Senior Being Evicted Is Part of Larger Area Trend
The neighborhood was booming, her building sold, and then came the notice.
Mary Phillips is a 98-year-old San Franciscan who has lived in her apartment at 55 Dolores St. for 50 years. After all that time and those years of rent control, the notice still came.
Her building sits adjacent to a construction site for new housing and across the street from 2001 Market St., where new dwelling units rest atop a Whole Foods — all additions from the last year and a half.
The other tenants left on buyouts, and just Phillips and her caretaker, Sarah Brant, remained in the old three-story building to fight the forced removal. Now Brant, a public school teacher at Balboa High, is being litigated against, a move that could leave Phillips without her caretaker.
At age 98, after a TV interview and a barrage of press, she has closed herself off from the media. She sought legal counseling from the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which has seen its share of Ellis Act cases over the last year. Attorney Matt McFarland said he was unable to comment on the specifics of the case due to ongoing negotiations with the new owner.
The new owner is Urban Green Investments. Urban Green is actually a division of Cornerstone Holdings, based in Aspen, Colorado. The company has concentrated its buying of investment properties in Hawaii, Colorado and New York, but has particularly intensified its presence in the Bay Area over the last few years. They own at least 385 units in over 15 buildings in the city and are currently involved in roughly 40 LLCs, many of which they use to buy buildings, evict tenants and then resell buildings for a profit margin. And as there is no legal penalty for buying low-priced rental properties and converting them into high-priced units for sale, this whole operation is all just business in the black in terms of the law.
“Urban Green Investments invests in multi-family, commercial and entitled land real estate in California. Once a property is acquired, UGI adds value by increasing efficiencies, enhancing entitlements, and employing carefully calibrated green renovations,” CEO David McCloskey stated in a release to the media. McCloskey and his father Thomas McCloskey, the Chairman of Cornerstone, did not return phone calls.
But investment property can be a messy business, and Urban Green has come under fire among pro-tenant organizations in the city for its amassing of property. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is one such volunteer organization. This summer it added to its website an online, interactive map of Cornerstone’s aggregate buying efforts in the Bay Area. The Castro and Mission neighborhoods are the heart of the affected areas.
Erin McElroy, a member of the group, said they were prompted to create the map due to the growing number of rental properties acquired by Urban Green. She pointed to two 2013 statistics from the group’s research: 60 percent of Ellis Act evictions were issued by property owners who had owned the building for less than one year; and 79 percent of those evictions came from owners of less than five years. She said Urban Green and Cornerstone generally fall into this category.
“The last thing that they need is more property — they’re doing just fine. They certainly don’t need to displace a 98-year-old woman of her home of nearly 50 years,” McElroy said, adding that they own quite a bit of property in the Castro area.
One such area property is 49 Guerrero St., where Mervyn Wong and his elderly disabled mother dealt with an eviction in 2013 before reaching a settlement. Others include 257-261 Sanchez St. (via 257 Sanchez Street LLC), which was sold in late June, 591 Waller St., later sold off as TICs after the tenants were served an eviction, and 109 Alpine Terrace, McCloskey’s former residence, now empty.
Eviction Free SF is another organization that has taken direct action against Urban Green. In addition to a number of organized protest calls to McCloskey and his offices, on July 9, dozens of members descended on their 1746 Union St. office to protest its business practices and to support Mary Phillips.
Member Fred Sherburn-Zimmer said Urban Green is simply an out-of-town speculator. She said it has demonstrated a pattern of buying up properties with low-income renters, often housing seniors, the disabled, and people with medical conditions —evicting the tenants to convert the units into higher-end housing such as TICs, and finally reselling them for a high profit margin.
“What we are seeing is a different class of renter moving into the area, much more well off tenants,” she said.
She said that the Urban Green would often just threaten to evict everyone and then offer a buyout package to the renters.
“Ninety-percent of the time they just threaten to Ellis Act,” she said. “It’s pretty troubling.”
McElroy said the company’s buyout tactics amount to bullying tenants.
“Urban Green is notorious for offering buyout brides,” she said. “They purchase the building and then tell all the tenants they are being Ellis Act evicted. But then what they do is they’ll say but if you want to take the buyout, the first tenant will receive $40,000 and the second tenant will receive $30,000. It’s kind of a divide-and-conquer technique.”
The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project has also posted a number of notorious lists on their site for landlords and property speculators who they say have misused the Ellis Act by displacing seniors and those with disabilities. There are the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Dirty Thirty” — both which McCloskey finds himself on — along with “Dirty 2.0: Tech Evictors” and “Dirty Developers.”
