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Saving Comedy in the TL

Updated: Mar 04, 2022 09:21
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Having a landlord threaten eviction is no laughing matter. The comedians and owners of The SetUp in the Tenderloin (the TL) have been in a silent battle with their new landlord for months with no end in sight. They have been working every angle to try and resolve the issue and get back to making people laugh but time and time again they find themselves stuck. It feels like a story others can relate to and also a story we can learn from.

Back in 2015, two independent comedians Richard Sarvate and Abhay Nadkarni set out with a goal to create a space that would foster community and help newbie comedians have a place to hone their skills. The SetUp HQ is in the basement of 222 Hyde, in the hub of the TL. The space has a rich history of its own. Built-in 1911, the basement of 222 Hyde used to be the green room of the legendary Black Hawk Lounge where Miles Davis used to play.

empty comedy state it lite with blue light. a sign that says The SetUp ligthts up the room with a blue light

photo courtesy of The SetUp

For the first 5 years of business, The SetUp did in fact bring in a ton of new comedians as well as more well-known comedians.“It’s a really special place,” says Sarvate. “It cannot be recreated. Comedians from all over the country have recorded their albums here because they know the vibe is perfect. We’ve had several people film sets here that have gotten them on Late Night and Comedy Central.” With seating capacity for only 75, this small but mighty space proved to have ideal acoustics for comedy and was the perfect place for comedians to bring laughter into the neighborhood. They even had Taylor Tomlinson practice their hour-long Netflix special in the space.

In 2020 the doors of The SetUp were shut at least temporarily at 222 Hyde. For the last 2 years, The Setup has had to adapt and shift to keep their business afloat by having regular pop-up shows in SF, LA, and NY. Now, with SF opening back up, they would like to bring their shows back to their original space.

They would… but they have a huge problem…
Over the last 2 years, there has been substantial damage done to the space. With stricter rules after the pandemic, they are certain that a health inspector wouldn’t give them an OK to open unless these repairs are fixed. To complicate issues, they have a new landlord as of December and this landlord won’t even speak to them. There’s a standstill & the frustration is building.

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photo courtesy of The SetUp

While some folks are tackling the drug epidemic and feel that will help shift the neighborhood, Nadkarni feels that The SetUp proves that bringing in businesses like theirs helps “revitalize the economic growth of the neighborhood.” They believe that the city should consider helping people like them push back against landlords who are pushing them out. In my opinion, given Mayor Breed’s current desire to clean up the neighborhood it does make sense to me that trying to keep small thriving businesses in the area to bring in a new crowd would help support that effort.

I feel like this is a story we hear all the time lately, eh? The new landlord doesn’t give two poops what happens to the current tenants of their building. Especially if their future plans may not align with the small business plans. Like all other stories of this kind, the small business looks to the city and their community for help.

In this case, there is an organization they could go to for help – The Tenderloin Community Benefit District (TLCBD). TLCBD specifically works with TL small businesses to help support them and keep their businesses thriving by giving them resources, announcing potential grant opportunities and also by helping keep the streets clean. After talking to Nadkarni, it’s clear that they feel that they should give organizations like the TLCBD and Urban Alchemy the credit for helping the TL be less shady than it used to be.

These organizations have been helping the neighborhood and small businesses in the TL long before the mayor decided to step in more recently. Urban Alchemy has been in the news recently because one of their unarmed staff members was shot while on duty. They act almost as security guards for the small businesses in the area. Putting themselves in harm’s way in an effort to make the streets of the Tenderloin safer for others.

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TLCBD staff – photo from tlcbd.org

The SetUp is leveraging the resources they have and working to fight back against their landlord. Ales Unlimited, which runs the bar at 222 Hyde and partners with The Setup has a valid lease till 2025. They took their lease, their needs, and their complaints and found themselves a lawyer through the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR) and the TLCBD. Their lawyer specializes in communicating with lawyers looking to evict businesses specifically in the tenderloin. The lawyer has tried to mediate with the SetUp’s landlord and has yet to hear back from them. Sarvate and Nadkarni expect that their landlord won’t be communicating with them any time soon.

All The SetUp wants to do is to get people back on their original stage and bring laughter back into the TL. They are one of many small businesses trying to piece things back together after these past two years. According to the TLCBD, “Many of the neighborhood’s hardworking business owners shared insight into topics like the impact of both the pandemic and sidewalk conditions on their businesses, as well as the types of assistance that would allow them to better recover and succeed in the Tenderloin.” It’s a story we hear all over the city again and again.

While they wait and work with their lawyer, Sarvate and Nadkarni are hosting pop-up shows regularly. They are also reaching out to other organizations which might help them communicate with their landlord.

comedy goers watch a SetUp show in LA outside – photo by The SetUp

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Katy Atchison

Katy Atchison

Katy is a professional smiling machine raised in The Bay Area since the age of 3. While other kids were attending summer camp & soccer practice, she was raised selling wares at craft shows with her working artist parents and spent vacations in a small 1920s Montana log cabin. This has all given her a unique perspective on the ever-changing texture of San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. Currently a blend of all that is The Bay Area - she's a web designer at a tech-company, artist and DIY teacher.

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