The big white bus that brought the “Brand Ambassadors” to Alabama Street.
All my best “sightings” of the socially extroverted, yet publicly reticent tech/VC culture descending on the East Mission have been on 22nd street, and almost always at inconvenient moments. On July 21st, as I was carrying a backpack full of vegetables, I saw a white bus moving hesitantly up the street like a wayward whale, the kind that ends up stuck in the Delta. It seemed confused, and I realized why. The driver was preparing to make a left hand turn onto Alabama Street.
It teetered as it pivoted, almost hitting an SUV, and barely clearing the corner. Alabama street started life as Columbia street before the city changed its name in 1881 (there were three streets named Columbia). It is modestly sized owing to its age, and dates back to the early days of the Mission when nothing larger than a draft horse pulling a dray moved through the streets.
After regaining its balance, the bus stopped in front of 930 Alabama Street and discharged its contents: a stream of men wearing suits, and one woman, a willowy blonde, who had glossy, perfectly styled hair. She regarded her surroundings dreamily, looking as if she expected a photographer to spring out of the bushes as she descended from the white bus that had brought her, a photogenic woman, into the equally photogenic space of 930 Alabama Street.
Prior to about 2016, nothing much happened in the small warehouse. The lot was owned by a machinist named Henry Fletcher in 1909. The family of James Nelson Crawford, a loyal union member of the Varnishers and Polishers Union, Local 134, had his wake inside after he died in 1913. Adolph V. Reyna started the Reyna Electrical Works which occupied the warehouse until at least the late 70’s.
The sensor probe that Reyna Electric Works, 930 Alabama Street, San Francisco helped build.
Things are considerably more exciting at 930 Alabama these days. The latest occupant is a community centre (their spelling, not mine)/event space calling itself the “HERE Collective”. Self-described as “non-obnoxious” on their Facebook page, they’re annoying their neighbors. Three complaints have been filed with the Department of Building Inspections, charging the non-obnoxious collective with playing amplified music and carrying on in a manner unbecoming to the peace of Alabama Street.
In the weirdly abbreviated language of departmental reports, the DBI has officially decided that some sort of unacceptable usage-switcheroo has taken place. “WORK W/O PERMIT; ILLEGAL CHANGE OF USE” blares the finding on the violation record, adding “They are holding a week-long “pop up” store for Jack Daniels Whiskey.”
They certainly were. The people who stepped out of the bus were wholesalers and “brand ambassadors” there to check out the Jack Daniel’s “pop-up store” which was the warehouse itself. It had been covered in black, the color of outlaws, rule breakers: all the edgy types. “Jack Daniels Lynchburg, General Store” was written in white script on the wall. Inscribed on the other wall was a warning. “One Week Only” (maybe this was meant to be reassuring?) The people from the bus flowed in.
I ran home, dumped my veggies, ran back and tried to walk inside, but was courteously stopped by a rotund man wearing a black vest over a snazzy pinstripe oxford shirt. He asked to see my ID.
“Bless your heart,” I said winningly. “I don’t have it with me. I’m a neighbor. What are you guys doing?”
“We’re here for a week, telling the story of Jack Daniels,” he told me.
“I love Jack Daniels!” I exclaimed (this isn’t a lie. I drink Jack Daniels with my mother and enjoy it.) “Can I come in?”
“Sure,” he said. “We’re not selling any alcohol inside though.” San Francisco’s tight liquor laws had kept the pop-up dry, just like the hometown of the distillery, Lynchburg, which is located in a dry county. Another staff person explained what was in store for me, once I got inside. There were souvenirs, seminars on whiskey-making, and, most exciting, a virtual reality tour of the actual Jack Daniels distillery.
I walked inside. A trio was playing. People milled around looking at wooden whiskey barrels, or stood indecisively before display counters. One counter, which was set up with pastries and empty boxes of Jack Daniels cake, had a chalk-written cursive hand sign hanging over it. Miss Mary Bobo’s Bakery, it read. Only pastries for sale! A barber shop was tucked in the corner; a row of hats were carefully placed in a wall separator.