Besides just large speculators, more people are also getting into the game of buying and selling. When large companies like Urban Green use the Ellis Act to evict tenants and make profits flipping buildings it directly encourages “wannabe” real estate speculators and realtors to try their hand, said Ted Gullicksen, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, which houses the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.
“Small-timers are beginning to use it more aggressively,” he said. “Small-time landlords who never would have thought of selling are now thinking to sell.”
Now former Castro resident Ashley Taranto was recently affected by this type of small-time sale. After six years of good relations and prompt rent payment to her onsite landlady, the landlady’s attorney served Taranto an eviction notice on July 19.
“I went through all of the avenues available to me locally — the Tenants Union, the Eviction Clinic. I spoke to administrative judges on the Rent Board,” she said. “When it comes down to it, I was being evicted legally so my landlord could sell the house that I was living in. So, I have been legally evicted and have 30 days to find a new home.”
With respect to the Ellis Act, local politicians have looked to the State Legislature for changes. In late May, State Senator Mark Leno’s SB 1439, aiming to halt such evictions within the first five years of a building’s sale in San Francisco, passed the Senate in Sacramento. In late June it went to the Assembly, and 98-year-old Phillips traveled to the capitol building to rally support for the legislation. But it failed in the Assembly by one vote and is now effectively dead.
“Clearly it’s a sign that the state Democrats get too much money from real estate,” Sherburn-Zimmer said.
But a ballot measure for November’s election is not. The Anti-Speculation Tax is a measure that, if approved by voters, would impose a graduated transfer tax on short-term sales of apartment buildings. If the sale of a building occurs within the first year of ownership, the tax would be 24 percent of the selling price, decreasing to 14 percent by the fifth year. It doesn’t apply to single-family homes, condos, or TICs.
Gullicksen said it is imperative that voters pass this measure in November to discourage rampant real estate speculation.
“It goes at the profit motivation of speculators,” he said. “If we can grab half of their profit, then we can limit the evictions.”
But November is a long time off for Mary Phillips. There has been talk by Urban Green of allowing her to stay in one of the new units. But if there is one thing the 98 year old has learned in 50 years of renting in the city, it is that there are no guarantees.
Graphic by Anti-Eviction Mapping Project
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Airbnb Rentals Remain Bone of Contention Amongst Residents
Unpermitted sales occur with frequency
Castro residents seem to have a difference of opinion with each other about how home-sharing — using services like Airbnb to transform a residence into a hotel — is affecting the neighborhood’s quality of life.
The debate was the first item on the agenda of July’s Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association meeting, which drew a full house to the Castro Community Meeting Room, 501 Castro St.
Neighborhood resident Shannon Murray spoke in favor of home-sharing. Calvin Welch, co-founder of San Franciscans for Neighborhoods, Affordable Housing and Jobs, spoke against the current state of home-sharing in the city. Though home-sharing is currently illegal in San Francisco, Board of Supervisor’s President David Chiu is sponsoring a bill that would reverse that. The Planning Commission may hear the proposal this month.
“It’s been a positive thing for me,” said Murray, who rents his place on Airbnb. Among reasons for his support is the money he earns renting his place, an argument others make. Some say they cannot afford to live in their San Francisco homes without the income they get from home-sharing. This group includes seniors and retirees.
In addition, Murray says home-sharing is a way for visitors to San Francisco to stay in or close to the Castro. He said it’s difficult to find a hotel near the neighborhood. Besides, his neighbors get excited about meeting the new people he rents to. And he’s yet to come across a person who’s had a negative experience with home-sharing.
“[The neighbors] are more excited than anything,” he said.
But a resident who asked not to be named, said her neighbor’s unit next door is “like a conference space or a frat party.” She fears the guests are going to set the unit on fire. Her partner is often woken by “roaring drunken parties,” she said. And up to 20 people use the downstairs as a conference space. “This is like a revolving door ... bus limos dropping people off,” she said.
Murray counters that renters have an incentive to rent to people who will respect others because renter and lessee have reputations to protect. He said most neighbors don’t even know whether a unit is being rented on Airbnb or not.
That’s a problem for some opposed to practice. When they have a problem, neighbors say they can’t get in touch with someone to resolve the situation. If their neighbor is away, who do they call? So far, the opposition says, Airbnb has been unresponsive to the lack of respect some lessees have shown to nearby homeowners or renters.
