San Francisco's Maritime Hall Faces Closure

Concert venue for diverse artists, from Public Enemy to Willie Nelson, may have permits suspended.

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco's Maritime Hall — where rappers Public Enemy, soul godfather James Brown, country titan Willie Nelson and bluesman John Lee Hooker have headlined shows — is in danger of being shuttered by local police.

The San Francisco Police Department is threatening the Maritime, the Bay Area's largest independent concert venue, with a six-month/180-day suspension of operating permits for alleged patron violations that include loitering and drug use.

In the five years since it opened, the Maritime has rivaled dominant SFX/Bill Graham Presents venues the Fillmore and the Warfield as host to the city's most diverse lineup of artists. Shows have featured everything from hip-hop, heavy metal and reggae to jam rock, hardcore punk, country, funk, blues and DJ competitions.

The action against the Maritime is the latest in a string of police crackdowns on nightclubs in the city's South of Market neighborhood. Maritime manager and co-founder Boots Hughston said it's a "parting shot" from ex-SFPD Southern Station Captain Dennis Martel, who was recently transferred to the San Francisco airport. Hughston believes the hall is being targeted because it hosts hip-hop shows and raves.

"A couple days before he left, [Martel] hit us with an administrative action against all of our permits," Hughston said. "He bases this on 22 complaints over five years. These are police reports — nothing that was ever brought to court. No violent crime, no huge drug busts, no nothing.

"Over that five-year period of time, we've had over 600 shows, about 1,000 people per show, roughly 600,000 people. ... It doesn't seem like a reason for them to give us a hard time."

High-Crime Area

Hughston said that 18 of the 22 complaints were filed by patrons who had been ejected from shows for disorderly conduct or cigarette smoking.

He believes the venue is being unfairly blamed for all crime in the surrounding blocks, despite the area's large homeless population and the presence of the Apostleship of the Sea, which provides temporary housing for recent parolees from nearby San Quentin prison and is located one block from the hall.

SFPD spokesperson Dewayne Tully said that in January, the police department recorded 34 reports of aggravated assault, 43 robberies, 58 burglaries, 134 thefts from vehicles, 36 stolen vehicles, one homicide and four rapes in the Southern District, which includes South of Market. Charges against the hall include over-occupancy and littering, in addition to loitering and drug use by patrons. Two members of the audience were arrested for marijuana use in a police raid during a Crash Worship show.

Clubs Vs. Dot Coms?

A few complaints about noise and littering have been filed with the police by neighbors, most of whom moved into new high-rent living spaces built in the five years since the venue opened its doors. Hughston said he had received no notice of any such complaints, adding that the hall had, in fact, been praised by the president of the neighborhood association.

An early-1990s city plan sought to concentrate San Francisco's nightlife in the South of Market area. Since then, the proliferation of new money from the dot-com startups and other technology-based companies snatching up office and living spaces in the city has caused a rapid shift to a multi-use neighborhood, where residential, office, industrial and entertainment interests coexist.

"Three or four years ago, they tried to shut down all these clubs that had hip-hop shows, and that's why you don't see any more hip-hop shows," said rapper Sunspot Jones, 25, of Bay Area hip-hop group the Mystic Journeymen.

"The police really have a problem with people speaking out, and the

Maritime is a place where a lot of young people come to hear people

speaking out," Jones said. "They know it's a safe spot. There's no big place in San Francisco that draws everybody like the Maritime."

The Maritime is the ninth on a list of 12 South of Market nightclubs targeted for permit revocation, Hughston said. Venues that have already been shut down or targeted for suspension include the Endup, the Trocadero, 1015 Folsom, the Covered Wagon and the Sound Factory.

'Organized Effort To Eliminate The Nightclubs'

"I think there was an organized effort to eliminate the nightclubs in the South of Market," Hughston said.

"We have met with many members of the community in South of Market, and we also listened to the concerns of the club owners," Ron Vinson, a spokesperson for Mayor Willie Brown, said. "The police department has been working with the community, but there are laws and there are regulations that everyone needs to abide by."

"We're following the rules, we have after-hours permits, we're not doing anything wrong," Hughston said, noting that the mayor had attended a James Brown concert at the hall. "They do not want hip-hop shows, they do not want raves. ... We have the First Amendment right to free speech, which means that we can play whatever darn kind of music we want to, so long as it doesn't hurt anybody."

The Maritime's permit suspension awaits a hearing on April 5.