Mission Implacable

Peter Glikshtern used a tire iron on four interlopers in his Mission District bar. Then he beat their lawyer's attempt to make the fight...

A few trendy bars and restaurants were beginning to share space with the extant pawnshops, liquor stores, and check-cashing outlets when Peter Glikshtern opened his first nightclub in the Mission three years ago. But back then, valet parking and fusion eateries were pretty much confined to Valencia Street. In the Mission of 1997, another world lay just three blocks away.

There, an assortment of prostitutes, drug dealers, and gangsters ruled the grimy stretch of 16th Street near Capp where Glikshtern hoped to do business. His new bar, Liquid, had a minimalist, trashed look — concrete floor, stainless steel bar, and vinyl bench seats ripped from junked vans — and was modeled after the funky dives in New York's East Village where hip music played by a hip DJ is the draw to an anti-hip space (which then becomes the epitome of hip). The atmosphere came cheap, especially with genuine graffiti already scrawled over Liquid's facade.

But there was a limit to the amount of organic grit Glikshtern was willing to let into his establishment. If his were to become a viable business, the illegal and dangerous activity teeming around his bar had to be curtailed. So the imposing Glikshtern — a one-time Olympic judo hopeful who stands 6 feet 3 inches — played an active role at the door, trying to keep the riffraff out. He even took to patrolling the block a little in each direction, blowing the cover of the pimps and traffickers who chose Liquid's sidewalk to ply their trade. Prostitutes would often attempt to work from within the bar, but Glikshtern always had a good idea which ladies he needed to ask to leave. Sometimes it was painfully obvious, as it was just three weeks after he opened, the night Glikshtern's new business ran into the trouble that was eventually to place it at the center of the debate over gentrification in the Mission.

“She was a real home-grown Capp Street girl. I mean, god-awful gnarly, teeth gone, and holes on her arm the size of the Lincoln Tunnel,” Glikshtern recalls. “I said, 'Sweetie, you gotta go.'”

The prostitute protested loudly and turned to another patron for support, a Latino man Glikshtern thought he recognized as a drug dealer who sold crack on a nearby street. Glikshtern immediately told him to leave the bar, too. But the man returned, with three Latino friends, to confront and threaten the white bar owner. Though physically bigger than each of the men, Glikshtern says he was scared as the group of four surrounded him, one swinging a large metal belt buckle as the others reached under their clothing as if preparing to retrieve more weapons. “I grabbed a crowbar, and the rest is history. It was a freaky thing,” he says. “In retrospect, I should've just taken the ass-kicking and waited for the cops to get there.”

Glikshtern hit three of the men multiple times in the face and head with a tire iron until they fell to the ground, bleeding. He was arrested for assault and spent the night in jail. But the District Attorney's Office agreed with his claim of self-defense and dropped the charges. Glikshtern was free to continue promoting Liquid, which went on to become a success: “The best club in the worst neighborhood,” one local paper proclaimed.

As everyone knows, wealthier and whiter outsiders flush with dot-com money have been increasingly drawn to the Mission, Liquid's predominantly Latino neighborhood. Bored with the aristocratic nightlife and clean sidewalks of the upscale Marina and clichéd North Beach, they have found a new and more interesting playground in the southeastern heart of the city, where they can be cool and slum for the evening while still enjoying the comforts of martinis and sushi. Today, haute cuisine and Santa Monica appeal have moved confidently east of Valencia Street to envelop the greater Mission, fueled by the new Internet economy.

At Foreign Cinema, a French-speaking chef recently prepared seared chicken breast in wine sauce with a balsamic vinaigrette salad for members of the Mission Merchants Association. They gathered last month in the restaurant's quiet courtyard, tucked away from the busy produce stands and taquerias that line Mission Street out front. Naturally, the business owners want their neighborhood to prosper. But just how it should improve, and by how much, is a bitter arguing point. And ever since the incident at Liquid, Glikshtern has remained in the fray. He is president of the group.