The atmosphere was relaxed and genial, half Frontierland and half Mission Street hipster bar, the type that sports a manly two-word name like Woodchuck Peppercorn or Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too. I half expected Justin Timberlake to amble in at any moment, leading his photogenic wife Jessica, and smiling in an easy southern way.
I made a beeline for the virtual reality tour of the town of Lynchburg. After the Disneyfied display of the ol’ south, the sight of the man sitting in a chair with goggles clamped to his face was jarring. He was tossing his head up and down like a nervous horse. What’s wrong with this guy, I wondered and then realized he was following the topography of the virtual road he was on, maybe one that was narrow, just like Alabama Street. Did they pick this location because of the Southern name? I wondered. I took a picture of him. The staffer overseeing the virtual reality station noticed me and walked over.
“Hey, there! Why don’t you take a virtual tour instead of just taking a picture?”
I smiled at him. He had a handsome head of strawberry blonde hair and a dimple in his chin. A nice guy.
“I like my reality straight up!” I replied. He chose not to notice my bad pun. It was okay for me to take pictures inside, he told me, but I had to hash tag them “so we can all share this experience!” He told me the hashtag.
“So, do you want to try the tour?”
I demurred. “I like real reality,” I said.
“Just reality for you, huh? Not even augmented reality?”
“Augmented reality? What’s that?”
He launched into his spiel. Augmented reality, he explained to me, could be any object that you see and use but isn’t really there. Kind of like a marketing campaign for a distillery with no actual alcohol, I wanted to say, but didn’t. I was glad they weren’t serving whiskey, and he was a nice guy who wasn’t being paid enough to deal with my snarky ass.
“Like a keyboard!” he said exuberantly and waggled his fingers. “You’ll use a keyboard that isn’t really there.” His name was Scott and he was a trained acrobat. “I lived in San Francisco for two years and then I went on tour with an off-Broadway production of Pippin,” he told me. After performing in ninety shows, he’d injured himself and had to quit the show. “I have stress fractures in my shoulder,” he said soberly. “I wasn’t able to do anything for two months. Not even plank position. That’s why I took this job. I knew I wouldn’t hurt my shoulder.”
He hadn’t been in a union and was suing the production company. “Sitting on a bus every day, doing ninety performances… it was grueling. You can’t heal with a schedule like that. I’ve been doing PT for two months. I just want them to cover my medical bills.”
I took a picture of Scott and his co-worker next to the Virtual Reality Sign. “Make sure you tag the pictures,” trilled his co-worker, a petite woman in her twenties. “Hashtag JBSFEHHW….” She rattled off a string of letters so quickly, that they ran like water from her mouth, empty and clear of meaning. I left.
In all fairness, corporations have always been in the Mission. I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels from Safeway last year. My neighbor Jose uses a Ford truck in his business as a house painter. Glass bottle of coke are stocked in the refrigerator at El Metate. But a publicly-traded, commercial distillery owned by a major corporation that makes billions of dollars every year doesn’t just pop-up. It has a business plan. Like Ford and its Go Bikes, which has been popping up all over the Mission (except 24th Street), the Brown-Forman Corporation, which owns Jack Daniels, is here by design, not to make, but to market.
The artfully crafted corporate pop-up was mining the grossly misunderstood “vibrant” culture of the Mission for product placement, which— contrary to popular belief—has never been a place where huge parties are thrown every night. The Mission I know was (and is?) residential and family-based. For most of its existence, people have mostly just lived here.
The Mission is open for business, all right, marketing business, not the hardworking business of making things, which was the concern of the place for more than a century. What kind of reality do those of us who live here want? I asked a friend of mine this question who lives around the corner. “Big alcohol conglomerates that don’t invade my neighborhood; that’s the reality I prefer to live in,” my friend replied tartly.
The woman who stepped out of the bus, and into the bewitching glamour of the Mission was responding to an idea, something that isn’t really there. An old warehouse, which once housed a company that designed electrical systems, was somehow more than that. With a coat of black paint, it became the Mission itself, as translated by a multi-billion dollar corporation: invitation-only (where’s your ID?) with a new business model, one that even as it manufactures vibrancy–the better to promote the Mission– threatens to shut it down.