“If it behaves like a hotel, it is a hotel,” says the website for the group San Franciscans for Neighborhoods, Affordable Housing and Jobs. The group wants the home-sharing industry to comply with local laws and commercial insurance requirements. It also wants the industry to pay City taxes, which co-founder Dale Carlson said could amount to $25 million a year.
The group’s two top concerns are the impact on neighbors and on affordable housing in San Francisco. At the meeting, Welch claimed that home-sharing is taking permanent housing units off the market, a claim the San Francisco Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and San Francisco Tenants Union are making too.
The two groups published a report July 29 analyzing the effect of home-sharing on the housing market, saying residential rental prices and the price of homes are going up because of home-sharing. The report can be found at www.antievictionmappingproject.net/vacation.html.
Carlson claims homeowners can make $123,000 a year from home-sharing, which equates to $10,250 a month. This potential income is being figured into the price of homes, the July 29 report says, raising home prices. And because apartments are being rented to tourists, home-sharing is reducing the supply of rental housing, contributing to rising rents.
Chiu’s bill would amend “the Administrative Code to provide an exception for permanent residents to the prohibition on short-term residential rentals under certain conditions; ….” One condition would create a registry to track the units and insure compliance with laws.
San Franciscans for Neighborhoods, Affordable Housing and Jobs argues that the proposal doesn’t provide for a “public” registry.
The legislation would, however, ensure the owner maintains property or casualty insurance “of not less than $150,000 or conducts each transaction through a hosting platform that provides a guarantee program relating to property damage in an amount not less than $150,000 to owners per incident; ….”
District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, who serves the Castro, has not taken a position on the issue yet, said Legislative Aide Jeff Cretan.
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HBO To Air Second Season of “Looking” This Winter
HBO’s “Looking,” which premiered at the Castro Theatre back in January, will be returning for its second season in the winter of ‘14/’15, the network has confirmed.
The series, whose first season of eight original episodes wrapped up on HBO in March, has captured a lot of eyeballs across the country. People are talking about it, whether gay or straight.
The show, although touted for its contribution to current television’s slate of LGBT-centered programming, is so much more than a chance for queer stories to be shared. It is also a tale of San Francisco, our San Francisco. The one that takes you from the Lower Haight to bars in the Mission, pop-up restaurants, Potrero Hill apartments, and moving to Oakland and back again.
The show centers on the gay community, a community shown almost as a microcosm of the current San Francisco universe as a whole. The show places itself in the current popular paid cable trope of shows on Silicon Valley and the start-up revolution. Words like Instagram, friending someone on Facebook, and Grindr social networking are common vernacular and when one of the key characters’ sister gets married, the father says, “And luckily, he has money. Thank you Silicon Valley!”
The series moves from hammock-infested tech offices in SOMA to hip apartments in the outer Mission. Crucial scenes occur on BART and Muni busses. Dates happen at downtown’s Press Club, the Folsom Street Fair and the ‘Gay Beach’ at the top of Dolores Park and lots o’ doobie smoking.
The series shows the new San Francisco. Although the gay community has been live and vibrant, in our own Castro district and beyond, for years, the series showcases the new kind of gays: the one filled with tech transplants and artists who arrived after college for a shot at a gallery show. Interactions between these San Franciscans and other natives, like a Mexican barber love interest, highlight some of the issues currently plaguing our burgeoning city. This key relationship poses the problems with the meetings between the city’s newest residents - with upward mobility and a paycheck to match - and longtime residents who are just trying to get by and keep their low rent flats in desirable locales.
San Francisco as the palpable fourth principal character in the show creates a beautiful landscape and a never-ending collection of spine-tingling moments as you realize you’ve wandered the same streets as characters Patrick, Augustine and Dom. However, the show is not just City by the Bay or hot male eye candy.
With recent cancellations of shows like The New Normal and Happy Endings, two network queer-based shows, the television landscape has been lacking representations of the American gay community. Additionally, after the popularity of HBO’s Girls, which the series was aptly screened after during its regular season, this kind of ‘truthful’ narrative of life and love in a city is a welcome voice of gay representation in a media world that often veers too far to the shallow and effeminate (i.e. Modern Family).
These characters are three-dimensional, outside of their sexuality and their seemingly “queer” characteristics. Although the characters discuss their love lives alá Carrie Bradshaw and crew, they also discuss their jobs about which they are passionate, their parents, and their life trajectories. They are characterized outside their sexuality, and this is a step forward for such commonly-viewed programming.
