Cesar Chavez Street dead-ends near San Francisco's eastern waterfront in a bleak industrial area of nondescript warehouses, workshops, and small office buildings. During the day, there is little traffic, except for sporadic flurries of trucks pulling out from Pier 80, laden with newly arrived cargos of steel, lumber, and paper. The mostly blue-collar workers tend to mind their own business, and nothing much exceptional happens.
That's why many in the neighborhood still recall the day in July 2006 when Derf Butler, a politically connected businessman, celebrated the opening of his new business venture, Fanatics Sports Bar and Restaurant, at 601 Cesar Chavez. Instead of trucks spewing diesel exhaust, the street was lined with shimmering black limousines carrying city supervisors, commissioners, and members of the Chamber of Commerce.
Mayor Gavin Newsom gave a short speech before using a gigantic pair of scissors to cut a shiny red ribbon. The esteemed guests took casual tours through Butler's two-story building, which he had built on public property leased from the Port of San Francisco. Small groups gathered outside in the warm afternoon sun to listen to live music and chat while they nibbled on Cajun shrimp hors d'oeuvres, mindful not to drip sauce on their expensive clothes.
Butler, short in stature with a thickset frame, was an energetic 43 years old, though in recent years he had added 60 pounds to his powerful build. Instead of detracting from his appearance, the extra weight complemented his jovial persona. He moved easily among his high-powered guests, making sure they were comfortable and had enough to eat and drink. It was an exceptionally beautiful summer day, and there were plenty of reasons to celebrate.
Butler built Fanatics on the northern edge of the Bayview–Hunters Point Redevelopment Project Area, a sprawling district that includes several neighborhoods and covers much of the city's southeastern corner. Its residents are largely African-American and for years have been beleaguered by violent crime, high rates of unemployment, and the despair that comes from both. City agencies invested millions of dollars in the area in recent years in the hope of reducing blight and crime. The Municipal Transportation Agency was then within weeks of launching the $648 million T-Third light rail line. City officials billed the T-Third as a vital economic link that would shuttle commerce and employment opportunities to the economically neglected southeastern neighborhoods. In addition, the MTA had spruced up Third Street, the Bayview's major commercial artery, with new sidewalks, street lighting, and palm trees.
The politicos also came that day to celebrate Derf Butler. An African-American raised in the city's hardscrabble Western Addition, Butler had overcome trouble with the law to ingratiate himself among the city's elite. He contributed generously to political campaigns and was a charming fixture at community and fund-raising events.
Elected officials regarded Butler and his new business as dividends on the city's investment in Bayview–Hunters Point. On the day of the ribbon cutting, Fanatics was the focal point of a citywide hope that dozens of new businesses, especially black-owned ones, would spring up along the Third Street corridor. "The economic impact is huge," a spokeswoman for the mayor told a reporter. "It will provide a stimulus for new business for the entire southeast area."
But after the speeches were over and drivers navigated the limousines away from the gray end of Cesar Chavez, problems began to emerge. Butler had not paid rent to the Port of San Francisco for months, and at the time of the ribbon cutting, he owed city taxpayers more than $70,000. And within weeks, he began to transform Fanatics into a business that would embarrass his political connections and turn city property into a lodestone for underage drinking, vandalism, and bloodshed.
The port, which manages seven and a half miles of waterfront, was not pleased with the turn of events. But if the city agency had looked a little closer at the cheerful businessman's background, they might not have been so surprised.
For a sports bar, Fanatics is an impressive space. Its steel warehouse exterior fits well with the other buildings on the street and belies its upscale interior, which features a mix of plush carpeting and hardwood floors. Tasteful backlighting and textured surfaces create an airy, contemporary atmosphere. The decor might be considered elegant if not for the 35 plasma televisions that seem to project from every vertical flat space.
Butler promotes Fanatics as the largest sports bar in the city at 10,300 square feet (building records show the interior is actually less than 6,000 square feet). Upstairs, there are several VIP rooms and a private bar area. On the ground floor are a large kitchen, the main bar, and a dining area on an expansive, polished cement floor. The menu ranges from pub grub to Cajun cuisine, and at night the Fanatics After Dark Experience, or "FADE," offers "sophisticated evening entertainment."
"The lights get low, the ambiance is mellow, our staff is prepared to take you to the next level," the club's Web site promises. "Smooth R&B, salsa, blues, old-school beats, and new soul fill your ears."
But the restaurant began to fail immediately. According to several Yelp reviews, the bartenders and wait staff were slow and inexperienced, and customers were sometimes overcharged for drinks. The food was fair to good, but lunches were pricey for the working-class neighborhood, and at night the industrial area was not a draw for dinner customers. The bar frequently ran out of basic liquors, and one patron complained that he drove to Fanatics for an advertised salsa night only to find it closed.
"There were a lot of employees around here who were excited to have a place to go and have lunch," said Sesilia Pahulu, the operations manager at a logistics and transportation business in a nearby office building. "We went once or twice. The food was good, but it was too expensive. Most of the people who work down here just can't afford to spend $12 or $15 for lunch."
Within a few weeks of Fanatics' opening, neighboring workers at the end of Cesar Chavez noticed it was closed during the day and thought it had gone out of business. Then they began to see liquor bottles and other garbage on the street. "Sometimes, if you came in on a Saturday, there were so many broken bottles, you had to be careful where you parked," Pahulu said. Some businesses had windows broken, along with other property damage. One morning, a Trans Metro Express manager arrived at the company parking lot across the street from Fanatics to find two charter buses with their windows shot out.