A Tale of Two Bars

Happy toasts -- and sad -- after the latest skirmishes in the Mission's culture wars

Mere blocks from each other in the center of the Mission District, two longtime neighborhood bars are undergoing radical change. One faces a reluctant end, while another marks a hopeful beginning. At the heart of the matter lies a choice facing San Francisco's diverse communities as they struggle to reconcile the different impulses they embody: heated clashes where one culture wins primacy over another, or peaceful coexistence.

The Dovre's Coup de Grace
It's the last New Year's Eve at the last Irish bar in the neighborhood surrounding 18th and Mission streets. At the Dovre Club, the jukebox is playing the same songs it always plays; the pool table is occupied, as usual. The regulars all know that the clock's set to bar time: 15 minutes fast. A requisite nod to the homeland hangs over the front door: “Patrick's Irish Toast — Let's Drink to the Final Defeat of the British Army in Northern Ireland.”

The crowd is surprisingly festive, a mockery of the “not user-friendly” label that outsiders have attached to the place many of the clientele may as well call home.

The Dovre Club, however, is no longer welcome here. San Francisco Women Centers Inc., owner of the four-floor, historic building, is about to launch a $5 million renovation project, which includes evicting the Dovre Club. It is likely to be gone by April.

“No one really believes that it's going to close down,” says Sarah Noone, one of the twentysomethings from the neighborhood who've come to be regulars here. “Everyone here is such good friends. I grew up in bars like this.”

“Community” can have many definitions, and can be deployed in the name of as many different agendas. It is amorphous, not necessarily defined by geography, certainly not in San Francisco. In the Dovre's case, one community, formed around the allure of a comfortable barstool and a friendly face behind the counter, will be destroyed in the name of nurturing another, which is centered around a just as fiercely held camaraderie, though of vastly disparate origins.

The Dovre Club is a San Francisco landmark, which has occupied a corner of the Women's Building for nearly 30 years. If its damaged walls could talk, they would share three decades of yarns spun, friendships made, politics argued, and relationships broken and mended over a drink — or five. All the while, on the other side of the cracked plaster, under the same leaking roof in the Women's Building, organizations such as La Casa de las Madres, the Women's Alcoholism Center, and the Women's Foundation were formed, causes were championed, relationships were solidified, and lives repaired. Other tenants include Mujeres Unidas, Family Rights and Dignity, Women's AIDS Network, the San Francisco Chapter of the National Organization for Women, San Francisco Women Against Rape, and the Harvey Milk Democratic Club.

The building is home to people who come from all parts of the Bay Area for services and support. But the Dovre Club is no less a community in its own right — a meeting place, a gathering of familiar faces, a spot for discussion, debate, and social exchange.

“We want to make it [the bar] more user-friendly for our clientele,” explains Esperanza Macias, executive director of the Women's Building. “We plan to make that corner a cafe that is more consistent with the community we serve. We have 12-step groups coming in here, women with children. … A bar would not be appropriate. In fact, it would be somewhat unfair.”

The 30-year-old bar actually predates its landlord, which purchased the building and gave it its present name in 1979. For years the Sons of Norway, a fraternal organization, had owned it. Two relics from that era — a pair of curious-looking wooden thrones built into the walls of a large meeting room — still remain.

The building, which has been standing since before the 1906 earthquake, is a serious seismic risk, and the owners are on notice from the city to retrofit or close down. The board of the Women's Building determined that renovation was a fine occasion to shed the Dovre Club.

Thing is, this isn't just any bar. It's a neighborhood living room and a working tribute to its famous proprietor, Paddy Nolan, who died last year. Mission hipsters blend in with neighborhood veterans, journalists, politicians, and assorted others, like San Francisco Independent columnist Warren Hinckle, a fixture as permanent as the Guinness sign here for years. The mismatched family of regulars have shared potluck on Friday nights and held many a surprise birthday party here. Former Mayor Frank Jordan tended bar after he won election.

“I learned to play pool here,” says Kim Lew, who's been hanging around for about 17 years. “I'm 'The Chinese Guy' here. Paddy Nolan took me in. He taught me how to play pool, taunting me, playing with a broomstick or with the leg of a chair. I don't go to other bars.

“Paddy told a friend to take over the bar one time and left for Ireland,” Lew laughs. “So whenever he said, 'Go behind the bar,' we'd never do it.”

Both tenant and landlord agree that there has been no trouble at the Dovre Club.

When Nolan died, he left the bar to his nephew, John Cassady, and bartender Brian McElhatton, who is none too pleased about the predicament.

“It was a kick in the face for me, the last thing I expected,” McElhatton says. “I'm willing to do whatever they want, put in an espresso machine, put in a window so it's more open. Women can come in and have a proper coffee or whatever here.”

“They wouldn't have been able to do this if Paddy were still alive,” adds Terry Dowd, a patron of two decades. “They'd have to carry him out.”

But the matter is not subject to debate. McElhatton tried to meet with the board and was turned down. There is nothing to discuss, according to Macias. The organization doesn't want a bar there — and it happens to own the building. [page]

The Dovre community is saying it's bad form to evict Nolan's bar so shortly after his death. Macias says the move was done as painlessly as possible.

“Paddy Nolan would have been evicted much sooner were we ready to go into construction sooner,” says Macias. “We also didn't want to give an eviction notice to someone who was very ill. We didn't feel like that was a very compassionate way to do things.”