While this new characterization, although contested by some in the community as veering towards one kind of gay existence (not to mention its utter lack of lesbian characters), contributes to gay voices perhaps its true power lies in who those voices are speaking to. Although the show may have a built-in gay audience, those who will watch anything on the subject even if just to judge and discuss, it is non-gay viewers who may receive the most from the show. Learning of the difficulties of “bottom shame,” discussing coming out on your first date, and navigating the waters of a superfluous sexuality in the outwardly sexual San Francisco provides a window for non-gay viewers into a lifestyle that they can often see, but not entirely understand.
While this view of gay life is not perfect (could it ever be?), it is an opportunity to consider what we San Franciscans see going on around us, whether it is the young artists and techies, the gay community, or the young artists and techies who just happen to be gay.
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Blood donor policy, housing targeted
District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener has been busy at City Hall.
Last month the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed bills aimed at increasing affordable housing and regulating chain stores in the Castro. The Board also passed a resolution demanding the Food and Drug Administration reverse its ban on blood donations by gay men.
“This archaic ban has no basis in public health and is discrimination, plain and simple,” said Wiener. Wiener sponsored the resolution. Currently, the FDA disagrees.
“FDA’s deferral policy is based on the documented increased risk of certain transfusion transmissible infections, such as HIV, associated with male-to-male sex and is not based on any judgment concerning the donor’s sexual orientation,” the FDA says.
Wiener agrees the FDA’s guidelines should ensure “blood donors are not engaging in risky behaviors.” But he says the rule, currently more than 30 years old, should be changed to reflect “advances in health, awareness and screening practices.”
The FDA says tests for detecting HIV infection are “highly accurate, but still cannot detect HIV 100 percent of the time.” A person can carry the virus shortly after infection, “but may not have enough virus or have developed sufficient antibodies to be detected by available tests,” the FDA says.
In June 2010, a government advisory committee met to discuss the FDA’s MSM (Men who have sex with men) deferral policy, and voted to maintain the existing policy. But the committee identified areas for further research. The research will address four questions, one of which is whether an “alternative screening strategy for MSM (and potentially other high-risk donors)” would “assure blood safety.”
A separate measure sponsored by Wiener and passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last month gives developers an incentive to build more affordable housing units. If a developer designates 20 percent of the units in a building as affordable, that 20 percent will not count toward the density limit of the project. As a result, developers won’t have to reduce the number of units sold at market rate as they build affordable units.
“Today we’re creating a path to build more badly needed affordable housing in our city,” the supervisor said. “Given our severe housing crisis, we need to act now.”
Under current law, developers are required to designate as little 12 percent of units as affordable. And developers have the option of paying a fee to the City rather than including on-site units in a housing project. Wiener hopes the new law will prompt developers to build more units on-site rather than paying the fee.
“There will no longer be a tension between producing affordable and market-rate units,” a press release from Supervisor Wiener’s office says. The new law goes into effect August 25.
Chain Store Restrictions
A third measure sponsored by Supervisor Wiener imposes interim zoning controls in the Castro neighborhood. Under the controls, which last 18 months, chain stores that plan to open shop in the neighborhood cannot sidestep the City’s chain store rules by removing one or more of the store’s distinguishing features. The rules require chain stores to get an approval from the Planning Commission to open.
An effort by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation to set up shop in the Castro seems to have prompted the new controls, which are meant to close what some consider a loophole. The foundation, which calls itself “the largest provider of HIV/AIDS medical care in the United States,” planned to alter it’s name, some say, to get around chain store rules.
“This is really about changing the name of the organization,” said Castro/Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association President Alan Beach-Nelson. Adding that AHF just tried to change their name to game the system. Pat Tura, president of the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association and Andrea Aiello, executive director of the Castro / Upper Market Community Benefit District agreed with Beach-Nelson’s assessment.
AHF did not respond to calls asking for a comment. The measure passed the full Board July 8 and was signed by Mayor Ed Lee July 18. It goes into effect August 18.
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Revelers enjoy the company at Up Your Alley Fair on Sunday, July 27. Up Your Alley Fair was formerly known as the Dore Alley Fair or simply Dore Alley, because, local legend has it, years ago Dore Alley between Howard and Folsom, was a popular and notorious South of Market cruising and hook-up location. After a start in 1985, this insider leather and fetish San Francisco event has been at its current location at Folsom and Dore since 1987. Under the aegis of the much larger Folsom Street Fair organization, Up Your Alley is also known as Folsom Street Parade’s “Dirty Little Brother.”
