Virgil's Sea Room: The Discreet Charm of the Creative Class

"I came to San Francisco because I was interested in art and politics," Jeremy says.

We're sitting in comfy chairs in Virgil's Sea Room, in the Mission. I'm sipping on a whiskey and ginger beer drink named after Warren Hellman. "Do you think anyone comes here for art and politics anymore?" I ask.

Jeremy tilts his head back to consider. "I'd like to think so. But it sure seems like it's different now. I read an article about San Francisco gentrification in the London Review of Books. It said that the city has been gentrified several times before, but that each wave didn't change the fact that this city is a home for artists and freaks. But this time ... this time that really does seem to be changing, the artists and freaks are leaving and not being replaced, and so the whole character of the city is turning in a way it never did before."

Virgil's Sea Room makes it easy to tell who's a newcomer to the city and who's been absorbed into San Francisco's foggy milieu. There's a drink named after Frank Chu: Does that make you laugh? Do you recognize the namesake of the Dick Vivian? How about the Carol Queen, or the Marion and Vivian Brown?

Jeremy and I recognize most of the names on the drink list, but the gaps make us wonder: Who are we missing? What part of the city's social fabric haven't we held close?

"Do you consider yourself a member of the Creative Class?" I ask him.

"Hmmmm," Jeremy takes a sip of his beer. "I'd like to think so, but I've never really committed to art the way I wanted to. I've done technical writing, activism, politics, made a living, but I don't know..."

I realize that Jeremy is taking the term very literally. From the standpoint of its inventor, economist Richard Florida, technical writers and activists are absolutely part of the "Creative Class." So are the code warriors and venture capitalists who are now looking to make S.F. home, but have never heard of Sugar Pie DeSanto.

As far as one of the leading American demographers is concerned, the people rushing into San Francisco are functionally identical to the people picketing their buses. The differences between us are the kind of distinctions that only insiders make; to objective outsiders, we're interchangeable. Is that true?

"To the extent I have any discretion," I tell Jeremy, "I think you count."

Virgil's used to be Nap's 3, a karaoke dive bar. It was bought last year, and the new owners were tearing the place up for refurbishment when they discovered that under the crappy wallpaper was some absolutely gorgeous gold-on-black floral wall patterns. The new space looks nothing like what was there immediately before, but uses some of the original elements in its design, and appeals to a wider clientele. Is that "renovation" or "gentrification?"

Jeremy and I both make a decent living, but neither of us know if we'll be able to afford to stay in San Francisco long term. Ed Lee has given artists credit for economic vitality and the mid-Market turnaround, but nobody ever suggests that we should be building art galleries and small theaters along the waterfront, or providing public artists with tax breaks. "Maybe it's the fate of creatives and bohemians to never be stable," I say. "Maybe the same things that make us the one force us to be the other."

The place has gotten crowded, and a lot of people we know are passing by — especially progressive activists and the occasional former candidate and officeholder. No surprise: One of the new owners is the current president of the Harvey Milk Club, and Progressives have been looking for a new clubhouse ever since Chris Daly closed down The Buck Tavern. There are enough insiders in this crowd that I expect someone who hates me to walk in the door any minute.

"Progressives" only seem like a unified group from the outside; inside, they are masters at creating trivial divisions. But in Virgil's Sea Room, the quirkier side of the movement seems to have found a new watering hole — and much as I liked Daly's dive, this is a distinct step up. The crowd isn't all that outré and strange, not by S.F. standards, but it feels like it could be. It feels surprisingly like all the artists and freaks who are getting evicted from their apartments could walk through the door any minute and be at home.

 
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