Heart of the City Archives

Burger Island: memories of Dirty Harry


A city fights the effects of gravity
by Hank Donat

Two new closings caught my eye in recent weeks. One was notable as the successor to a great cinema venue; the other was known for oatmeal cookies.

Burger Island, 695 Third Street near the ballpark, is no more. In the early '90s the restaurant was located across the street at 701 Third. That's where Clint Eastwood uttered the immortal words, "Go ahead, make my day," in Sudden Impact in 1983. The line was recently chosen as #6 among the American Film Institute's top 100 movie quotes. Clark Gable's "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," from Gone with the Wind, was #1.

This Dirty Harry venue was known as Tiger's at the time Sudden Impact was filmed there, and it's a McDonald's now, but don't bother to memorize any of this information. You'll never keep pace with a string of shuttered burger joints. RIP Burger Island.

Not to be out memorialized is the Pendragon Bakery, a fixture at 400 Hayes Street. No great Hollywood freeze frame there, but delicious oatmeal cookies made even more fabulous by memories of love and breakfast on the run.

I am not alone in my ongoing challenge to come to terms with changing San Francisco. I see others struggling with it all around me. Tenant organizations are denouncing the possible demolition of the Civic Center Hotel, 444 Market Street. The building is owned by the Plumber's Union, which says it would rather rebuild than retrofit. Activists smell another International Hotel incident. They aim to protect the seniors and people with AIDS among the 156 residents of the hotel. "We don't need more high-end housing. We need to maintain housing for all people, of all income levels," says activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca in an email.

In 1977, low-income residents and seniors were evicted by force from the International Hotel on Kearny Street. Today, there are greater resources and legal protections available for people who are displaced by development. An I-Hotel-style confrontation is unlikely as it becomes more difficult to convince the average City dweller that it's a bad idea to tear down a dump in order to build something better so long as existing tenants are provided with housing resources. To scorn development on its face is to ignore the basic question, "What do we do about gravity?" Or shall we wait for the Civic Center Hotel to fall down?

It's difficult to embrace the wrinkles of time in Botox Nation, but we do it all the time in San Francisco. Shonna Sinclair gives an excellent walking tour of Victorian architecture. Shonna can show you how some of our great houses were altered through the ages, not always for the better. Still, each is unique and most are beautiful.

Perhaps we're all looking for something permanent in a City that exists in a flash and then is gone. San Francisco is a flipbook of images sometimes so dazzling that you're not sure they were there at all except for the fact that you turned that corner at that time on that hill in that light. Likewise, the City is a flipbook of fleeting emotions. It is love on the run, not at all rare but still elusive, just like an instant.

A burger joint isn't permanent. Nor is a bakery, nor a bowling alley, nor a house, nor even a memory. It's likely that few have ever told San Francisco, "You don't need to be anything other than what you are right now." I'll say it now, just to be sure that someone does.

But there's no escaping gravity. On the surface it would seem that long-term renters are immune from gravity's toll on building maintenance. If the plumbing goes kaput or the siding falls off the house, call the landlord. Just like magic. But the Civic Center Hotel reminds us that the renter is ultimately not immune from this toll. Fortunately, we live in a City that cares about its low-income residents. If it did not, these residents would join others on the crowded Civic Center sidewalks.

Just today I received a press release announcing Mayor Gavin Newsom and Supervisor Tom Ammiano's legislation to ban sweat shops from San Francisco. That's good leadership. It's just the kind of leadership that will come in handy when San Francisco bridges the gap between the Plumber's Union and its tenants as we all fight the effects of gravity at home.

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Copyright 2005 Hank Donat
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