A Roadmap to Intangible Heritage in San Francisco: The Legacy Businesses Program

By Brian Turner posted 07-31-2018 14:34


Editor's note: Intangible heritage will be one of the topics we explore at PastForward 2018 in San Francisco, November 13–16. Learn more and register today at PastForwardConference.org.

Local businesses are more than the hub of America’s economic engine. Everywhere from small towns to big cities, they create spaces to gather and connect, support local sports leagues, and provide teenagers their first jobs. They define the identity and values of neighborhoods and are just as much assets of our cultural heritage as the buildings they inhabit.

The preservation movement has traditionally been rather passive when it comes to the immaterial, or intangible, values of institutions. We have strong tools to save buildings, but the buildings’ users can be an afterthought, regardless of their contributions to the culture of the place.

Interior of Zeitgeist, a legacy business in San Francisco | Credit: Photo by duluoz cats licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The city of San Francisco is challenging this norm with the Legacy Business program. Its signature feature is a registry of designated longstanding local businesses. Qualifying businesses, including nonprofits, must be at least 30 years old, though businesses that face a “significant risk of displacement” can apply beginning up to a decade earlier. Notably, the program—which is a political response to the skyrocketing commercial rents posing unprecedented challenges to the city’s business tenants—is not regulatory. Instead, registered businesses receive promotional value; technical assistance; and eligibility for small grants, the funding for which San Francisco voters approved in 2015.

The Small Business Commission, on advice from a member of the City Board of Supervisors, designates businesses based on their (1) proven contributions to the history and identity of a neighborhood and (2) commitment to maintaining their defining physical features or traditions. The criteria do not ignore the material spaces that businesses occupy, but treats them as just one factor in determining cultural value. Agendas from past meetings of the commission feature the supporting documentation submitted by more than 140 businesses applying for the Legacy Business registry. These documents are key to understanding not only the businesses but also their role in the city’s communities, culture, and social history.

The Community Impact of Legacy Businesses

National Trust for Historic Preservation intern Devyani Aggarwal and I recently co-authored a paper about the Legacy Business program for the 6th International Conference on Heritage and Sustainable Development. We highlighted the Legacy Business program as the first of its kind in the United States and argues that it represents a meaningful shift in the city’s definition of heritage. The program is particularly valuable as a model for cities where rapidly accelerating land values have made it difficult for community-serving businesses to survive.

In anticipation of my presentation at the conference, which took place in Granada, Spain, last month, I toured my hometown of San Francisco to find out more about our Legacy Businesses and the roles they play in the community.

1. Precita Eyes Muralist Association: promoting muralism in the Mission since 1977.
Precita Eyes is a nonprofit community arts organization that promotes mural arts, a well-recognized tradition in the Mission District. The association’s application to become a Legacy Business documents its work with youth to bring vibrant art to the neighborhood. The group offers weekly tours on Saturdays and will be featured in a Field Study at PastForward 2018.

2. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory: a wholly San Francisco culinary tradition.

The Golden Gate Cookie Factory in San Francisco | Credit: Photo by Chase Chabot licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The fortune cookie was invented in San Francisco, and the city is still home to the last remaining factory that, tucked into one of Chinatown’s back alleys, is making the cookies in the traditional, hand-folded fashion. The Golden Gate factory’s application for the Legacy Business registry highlights that the building holds what are likely the last vintage machines that prepare the batter for folding. It’s hard to leave without a few gifts!

3. Zeitgeist: a beer garden needs sunlight

Curbd article about a recent planning decision to limit building heights around Zeitgeist. | Credit: Curbd.com

The taps at Zeitgeist (formerly the Rainbow Cattle Company) have been flowing since 1972, and its beer garden is electric even on the foggiest of summer days. I sat down with one of the bar’s owners, Laura Burmeister, to see how the Legacy Business designation is working out. “Every bit helps,” she said, referring to a small grant Zeitgeist received for fixing up the bar. She also explained that the designation played an important role in a recent Planning Commission decision to limit the height of a retail building across the street that would have otherwise shaded out part of the garden.

4. Dog Eared Books: a foothold of literary culture in the Mission.

Dog Eared Books in the Mission District of San Francisc | Credit: Photo by CTG/SF licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The October 3, 2016, Small Business Commission hearing featured a number of independent San Francisco bookstores vying for Legacy Business designation. Dog Eared Books had a particularly compelling argument for being listed: it was facing a steep rent increase at its prominent Mission district location. The bookstore met the criteria, and its registry designation proved effective in negotiations with the landlord, who has since extended its lease.

5. Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Café: a bohemian stronghold in North Beach.
Specs’ Legacy Business application is one of the most creative, a fitting representation of its role in sustaining the bohemian culture in North Beach. Its historical narrative includes photographs from birthday parties, a variety of letters of support, and art and poetry from longtime patrons of the quirky establishment—part bar, part museum. This institution has played a wholly unique role in shaping the neighborhood since 1968.

6. Joe’s Ice Cream: scoops and service.

Credit: Brian Turner

Stopping by Joe’s for a cone, I found a true slice of old school San Francisco. Its Legacy Business application emphasized its ongoing—since 1959—support for students in the multicultural Richmond District. Joe’s maintains a longstanding commitment to hiring neighborhood kids and offering coupons for academic performance. Joe’s is proud of its designation and even made its own sign! (The city is working on an official Legacy Business logo.)

7. Castro Country Club: offering hope, recovery, and love.
Formed in 1983 as a social alternative to gay bars, the Castro County Club, which was recently recognized in the city’s LGBTQ Historic Context Statement, continues to provide a clean and sober gathering place in the Castro neighborhood. Recognizing the disproportionate effect that alcoholism and drug addiction had had on the LGBTQ community, the club’s founders built a comforting space for recovery. Soon after its founding the club became a second home for people living with and impacted by AIDS. Its application contains a particularly moving letter of support in which member James Moore reflects on that important role:

“Many of the men I met in my first months and years at the Country Club did not survive the scourge of AIDS as it ravaged the gay community. The Club was ground zero for me, a place I sought recovery from drugs and alcohol, a place I sought solace from the incredible sense of loss, a place I sought soothing for the anger and hopelessness that seemed to crash upon me and my community over and over. Hope. Recovery. Love. Community. I found these things at the Castro Country Club.”

While the Legacy Businesses program is still in early stages, it is buzzing with potential. The applications alone present compelling evidence that businesses can survive for generations by embracing community-serving functions. These businesses also appeal to the cultural heritage tourist in search the ever-elusive “authenticity.” The program supports and preserves businesses that contribute something more than jobs and profit—that become the beacons of their neighborhoods’ identities.

Brian Turner is senior field officer and public lands attorney at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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