Photo: Bill Sywak
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The Cove has been a neighborhood institution for over 40 years.
If a well-intentioned tourist were to stop you on one of the wide new sidewalks and ask you where the Cove on Castro was, what would you say? First of all, there’s no body of water much less a cove anywhere near Castro and Market. Secondly, the modest storefront with two tables in the windows is almost lost, looking demurely out on the sidewalk and across busy Castro Street to the Castro Theater. Even for residents, it can be hard to spot.
Perhaps that’s because this breakfast-lunch-and-dinner cafe, with Norwegian roots, has been family owned and operated since 1971. That’s when the current owner, Solange Darwish, accidently met her future husband and wound up buying the place, eventually becoming a full owner only eight years ago.
What makes the Cove special is that it has become an image of home for decades of Castro history. Upon entering and watching the three large flat screens continuously screening different stills and video clips of major events and just plain daily life in the Castro over nearly fifty years, customers encounter a sense of authentic San Francisco history. The content is changed regularly and when done, given over to the LGBT Historical Museum to add to its collection.
What keeps this all a special community is still Solange and her dedicated staff, several of whom have been at the Cove over fifteen and even twenty years. You might get Richard as your server, or Alberto, or Scotty, or Annie or Derek. In this era of impersonal and disposable staff, the crew at the Cove always make customers (shall we call them guests?) feel at home, in many cases their second home here in the Castro.
According to Solange (her name is Egyptian, by the way), years ago customers started bringing in their 8-by-10 photos to decorate the walls, pictures of Castro happenings like the Bare Chest Contests, Pride Parades and Pink Saturday spectacles and more. “It just exploded,” she says, and pretty soon there was no more room for the pictures.
The very special fact about all this is that Solange’s customers felt a genuine neighborhood pride and attachment to the Cove, such that the video monitors were all donated by loyal customers and kept fresh by yet other customers who downloaded each video onto DVDs and maintained the flow of content.
Oh, and did I mention that the Cove is also a restaurant? Besides absorbing all the history and, for many an old timer, feelings of nostalgia every time the face of a familiar friend pops up on a screen, the Cove has a generous menu of breakfast choices. More than that, weekend brunch is one of their specialties, as is their homemade soup. Lunch and especially dinner entrees, which are served all day, fit in the current American comfort-food mainstream, another reason why including the Cove on a visitor’s tour of the Castro can be a wise choice.
The Cove is located at 434 Castro St., directly across the street from the Castro Theatre.
Photo: Bill Sywak
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Castro Community Patrol: Keeping the Peace and the Fun
Attracted by a phalanx of fit men dressed in shiny orange, walking down past my street to the Castro on a weekend night, I discovered that they were members of the Castro Community Patrol, yet another layer in the public safety pyramid protecting us all. The Castro Patrols have been going since 2006, with their 8th anniversary coming up in November.
To look into this more, I went online. Those interested in the details or the possibility of volunteering can visit the Patrol’s Facebook and web pages, which are regularly updated. I joined a team of three specially trained volunteers as they made their rounds in the Castro on a Friday evening.
San Francisco is an amazing place because of the layers of police protection, nowhere more than in the Castro. The official “Community Safety Model” has the police department at the top, followed a layer down by the paid security of the Patrol Specials who contract with and provide special services to neighborhood businesses. Next are the “trained public,” volunteers from all walks of life who serve as trained public safety volunteers, followed below by an “informed public” and the great mass that is us all, “the public.”
Community Safety Model
The “Community Safety Model” is a highly useful protocol within which individuals have their designated responsibilities and initiatives. Formal responsibility rests at the top where you would expect it: the friendly officers of the SFPD, the legal-beagles of the District Attorney’s office, the ticket-wielders of the CHP, the sleuths of the FBI, and our new friends from Homeland Security, the TSA specialists (Transportation Safety Administration).
What the folks in bright orange are mostly concerned with are local residents who are formally trained and involved in organizations like Neighborhood Watch. The next layer down are those of us who hopefully make up an informed public, who take fewer risks and communicate and model good safety practices. What the patrols most often have to deal with are ‘the unprepared” people. These are the most likely to be victims and to complain about safety but the least likely to help. Got it? Now we’re ready to go out.
On this particular Friday what the Castro patrollers found were several instances of mostly young people, alone or with a friend or two, who had overdosed on one substance or another, typically alcohol or some drug combination.
