Public Comment

Meleé at the Gaia Building

By Dorothy Bryant
Wednesday February 11, 2009 - 07:17:00 PM

When I read Riya Bhattacharjee’s account of yet another incident at the Gaia Building (Feb. 5-11 edition) I had one of those old-geezer “in-my-day” moments. I was born with the Great Depression, and grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District. My parents, Italian immigrants with strict traditions on the rearing of daughters, did not allow me to date, but I was allowed, at 14 or 15, in the last year of World War II, to attend cheap, well-advertized public dances with half a dozen other girls. We walked about a mile (from Army Street, now Caesar Chavez) and crossed Market Street, to Civic Auditorium, then not much more than a vast barn-like dance floor with a stage filled by whatever “big band” was in town. Hundreds of teenagers from every corner of the city converged on Civic Auditorium. I danced with strangers or stood in the clapping, stomping circles that gathered around the best (usually black or hispanic) jitterbuggers. There were probably some discreetly pocketed pints of whiskey in some boys’ zootsuit pockets, but no noticeable drunkenness. There was probably police presence, but we hardly aware of it in all the noise and excitement. If the place became filled to capacity, I never heard of any problem turning people away. At about ten, as ordered by our parents, our group of girls walked back home together through the Mission’s dark streets, quite assured, as our strict parents were, of our safety in numbers. 

We occasionally crashed one of the huge Italian or Irish wedding receptions held at Slovonian Hall on Potrero Hill. We were tolerated, provided for, almost expected. We danced, sampled the buffet, asked each other “who got married? Do you know him? Neither do I.” Then we congratulated someone who knew someone who knew the bride and went home. 

My first awareness of less benign mass dances or party crashers came in the 1960s (by that time living in the East Bay), when I had to break up my daughter’s birthday party, invaded by rude total strangers. Fortunately, I always stayed home for my teenagers’ parties, and my tearful daughter was glad of it. Even more fortunately, it was still effective for a parent to say “Out!” to intruders and to be obeyed. 

I was already out of touch with these concerns when the magic of Woodstock degenerated into the hell of Altamont. Recently a young parent I know described elaborate precautions and rescue plans he follows when his daughter attends a legitimate, licensed, mass, paid dance/concert. 

What has happened to the concept of “having fun?” Please! Let’s not start by blaming parents. I know from experience that the power of parents to enforce rules has eroded year by year almost to the vanishing point. Blaming parents is always easier than supporting them in any public or official way. And let’s not say we were more “innocent” or “nicer” or “mannerly” in the “good old days.” We were not. I can only say guns and cars were rare, knives carried for show but seldom used, hard drugs unknown to even the tough kids in my group. 

Furthermore, I won’t suggest that wartime San Francisco was an innocent, scenic, bucolic backwater with a couple of beautiful new bridges, as portrayed in the media. It was full of sailors far from home, waiting to be sent to die on some godforsaken South Pacific island; full of war workers of every ethnicity, from every state, and Mexico. The Mission had had gang presence for as far back as anyone could remember. (I was luckily immune from hassle because my best girlfriend’s boyfriend was a gang member—a fact I decided my parents didn’t need to know.) The City’s potential for violence was proven by the lethal riots that “celebrated” the August 1945 surrender of Japan. I was on Market Street on that black day of San Francisco history, and I fled home as fast as I could. 

So, I ask again, what has changed to make Friday night a time when any occasion, public, semi-public, or private can become a target for violent invaders? What has changed the definition of “having fun?” 

I wish some people smarter than I am would put their minds to this question. I think we have to answer it before we can talk about solutions. 


Dorothy Bryant is a Berkeley writer.