Uptown : Child of an SF Cacophonist

Updated: Oct 14, 2015 07:41
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I’m raving about The Uptown before I’ve even sit down.

“What a gem!” I tell Stuart. “What an incredible gem! And right here, so accessible, how did I not know about this place?”

He nods, smiling. “Yeah,” he says. “Honestly, I almost didn’t tell you about it, so you couldn’t tell anyone.”

“I understand,” I say. “There is the possibility that assholes can read. And we know they drink. If you want to swear me to secrecy, I’ll do that … just this once.”

He considers it. I think seriously. Then shakes his head. “Nah. Honestly, I think this place is self-defending. Assholes may walk in, but they’re going to walk out again pretty quickly.”

Now that’s an interesting thing for him to say about a bar in the Mission, where multiple generations barely clinging on to family homes are desperately hoping someone will come up with a gentrifying asshole repellent that really works. Is Stuart right? Is it possible for a bar to be more resilient than the neighborhood it’s in? What’s its secret?

The Uptown is essentially two medium sized rooms with a beautiful wooden bar taking the place of the dividing wall. One room is all seating – including bar stools, tables, and couches – the other one has a pool table, pin ball machine, and a few more chairs. The furniture is used – not antique but used – and comfortable. The point being that people use it because they like it, not because it matches a theme.

It has mostly bare walls, with a lot of what looks to be original wood and trim, with just enough weird are on it to enhance its “dive” character rather than “make a statement about dive bars.” A single, solitary, TV sits in the corner of one room, showing the game. A lovely stained class window rests on the top back of the bar, proclaiming it opened in 1984

Only the bathroom, a monstrosity of paint and graffiti with a trough for a urinal, Castro-style but without any of the fun, spoils the effect. Except that it isn’t actually an effect and it doesn’t spoil anything.

Photo Stefan Schuh

A bar that’s a gimmick can’t have any rough edges: a bar with an identity is enhanced by them.

The same thing is true about a neighborhood. What all the gentrifiers in the Mission don’t understand is that the level of reaction against them is indicative of a healthy society. Kids getting angry about their soccer fields and people marching outside of chain stores and rallying about evictions means that the social fabric being ripped apart is in fact healthy tissue. And while software can be patched, neighborhoods, like people, are surprisingly easy to damage beyond repair. They take decades to grow and mature.

The Uptown was the child of Cacophonist Scott Ellsworth, who kept it almost entirely unchanged over 30 years because he liked his bar the way he liked it. When he died in 2014, he left it to the bar staff – okay the legal issues are more complicated than I can get into here, but the point is that now they own it. There’s a picture of Scott, right next to the door, and nobody has any interest in attracting a hipper crowd.

Uptown has fresh mint behind the bar today, so they make me mint juleps and mojitos. They’re not expert works of mixology, but they’re tasty and only $6.50. (Cash only). As I sit and talk with Stuart, I see what he means about this place being able to defend itself: rich assholes simply have no reason to come here. It’s not going to accommodate them, and they have plenty of other places to go. It’s not like there’s a shortage of places catering to new money in this town.

Rich assholes either have to have people around who are impressed by them, or they need to be able to force everyone who isn’t out. The Uptown meets neither of these conditions.

The juke box is playing way more Rock N Roll than techno, and none of this stadium or overproduced shit. Guys with guitars and drums. That’s followed by some James Brown. Oh yeah. Uptown actually kind of feels like an aging rock star who isn’t current anymore but who still kills each and every goddamn set.

Who knows what will happen in another 30 years, but right now it’s impervious to Glassholes: it’s that rare community of cool old-time San Franciscans and their descendants that has a healthy glow. Nobody’s doing deals, very few people are checking their phones, and the day seems to expand to accommodate all the good conversation – the slow, qualitative, unranked, non-searchable, impractical, analog, not-in-any-way algorithmic, conversation – that you want.
200 Capp St

Cover photo Posted by Stefan Schuh

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Benjamin Wachs - Fascinating Stranger

Benjamin Wachs - Fascinating Stranger

Benjamin Wachs is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City. He tweets as @BenjaminWachs, and displays (some of) his work at