the heart of its revived Loop District. There are ways and means. Mayors can do stuff.
When Bill Schwartz pushed for more theater on Market four years ago, he offended a lot of people by recommending a "business improvement district" (BID) to pay for the project. A BID is a scheme to improve a neighborhood via assessments on businesses within it. Union Square's upkeep is financed through a BID: Macy's and Niketown and other surrounding shops pay into a fund for cleanup and security. The result in this case is a sterile, semi-Disneyfied public park. Protesting on Union Square now requires a permit; off-duty cops hired by the Union Square BID kept anti-war protesters away last year. And the specter of a Disneyfied Market Street is what homeless advocates and the Bay Guardian -- traditional opponents of any plan to renovate Market -- conjured in 2001 to shout down Schwartz's idea.
And Market shouldn't look like the Metreon. "Cleaning up" our main street so it resembles a glazed suburban patio would be just as destructive to the city's culture as moribund sex shops and smack dealers. But Lisa Zayas-Chien at the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency points out that those three fearsome letters -- BID -- don't automatically spell "sterilization." A BID is just a funding mechanism; a neighborhood can shape a BID any way it wants. Union Square happens to focus on power-washing and semiprivate security. Market Street, with its mix of social-service nonprofits and arts groups and apartment high-rises, could be different.
In any case, a BID is not (yet) in store for mid-Market. (BIDs, by the way, now go by the more neutral term "Community Benefit District," or CBD.) The mayor can't even begin to reorganize the neighborhood until the Board of Supervisors reviews and passes a redevelopment plan for it next year. The plan should be finished -- after nearly a decade -- in April. The board should pass it promptly.
But there's a myth in the business community that Market needs to "clean up" before an entrepreneur, even a stage director, would set up shop. I think that's wrong. If the city made it possible, I believe more than one local theater company would move to a Market Street address tomorrow. Art can coexist with strip clubs and homeless people; it always has. What the street needs is a strong, central anchor -- or two, or three -- to unify its already-simmering cultural scene. Where people wander at night, money flows; cafes and restaurants open; the city lives again. Go to Berkeley, Chicago, or Minneapolis if you don't believe me. Theater in every case has been used to revive a sagging urban core. Bill Schwartz wanted San Francisco to imitate the new Vegas-bright Times Square, but we don't even have an old Times Square to renovate. With a push from City Hall, Market might attract the talent and will to achieve some fraction of the old Broadway's shabby grandeur. And what on earth would be wrong with that?