At the June lunch, a shouting match broke out between opposing forces on the gentrification issue. Glikshtern had invited developer Joe O'Donoghue to speak, the man reviled by many in the Mission for his hand in building expensive lofts and his eschewal of publicly funded housing.

“San Francisco is at risk of becoming a city of rich folks,” Ron Chavez, an advocate of more affordable housing for the disadvantaged, told the group.

“So what!” attorney and landowner Victor Vitlin shouted back.

O'Donoghue argued about the ideological differences between “affordable” and “low-cost” housing, but gave up in frustration, saying no one would listen to him because he doesn't wear a ponytail: “All you want to hear is the typical progressive crap.”

When Andrew Wood charged that O'Donoghue's ideas threaten the Mission community, the developer was incensed.

“How come when I talk, I threaten, and when you talk, it's the voice of democracy?” O'Donoghue began to yell, his thick Irish accent taking over. “You're nothing but a goddamn Englishman! You took our land and made us poor. It's unfortunate the IRA missed you on your way over!”

When a white businessman uses a tire iron to eject three Latino men from his nightclub — sending them to the hospital with head wounds — it is the kind of incident that promises to ignite a race war. Or at least a very lucrative lawsuit. And that's exactly what personal injury lawyer and Latino activist Enrique Ramirez had in mind, suing Glikshtern for battery, defamation, and civil rights violations one year after the Liquid fight, the day before the statute of limitations on the case expired. Intent on turning the incident into a cause célèbre, Ramirez sought a half-million dollars in damages and tried to organize a campaign to energize his case by tapping into the community's outrage over gentrification. [page]

To Ramirez, Glikshtern and his bar were symbols of the forces pushing Latino immigrants out of their neighborhood. It was enough that Glikshtern looked like the enemy that had moved roughshod into the Mission. But though a new privileged class is publicly flaunting its disposable income and its whiteness in the barrio, Glikshtern wasn't going to be blamed for the negative side effects of the local economic boom. He fought back.

“Enrique Ramirez thought he could ride the backlash of gentrification and galvanize around the fact I'm a white guy and a bar owner. He was looking for a scapegoat and saw me as a goddamn meal ticket,” Glikshtern says. “Here I had made it and had a good thing going, and he wanted to take it from me in an opportunistic way. Of course I was going to fight. He was unfortunate in picking me as his target.”

Ramirez lost his case in April. His biggest mistake was trying to make an example of the wrong man. “It's a stretch to say I'm a racist,” Glikshtern says.

When Glikshtern and his family lived in Ukraine, they shared a flat with five other families. Jews in the Communist Soviet Union didn't get good jobs or into good universities, and were among the last to be assigned housing by the ruling party. “It was like being black in America before the civil rights movement,” Glikshtern says. His family fled their hometown of Odessa and came to the United States claiming religious persecution. Though he was only 10 when he moved to San Francisco in 1979, Glikshtern understood he would have a better life here. And though he still had to share a home with a Russian family in the Richmond District — and his mother had to buy his shoes on the $1.99 rack at Safeway — compared to life in the Soviet Union, “it was luxury.”

Growing up in San Francisco, Glikshtern was often teased for being different. “I got my ass kicked because I spoke funny,” he says. At first he didn't know any English and struggled for a long time with language skills. His parents weren't much better, but his father was trained as an engineer and was able to get a job. “We weren't doing great, but we weren't on the street,” he says.

In high school Glikshtern began practicing judo, excelling so much that he was invited to train for the Olympics. Those hopes weren't realized. But he attended UC Berkeley, earning degrees in political science and Russian literature. As a young man, he was also a constant presence in the Mission, shooting hoops on the neighborhood's basketball courts and hanging out in its bars, making strong local friendships years before gentrification was even a thought. In his 20s, he worked as a financial analyst for Oracle and made a comfortable living. But Glikshtern, with his ever-so-slightly spiked hair and slim goatee, looks like he belongs in a punk band. He is a club creature at heart, and wanted to apply his business acumen to the nightlife he enjoyed so much. Visiting underground bars in New York, he knew there would be a demand for such clubs in San Francisco. So at 27, borrowing $10,000 from his parents, maxing out two credit cards, and using his savings from Oracle, he bought Liquid.