The model they follow is to provide a visible safety presence and to function as witnesses. They ask the person in distress and/or their friends what’s wrong and how they can help. The patrollers are very aware of people’s rights and what’s legal behavior and what is not. If it’s a medical situation, they may call 911 or refer the situation to the regular police. If appropriate, they may ask the affected person if they want the patroller to call a cab or friend. If the person says no or just wants to be left alone, the patroller will comply as long as there is no emergency. In any case, the patroller will note the incident in her or his log book and usually will check back later in the evening to see how the person fared.
A lot of what Castro patrollers do is build relationships and get to know people in the neighborhood. Besides being the upbeat and optimistic people I observed, getting to know neighborhood residents is something that seems to come easy to these volunteer officers. Besides the fairly obvious and flamboyant characters in a neighborhood, patrol members learn who and what type of behavior to look out for. In addition, there is an easy collegiality and cooperation with the SFPD beat officers patrolling the Castro from Mission Station, which is where the Castro is located.
The Castro team is led by Greg Carey, Chief of the Castro Patrol, who is also Chair of the Patrol Directors Board. Ken Craig is Chief of Community Patrol USA, which helps other neighborhoods establish safety patrols beyond the Castro. Ken is also Deputy Chief of Castro Patrol and Director of volunteer training and emergency services liaison (that means he gets to wear a starched white shirt with badges amidst all the orange). The core group is rounded out by Brian Hill, a Director Patroller with Castro Patrol and Director of volunteer recruitment.
Several weekends ago they had a lot of ambulance calls, medical calls they told me. But they said that they never know what they will face. All of a sudden quiet nights can turn very busy and crowded nights can go smoothly with no assistance needed. Usually the demand for their services in the Castro is more medical than criminal.
The Castro patrollers also make regular tours of the parking lots on 18th Street and behind the Castro Theater, prime areas for auto break-ins. In addition, they find more crime in business areas than in residential spaces and give particular attention to the streets from Eureka to Sanchez and 19th to Duboce Street.
Another piece of information I picked up is now that Apple has installed automatic shutoffs in most phones, there has been a big drop in thefts of phones and the too often accompanying physical assaults and snatchings and victim injuries.
Under agreement with the City and County of San Francisco, Castro Community On Patrol (CCOP) is limited to patrolling only in the Castro and Duboce Triangle neighborhoods, in exchange for an annual grant to cover expenses. Patrollers do get involved, however, in supporting over 40 events that community organizations put on annually. These include many familiar activities like the Castro CBD concerts in Jane Warner Plaza, the Easter Party of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Pink Saturday, the Castro Street Fair, the SF Frontrunners PRIDE run in Golden Gate Park, self-defense seminars at MAGNET, marching in the Pride parade with members of the San Francisco Police Officers Pride Alliance and so on.
Volunteers work together as a team of 3 or 4 and in concert with SFPD police on patrol and with the Patrol Specials. The Castro Patrol is always looking to recruit volunteers and has a training session every two months, on a weekend and Saturday evening. Volunteers have to be trained and recertified every two years.
The Castro patrollers work with victims of crime and help them as they move through the judicial system. Ken keeps a weekly criminal activity report and has special responsibility for running Community Patrol USA as well. Overall the goals of the patrol are to have no more burglary break-ins and to realize their motto of “Stop the Violence,” creating in the Castro a safe place.
“Stop the Violence” and “Castro Business Watch” Programs
Before leaving this special report, readers should be aware of businesses participating in the “Stop the Violence” program and the “Castro Business Watch” program. The first is a joint project of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (SPI), Castro Community on Patrol (CCOP) and CommunityPatrolUSA. In brief, businesses agree to offer a safe haven for victims of crime, call 9-1-1 and seek police or medical help for someone needing assistance, and provide emotional or physical assistance to victims until professional responders arrive. Business Watch is similar but is designed specifically to connect businesses with the neighborhood together. Currently there are 38 businesses participating.
Photo: Bill Sywak
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Sketchfest hits the Castro Theatre
Comedians Cole Stratton, David Owen and Janet Varney will be part of the comedy event in mid-August, which will feature the 15th anniversary of screening of Mike Judge’s Office Space with special guest Stephen Root (Milton).
San Francisco’s beloved SF Sketchfest heads to the Castro Theatre on August 16th and 17th, hosting a full weekend of movie comedies and performances. I spoke with Cole Stratton, who along with Janet Varney and David Owen co-founded SF Sketchfest in 2001.
