Absolut Sixth Street
San Francisco’s Sixth Street is one of
the city’s sleaziest, but in a good way

The Wave Magazine
May 9, 2002


A man tumbled head over heels off his bicycle, got up laughing and said, "Wanna buy a bike? Fifty bucks. Nice ride." And with that, a Sixth Street evening began in classic fashion. This street between Market and Mission is one of the dirtiest, scariest blocks in the city. Pawnshops, bars and a peep show joint line one side of the street. The other side features SRO (low-income) hotels, more bars and a couple greasy spoons. But despite the crackhead atmosphere, a new nightlife scene is forming on Sixth Street.

I turned into Tu Lan to meet a friend for dinner as the bike salesman continued hawking. Tu Lan’s menu had Julia Child on the cover and a quote from a 1987 Herb Caen column: "Julia Child ate at Tu Lan on sleazy Sixth, a place with great Vietnamese chow." The chow is still as great as ever (try the spring rolls, crispy noodles, ginger fried fish – that’s what Julia had), the walls were as greasy-dusty as ever, the waiters as surly as ever.

After dinner, I hit the Arrow, two doors down from Tu Lan. Until a few months ago, Arrow was Club Charleston, the place to take a date if you really, really wanted to test their urban mettle. It was a place where you’d fully expect that at some point during the evening (or morning or afternoon, if that’s your bag) to duck.

The outside of the bar hadn’t changed —just a beat-up door leading to an anonymous bar. Only now there’s a doorman outside. He looked up from a book, Chaos, long enough to check our IDs. Inside, the front section of the narrow room was dark and deco, a-la the bar in The Shining, lit only by dim blue neon. A nook toward the rear is ‘70s kitsch, with a leather sofa and fuzzy white stools. The far back is distinctly Paleozoic, replete with stalactites. The early evening crowd was dressed-down yet fashion-conscious — a late 20s, early 30s Mission crowd. Every night DJs play anything from ‘80s New Wave to electronica to house and hip-hop.

Shawn Lennon, along with Aaron Buhrs (one of the Mission’s Beauty Bar owners) and others, recently opened Arrow. Lennon seemed comfortable, even optimistic about starting a business in such dicey environs. On Sixth Street there’s always some sketchy bustle, be it a fight, someone throwing up, a deal going down, an arrest. So to reemerge into it, even for just a few steps down the street, is to step back out into the city, an experience made more profound by the escapism that Arrow provides.

Another 50 paces or so down the line was Club Six. It looked like an abandoned movie theater, blank awning, no new paint, nothing—the trademark of its former owners, who also opened the inconspicuous-to-the-point-of-invisibility dance club Liquid on 16th Street. Inside, this garage-like space has big couches, video projected on the walls and a DJ set-up in the middle of the room, but no obvious dance floor. The bartender, a sexy, aloof woman in black and tattoos, was decidedly more "nightclub" than the shaggy Arrow staff. The music was old-school hip-hop and disco of the Curtis Blow-to-De La Soul variety, the crowd diverse for a town with a notoriously segregated nightlife: young kids of all races dressed according to trend, a few older gay men, business people in suits winding down an after-work party. No dancing, except for a few girls moving self-consciously to-and-fro in the corner. The large basement was pretty much all dance floor and bar, and that night the crowd jumped to radio hip-hop. The vibe was somewhere between happy/sexy and chaos. Amidst this, a lesbian couple danced slow and close in the miasma of bouncy straight kids.

Angel Cruz, an affable, upfront New Yorker thrilled with the prospects for the neighborhood, owns Club Six. Calling Sixth Street "the next Mission," Cruz said that some young guys had just bought Ginger’s Too across the street and another bar down on the corner. He called Sixth the "safest street in town" because so many felons live in the hotels, there are always "more cops [here] than anywhere else in the city."

"I don’t know anyone who’s car was broken into on this block," he said proudly. There are other benefits to the location, he told me: "We get no Marina crowd, no fights, no frat boys, just people who want to party." Cruz went on to say that the city has plans to fix up the area, and that widened sidewalks and palm trees are in the works. After being accosted by an extremely friendly and extremely drunk pair of tourists – one from Italy, one from Denmark – I was back on the street.

Next stop was the obnoxiously, if aptly, named Pow! on the corner of Sixth and Mission. Pow! sprung up during the heady late ‘90s as an oasis for the after-work dotcom crowd lured to Sixth by slinky beats, fancy drinks with kooky names, anime projected on walls and a bunch of TVs with free Nintendo.

But now only one Nintendo remained, and it sometimes sat unplayed. The back of the bar had an elevated DJ booth and small, packed dance floor. Like Arrow and Club Six, every night is a different scene, and tonight was the new regular Friday show *69, a gay dance party. The crowd spilled outside, where people smoked and chatted. Promoter Gary Green called the street "the new frontier" and seemed pleased to have a permanent home for his party.

Before heading home, there was one last stop. Just as an evening on Sixth should begin with Tu Lan, so too should it end at the End Up, the old guard of Sixth Street after-hours action. On Sixth and Harrison, the dance floor throbs ‘til dawn and in the backyard fountains are always pouring. To take the complete tour of the emerging Sixth Street scene, sunset at Tu Lan to sunrise at the End Up is the way to go.

After seeing the Mission and SOMA overrun by arrogant Rover-riding hordes in recent years, I had expected to be repulsed by the decadence of partying in the midst of Sixth Street squalor. But I was fascinated, even charmed. What this new, understated scene thankfully lacks is the stench of money. The clubgoers were comfortable but not oblivious or arrogant, and therein lies the difference between the new Sixth Street and the old new Mission.

Angel Cruz was right, there was no Marina entitlement, no Union Street testosterone. There few cellphones and no cruising Audi A4s. Of course, Sixth Street hasn’t taken off yet, but the street itself is bound to remain a successful yup-deterrent. Even Pow!, with its flashy sign and crowd-incursion onto the street, didn’t seem to flaunt itself in the face of the existing community. Cruz may also be correct in predicting that Sixth Street will become the "new Mission," but for now, it’s more vibrant and less obtrusive than "Nouveau Mishe" ever was. It’s more reminiscent of New York’s Lower East Side in the late ‘80s than the Mission in the late ‘90s, and thus well worth its hazards.


© 2006 Jamie Berger