For the inexperienced Glikshtern, the Mission was the perfect place to open his first business. In 1997, storefronts in the worst parts of the neighborhood were cheap; he paid just $25,000 for Liquid, far less money than he would've had to invest doing the same thing in a more developed neighborhood.

Glikshtern was gambling that people frequenting Valencia Street's new hot spots would be willing to venture into the more dicey parts of the Mission. At first, they refused to walk any farther than the corner of Valencia and 16th streets, opting to take cabs the few short blocks to Liquid. But they came, and Glikshtern's bar was a hit.

Now he owns two popular bars. He has matured as a businessman and personally, marrying last year and becoming a father to an 8-year-old Latina stepdaughter. He is buying a house in Berkeley; a new baby is on the way. And as president of the Mission Merchants Association, he presides over meetings in a button-down oxford shirt — untucked, naturally. At 30, Glikshtern is serious about his aspirations for the neighborhood, which include his vision of the intersection of 16th and Mission streets being the gateway to a “Miracle Mile” of shops and businesses. “I want the Earth to stop on its axis and revolve around the Mission,” he says. “As for my business, I wanted for the Mission exactly what happened. I wanted the pimps and hookers and dealers to go away. I really had faith that things would improve.” He boasts that the two storefronts next to Liquid, which were vacant for a decade, are now locally and Latino-owned businesses: a bicycle repair shop and a Salvadoran restaurant. “Not your typical gentrification joints,” he says. “Maybe you can say I cracked the door for gentrification, but at the same time I helped open the door for others.”

Glikshtern is also quick to deflect any responsibility for the upheaval so many people in the Mission are upset about, saying larger market forces — like a runaway economy and a housing crunch — are to blame. He likes to point out that in the first few years the Valencia corridor was being turned into a nighttime hot spot, there was no massive residential displacement in the Mission. [page]

“I'll bet the folks at the Residential Builders Association have no idea where the cool people are going to drink,” Glikshtern says. “If not for the tremendous explosion of the Internet, there would be no development in the Mission and godforsaken parts of SOMA. We'll see how much of a gentrifier I am when the economy tanks. All those condos will be vacant. But my business will do just as well, because having a good time doesn't rely on being in a nice place to live.”

Bars like Liquid annoy Ramirez. “It's odd to go by a bar in the Mission and see only white kids inside,” he says. “An invasion of new businesses in the Mission have set an exclusionary tone, and there's anger in the Latino community about the dot-com gold rush and how they feel displaced by it.”

When he heard that a group of Latinos were accosted at such a bar, by a white owner, Ramirez couldn't believe the district attorney had declined to prosecute. He complained, urging the DA's Office to review the case. It did, and still found the case without merit. Ramirez was convinced otherwise, and filed his lawsuit anyway. “I was horrified reading the police report,” Ramirez says. “When there is a confrontation in the Mission that involves Latinos and whites, normally it's the Latino who gets arrested, but this time it was the white guy who police determined was the aggressor. That caught my attention.”

Ramirez added defamation to the suit since Glikshtern told police that the man he ejected from Liquid, Fredy Parra, was a trafficker when there is no record to suggest Parra ever was.

Parra had told police that when he first left the bar, Glikshtern took him and a friend to a car parked outside, opened the trunk, and pulled out a gun to warn them not to return. Parra says he went home to call 911 and then came back to Liquid with three others to check on the friend they believed was still at the bar. Stopped by Glikshtern at the front door, Parra claims Glikshtern shouted he didn't want “any fucking Mexicans” in his club and proceeded to beat them with the tire iron. There is no record of the 911 call, and no one outside Liquid saw Glikshtern holding a gun, or yelling any racial epithets. Glikshtern does own a gun, but a police search of his car did not find one that night. Ramirez had nothing in court to back up his clients' story.