SF Sketchfest holds it’s major annual festival during the winter, but this month you’ll be having a weekend of events at the Castro Theatre - The SF Sketchfest Summer Social. Let’s start by talking about Saturday night, when you’ll be hosting the 15th Anniversary Screening of Office Space, with Stephen Root [Milton] as your special guest that night. In terms of Stephen Root’s appearance, what do you have planned?
There’ll be [a] pre-movie introduction with Stephen. After we screen the film he’ll come back out and we’ll do a 20ish minute conversation. Then we’ll open it up to audience questions. It’ll be fun.
Earlier in the day, to start things off, you’re showing The Muppet Movie, at 11 a.m.
Yeah, we thought it’d be fun to do something during the morning ‘cause we have the Castro for the full day, that could be family oriented. We love The Muppet Movie, and it happens to be the 35th anniversary of it. Dave Goelz, who is the original puppeteer and voice for Gonzo, became a friend of the festival; he’s done a couple of other events at the Castro, so we immediately thought about seeing if he’s around; he lives in the Bay Area. He was into it so we’ll be doing [an] interview with him. We’re gonna talk about the process of being Gonzo and other Muppet stuff, whatever the audience wants to ask him. It’s not often shown on the big screen, so it’ll be fun to see that at the Castro.
Oh, definitely. Later that afternoon, at 4:20PM, SF Sketchfest will be presenting The Benson Movie Interruption with Doug Benson.
We’ve done it the last two SF Sketchfests with Doug. He does these all over the country, different movies, where he sits in the front row with a bunch of surprise comics with microphones and they make fun of the movie while it’s playing. It’s really funny. The last two Sketchfests he’s done the first two Twilight movies, so this is the third twilight movie, so kind of keeping the tradition. Eventually he’ll do all five! Those movies are terrible and right for being made fun of.
I’m unfamiliar with the Twilight movies; what are they about?
The Twilight movies are based on young adult novels by Stephanie Meyer that are about teenage vampires and werewolves, and they’re really cheeseball. It’s all really silly, but it takes itself very seriously; it’s total teen dramedy so it really lends itself to being made fun of. They’re a worldwide sensation; the books were huge and all of the movies have made a bijillion dollars at the box office. They’re usually over-long and over-stuffed, so it’s a bit of a marathon to get through ‘em sometimes, but Doug and his guests will make it a lot easier!
I’ll bet! To close out the festival on Sunday, from Portlandia and Saturday Night Live, you have Fred Armisen at the Castro. That night won’t include a movie; that will be all his live comedy performance; is that right?
Yeah, it’s gonna be a combination of things. First he’s gonna open for himself as his British alter-ego, Ian Rubbish, who’s kind of a sendup of the seventies and eighties British rockers like Johnny Rotten. He actually plays passable punk rock on guitar with a band; all the songs are very tongue-in-cheek and funny. He’ll do a set with his band as Ian Rubbish and then come back out and do some standup, and then a conversation and a Q&A and some other bits. It’s gonna be a big hodgepodge of live performance; it’ll be really, really funny.
Have you done events at the Castro Theatre before?
We’ve been doing events there during the festival proper, or in the summer, for at least five or six years. It’s our favorite place to use. It’s such a magnificent, historical movie palace, and one of the few standalone movie screens really anywhere anymore. It’s amazing that it’s a landmark, and it keeps going, and it’s so fabulous.
SF Sketchfest, has also been going strong for a long time, with your first production having been in 2002, and you co-founded the festival, yes?
Yeah, the three off us who co-founded it still run it: me, Janet Varney, and David Owen. We bring on a staff come festival time proper to run it, but it’s still very grassroots and it’s curated with love for comedy. We’ll be going into our 14th year in January and it’s just gotten bigger and bigger every year, but it still has that really intimate kind of appeal between an audience and a performer. The performers love it; they call it Comedy Summer Camp, even though it takes place in the winter, ‘cause they all get to come out and hang around with each other and go to each others shows, and really have a good time. The San Francisco audiences are so great, so smart and appreciative, that they just love performing here.
Yes, and you’re so right, the festival has grown so much, in terms of the size and at how many venues, but a common thread throughout all of this is that from the very early years you really attracted pretty major names in comedy.