The Women's Building organization wrote a letter to the city in support of changing the name of Lapidge Street (in front of the Dovre Club) to Nolan Avenue, and plans to hang a plaque honoring Nolan in the new cafe. It just doesn't want his bar.

The renovated building will include a child-care center, expanded meeting space, a new auditorium, and more offices for nonprofit organizations.

Meanwhile, the Dovre Club is seeking a new home. And the Women's Building is seeking an operator for its new cafe — preferably a women-owned small business. Neither community will be the same.

— L.D.

A Phoenix Rises From the Formica
Lila Thirkield has been a bar owner for less than a month, and already she feels bone tired. On this recent January morning, her puffy face announces as much. Walking down 19th Street toward Lexington and her newly purchased Lexington Club, she lights a smoke and talks about misplaced expectations. “I thought, 'Great, owning a bar will mean I won't have to get up before 10 a.m. ever again,' ” the 25-year-old says. “Then after a while I wouldn't ever have to get up until noon.”

She pauses. “Bullshit,” she adds. “I'm up every morning before 7 a.m.”
Thirkield kicks at the Lexington Club's door, which is under renovation prior to reopening, and two carpenters let her in. She passes through the haze of sawdust, attended by a spectral presence of mold, to the actual bar, now stripped of finish and looking forlorn.

Her face lights up and she spits. Rubbing up the wood, she smiles: “Mahogany.”

It pleases Thirkield to no end to have discovered the quintessential bar wood under the horrific yellow-flecked Formica.

This is just one of many archaeological finds Thirkield has made as she scrapes away 17 years of neglect and ekes out a gathering place for lesbians and women in the Mission. (She is still puzzling over an ancient bottle of unidentifiable liquor with two labels, one in French and another showing an angry-looking Soviet bear and Cyrillic script.)

“There were days when I was so overwhelmed with the slime and the mess that I didn't think I'd ever see the space I wanted,” Thirkield says.

What Thirkield wants is a women's space that doesn't announce itself as such too loudly. Its gender politics won't be incidental, but she doesn't want to distract patrons from the fact that the Lexington Club is a bar, where people “hang,” drink, and play pool. “I want a down-home place with a lesbian theme,” she says.

She's still navigating the bar's old clientele — mostly older Latino men — through the cultural crosscurrents of the Lexington's changeover. “They're asking me if I'm going to have some mariachi on the jukebox, and I tell them, 'A little,' ” she says, holding her index finger and thumb about an inch apart.

“And they say, 'A little,' and they hold their hands like this,” she says as she holds the same fingers three inches apart.

Somewhere in between, an accommodation will be made. The goodwill is apparently there. “I told a few of the old regulars that it was going to be a women's bar and they said, 'Cool,' ” she says happily.

But the importance of Thirkield's new bar extends beyond her sexual orientation and the intended gender balance of her customers. On another level, it's a story about San Francisco as a point of pilgrimage, and how the city welcomes the imprint of newcomers — even rushes to facilitate it.

Thirkield grew up in New York City, but she developed all her ideas about bars as a liberal arts undergraduate at Grinnell University in Grinnell, Iowa. “The only thing to do, really, is hang out in bars,” she says.

She honed her “bar hermit” ways at the Links Tavern. “It was a place where they could tell you were a city person by the way you walked. And they'd let you know it.” Links opened at 7 a.m. to let the third shift at the nearby plastics factory drop by for a post-work whistle-wetter.

Sitting on the couch in their Mission District apartment, Thirkield's partner, Gayle Soloman, also a Grinnell alum, adds, “It was such a straight white place, but they made sure that no one messed with us.”

Back to Thirkield. “We want to bring that sort of the thing to” the Lexington Club.

During many a drunken night at Links, Thirkield and Soloman would talk about moving somewhere where the latter could go to graduate school and the former could start a business. “It was definitely a pin-in-a-map kind of thing,” Thirkield says of the couple's decision to move to San Francisco 2 1/2 years ago.

Once here, they decided to check out the lesbian scene. At one club they met a woman who put Thirkield in touch with a bartender at the Tip Top Inn at Mission and 26th streets. (She has been training Thirkield in the fine art of mixology in preparation for the Lexington's Jan. 15 opening. “I'm a beer drinker,” Thirkield explains.)

Harriet Dodge, co-owner of the Bearded Lady, a lesbian cafe also in the Mission, has given her advice on running a business, as has Brian McElhatton, the manager of the Dovre Club (see “The Dovre's Coup de Gráce” above). [page]

The Dovre's eviction upsets Thirkield. “That's my favorite bar. I love the old guys in there. They remind me of the old guys in Iowa.” The day Thirkield got the keys to the Lexington Club, Dec. 17, was her birthday, and she went to the Dovre Club that night to celebrate. “It's been my bar of choice since I moved here,” she says.

To Thirkield, lesbian culture and the ethos of an Irish Republican bar are not mutually exclusive.

Her penchant for cultural coexistence extends beyond lesbians and the Irish. Producing a sign obtained from the Dekalb Corn Seed Co. in Grinnell, Iowa, she says, “I'm going to put this above the bar first thing. I want the bar to also be a place where my friends from Iowa can come.”

— George Cothran

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