“What if I had 10 Latinos saying it was Glikshtern who attacked without provocation? And all my witnesses were cooks and servants, and couldn't speak English — would that impress the jury?” says Ramirez, who claims the nearly all-white jury couldn't relate to his clients. “It was a confusing set of facts, I'll grant you that, and I didn't have the witnesses. But I had the word of three individuals, who, in spite of their poverty and lack of education, are hard-working and law-abiding people living in contrast to the stereotype of the Latino immigrant. A Latino jury would have perceived them differently.”

Indeed, the men who confronted Glikshtern at Liquid don't have any past criminal convictions. “Even if they did have any record to speak of, they still didn't deserve to be whacked over the head with a crowbar,” Ramirez says.

A motion by Ramirez for a new trial, one that would focus on the defamation charge against Glikshtern, was denied last month by San Francisco Superior Court Judge William A. Stone. Still, Ramirez won't accept the simple notion that perhaps his slighted clients went too far in trying to save face, and Glikshtern in turn overreacted.

Glikshtern has been overly zealous in handling barroom brawls before. At his first job as a bouncer in an Oakland nightclub, a fight Glikshtern helped break up resulted in a 1990 lawsuit in which he was named a defendant. The suit was eventually dropped. And Glikshtern admits some culpability in fanning the Liquid flare-up: “The moron that I am, the third thing out of my mouth was probably something like, 'I'm gonna shoot you if you hit me,'” he says. “It was just the standard bullshit talk when you're in a bar altercation.”

“I know Pete,” says Ragunath Dindial, a longtime friend who served as one of Glikshtern's attorneys in the Liquid case. “He can be a bit of an asshole, but not a racist. There's a big difference.”

But Ramirez believes that Glikshtern's business model of opening low-overhead nightclubs in undesirable areas has a hidden agenda. Since Liquid has been a hugely profitable success, Glikshtern has introduced a new club, Six, on Sixth Street in the Tenderloin District — an area that is arguably more destitute than Liquid's Mission location was three years ago. “Glikshtern is on a crusade; he knows these are bad areas and he's making a point to clean them up,” says Ramirez. “But he's gone too far, putting the prostitutes, Mexicans, and drug dealers all together.”

During an e-mail campaign he launched against Liquid, Ramirez was able to generate a fair amount of public outcry. Glikshtern did his best to quell the uproar by replying to the messages himself, arguing point by point all the charges against him.

“It was either that or go hide under a rock. People were incensed, and had I not countered this bullshit, there would've been more of a groundswell,” Glikshtern says. “Fortunately, most people in this neighborhood have a functioning brain. I don't know how many hours I spent defending myself by e-mail, but it turned out OK. There wasn't a lynch mob outside my door the next day.”

In his defense, Glikshtern was often hotheaded, lashing back in his messages with the same vehemence his critics used in theirs. Many disagreed with his claims that he'd faced hardships as an immigrant, saying that unlike Latino residents in the Mission, Glikshtern's home and culture were not the object of attack here. One person scoffed, saying Arnold Schwarzenegger is also an immigrant, and the odds were hardly stacked against him. [page]

“[The same can be said for] any number of ridiculously wealthy Latino entertainers. Your logic borders on absurd,” Glikshtern shot back. “Any immigrant who comes to this country with no money or language skills has the odds stacked against them. That includes people from Eastern Europe. I am one of the boat people. Take a good, hard look in the mirror and tell me who the racist here might be.”

He wasn't done: “If I hadn't moved in on that block, no one else would've either. Viva la raza, smart guy, but what the fuck does an empty store front do for the neighborhood? Do you feel like an asshole yet?”