Yeah. The first year was just six local sketch groups, one of which the three of us were in, and it just kinda started as a reason to have a place for all of us to perform. The next year we went to a bigger venue and managed to get Fred Willard and three of the four Upright Citizen’s Brigade members to come and do some shows. Year three Fred Armisen came for the first time. Every year we would just write letters to these people, or email them, or knew people who knew them. They were all great enough to take a chance on us when we were all starting out and learning what we were doing. They had a good time so they told their friends, and they came, and that kind of thing. It’s blown up just out of good intentions and comedy. I think that’s why it’s managed to stay the way it has, despite the fact that it’s grown in scope and size throughout the years.
Which is great, and it seems that comedy is seeing such a resurgence now too.
That’s for sure. It’s a great time for comedy, and for anything that is culty or nerdy now that it’s kinda cool to like nerdy stuff, stuff that you grew up with that wasn’t necessarily cool for you to like when you were in high school. It’s a great time for that!
It is and it’s wonderful that everybody wants to be involved; it’s a tribute to the integrity of what you do, and you’re expanding what you do.
For the last few years, including this one, SF Sketchfest has co-curated The Barbary at Outside Lands.
This is our third year doing it and [we] co-curate it along with Another Planet Entertainment who put on the entire festival. It’s a matter of coming up with stuff that we think will work in there. The Barbary’s a very interesting structure; it’s a big wooden tent that seats about 400 and it’s a really cool, fun venue to be in. Every year we manage to fill it up with eclectic programming that works in there and makes it a really good destination during the festival. It’s great fun.
It’s great that you’re a part of Outside Lands, obviously a major music destination, and you’ll also be bringing some of your comedy performances to music venues like The Independent, which of course is quite close to the Castro.
Yeah, we try to do this because we have a massive festival that happens January and February, but we still want to program stuff periodically throughout the year. It’s fun to pepper a handful of events throughout the year so we can constantly bring people through and there are also a lot of other people who would love to do the festival, but just can’t timing-wise ‘cause they’re shooting a show or a movie during that time, but have a break in the summer and would like to come up and do something. It gives us a chance to program them someplace, and The Independent’s one of the venues that is a really cool spot to use in addition to the Castro. We try to maintain a presence throughout the year, so people don’t forget about us! (laughs)
I understand that you're currently taking submissions for the 2015 Sketchfest that's gonna be happening January/February.
Yeah. We usually open [it] up in the middle of summer and we keep it open until early/mid-October. Anyone who wants to perform at the festival can submit online, whether it's standup or sketch or improv or a podcast or a musical comedy act or a short sketchy play. Pretty much the only rule is that it's comedy. people submit whatever it is with a demo video and we check it out. we program quite a few up and coming, emerging sketch groups and standups, which is great, 'cause a lot of those people down the line end up blowin' up, and we're excited that they get to play Sketchfest early in their career. We do get a lot of applications every year, a couple hundred. We take as many as we can and try to make it a fun atmosphere for everybody.
It's always fun when you see them get to be part of a major event for the first time.
And we have these big parties, every Friday, Saturday, Sunday night, at the end of the show. It's a fun combination of insanely famous, big comedians hobnobbing with some guy that's in a three person sketch group from Michigan. It ends up being an amazing experience for them and a lot of them end up pursuing a career in comedy that might not have thought about it, but now do, because they see that it's possible, if they work hard and come up with something good, that then one day they'll maybe one day they'll be the big comedian hobnobbing with the new generation.
How did you yourself get your start in comedy, and aside from SF Sketchfest, what are you involved with now? For a start I know you've got a really popular podcast called 'Pop My Culture'.
I grew up in Michigan as a kid and we got to Davis, which is nearish to San Francisco. I was encouraged to do comedy at an early age; I took improv classes when I was 12, so I always had an interest in it. Then in college I formed Totally False People, along with Dave and Janet, and this other guy Gabe. That was the sketch group and the festival came out of that. I've always done improv in some way, shape, or form. I moved to Los Angeles; that's where I currently reside, but sort of split time 'cause I go up to San Francisco quite often. [I] started the podcast about four years ago with Vanessa Ragland, who is someone I do improve with here in LA a lot. We have very different energy, very good chemistry together, and started interviewing lots of funny, famous comedians and actors. We're really big pop culture nerds so it just seemed like the thing to do. The podcast kind of blew up, and it's part of the Nerdist Network and we were named one of the 10 best podcasts by Rolling Stone and Paste Magazine. It's just cool 'cause it's a labor of love. So now i just reside in LA and work on the festival and the podcast and do improv and some acting and really just try to keep comedy in my life at all times.
Photo courtesy of Jakub Mosur