“I built that place with my own hands, sweat, and blood (having literally been jumped a few times down there on Capp),” Glikshtern wrote in another e-mail. “Now I am the bad guy? A cancer to the neighborhood? Why? Because I've made that hole in the wall into something that gets equal billing with Mecca and the Red Room on the glossy pages of Travel & Leisure? Seems a little twisted to me.”

A rally staged by Ramirez before the April trial failed to draw the substantial crowds the attorney had hoped to attract. Glikshtern had been successful diffusing the outrage, and when the New Mission News sided with the bar owner, Ramirez's case looked even weaker. The extensive denunciation of the lawsuit from a neighborhood paper that routinely lambastes the negative impacts of gentrification — “Comforting the Afflicted and Afflicting the Comfortable” is its slogan — was clearly a blow to any momentum Ramirez had hoped to achieve. “He seemed disappointed we didn't mindlessly rally to the cause, but his case was no good,” says the newspaper's editor, Victor Miller. “It was blown up into a major civil rights issue, which trivializes real issues with real impact. Guys in a bar fight is not one of them.”

Miller serves on the board of the Mis-sion Merchants Association, of which Glikshtern is president. The group is a loose band of members with their own interests, and Miller says he isn't particularly close to Glikshtern nor does he consider the bar owner an ally — just the victim of a misguided, politically charged lawsuit.

“It takes a lot of energy to deal with the forces of gentrification, and this drains it,” Miller says. “Instead of finding convenient villains, we should be concentrating on the amorphous developers who want to stick office buildings on residential blocks, and actually kick people out of their homes. All Glikshtern ever displaced was a bunch of old drunks and junkies. Is that so harmful a change?”

Miller sees Ramirez as a political opportunist. “You can't just squeeze what happened into the gentrification template, and then try to manipulate people to rally around the cause because you know what their fears are,” he says. “It insults their intelligence.”

Though a businessman by day, Glikshtern still enjoys the club scene at night. He lives the culture he sells, and hates to see the art and hipness of it all tainted by supply and demand. On Saturday nights he won't even go to his own bar anymore. Liquid, he says, has become too popular. That's the problem with creating something cool: Once the masses catch on, it's not anymore. The infusion of boorish, aging fraternity guys is cramping his sense of style. He complains that they are loud, get too drunk, and pee in the street. And worse, they don't know good music, aren't original, and certainly aren't hip. “I wanted to create a happening scene without the knuckleheads catching on, but that's hard to do,” Glikshtern says. “What I don't want is the place to become the Marina. It's not good for me if the neighborhood gets too white-bread; people will find a new hip place to slum in.”

But he isn't about to close his bar down because he doesn't like who chooses to drink there. Besides, Latinos do regularly frequent Liquid during the week, and on Monday nights, the bar is almost entirely gay. “If anything gets rid of a lame crowd, it's a gay crowd,” he notes. The idea that Ramirez tried to say he was exclusionary and a racist appalls Glikshtern. “Not all of the bars around here are as diverse as mine,” he says. “Ramirez would've had a better shot doing this to someone else.”

Glikshtern's refusal to be intimidated by Ramirez's efforts to turn the politically correct, anti-gentrification forces of mob rule against him has, at the same time, only strengthened his commitment to his business. Though settling seemed like an attractive escape to the whole mess, Glikshtern would not give in. “I don't think it is right to just lay down and fold to this sort of thing. My integrity is important to me,” he says. “If Ramirez would've sued only for beating those guys up, maybe I would've paid. But he was accusing me with all kinds of shit that had nothing to do with it.”

The notion that the Mission should be home only to underpaid artists, bohemians, and immigrants escapes Glikshtern. The way he sees it, being an entrepreneur is no crime. “Was there a sense of me trying to be a pioneer? Yes,” he says. “I saw the potential. But I never thought of the social-economic ramifications. I just wanted to make a living.”

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