As various overhead signs and banners proudly proclaim, San Diego is parceled into distinct neighborhoods. Though separated physically by a matter of mere miles, some are-aesthetically and ideologically-worlds apart.
The Visitors Bureau-sanctioned ideal of San Diego-projected to the rest of the world by MTV Beach Houses and Playboy “Top Party School” lists-may well exist in Pacific Beach. But a wholly separate aura pervades much of the city, particularly in neighborhoods like North Park, Golden Hill, Hillcrest and their outlying areas.
Similarly, the mainstream success of a certain pop-punk band and its countless imitators has amplified a racket wrongfully pegged as our city's sound.
Those doubting San Diego has little more to offer than bronzed beauties, bleached-haired bros and blink-182 need only hit one of dozens of local venues to have their faith in the city's musical diversity-and the existence of a thriving Bohemian element-restored. Many of these venues are relatively new, and more are opening at an exhilarating rate. Most are surviving-thriving, even-and stand as testament to the fact that local music is more alive now than it's been in a long time.
Some peg the area between El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue in North Park as ground zero for this renaissance. In fact, the epicenter may well be at 3936 30th St., home of Scolari's Office.
Scolari's is an unlikely home of underground rock. Behind its purple façade lies a typical dive bar replete with the usual trappings-pool tables, cheap liquor, a devout crew of weathered daytime regulars and George Thorogood on the jukebox. But after about 10 p.m., the median age drops 40 years and rockers of all stripes pack the place to the rafters.
“About four years ago, George Scolari, the owner, was looking for a way to bring in more business, and I said, ‘Let's get some music in here,'” recalls nighttime bartender Freddy Pohr, the man responsible for booking music. Pohr started with rock and blues cover bands, but the idea really took off about two years later when Ben Johnson (of local band Tourette's Lautrec) suggested they start booking indie, punk and more modern acts.
“It really just blew up after that,” Pohr says.
Since then, many a local band has cut its teeth on Scolari's makeshift stage, and the bar has become an oasis for small, independent bands from all over. Years before they were on a world tour with No Doubt, the Faint brought their new wave to Scolari's.
“Local bands went out on the road or called friends in other cities and spread the word that Scolari's was a decent place to play,” Pohr says. “That's the really phenomenal thing-not just that the bar is sometimes so packed that we have to turn people away, but the fact that I have five or six messages on my answering machine from bands all over the country-even overseas-everyday.”
“From the beginning it was great,” says Corey Froschheuser of local band Vena Cava, who has helped book shows at Scolari's since it opened to punk bands. “Maybe 100 people showed up and the touring bands made like $100, because we usually give everything to the out-of-town bands. That's a great gig when you're on tour and nobody knows who you are.”
Chad Allen, frontman for the Redding, Calif. punk band The Kansas City Stars, concurs: “Scolari's has been our best show the last two tours. There's always a great turnout, the crowd is into it... everything about it is great.
“We look forward to our San Diego show now every time we tour.”
Patrons, musicians and bar employees agree that the success of Scolari's is based on a few simple premises. There's never a cover charge, drinks are cheap, bands are well paid, and people can count on live music Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
“It's a win-win-win situation,” says Vena Cava drummer Patrick Murray.
Furthermore, the crowd is receptive and generally friendly. Fights are rare and the hipper-than-thou air entirely too common at some venues is nonexistent.
Live music in North Park is not limited to Scolari's, nor to just those above legal drinking age. Down the street is Club Xanth. Though not as high-profile as other all-ages venues (Soma, The Scene), the 300-capacity club and coffeehouse hosts between seven and 10 shows a week, says booker Marc (who declined to give a last name).
Since owner J.J. Brawley opened the club in August 2000, it has hosted big-name acts like Youth Brigade, The Adicts, Calvin Johnson and The Mission UK. Like most North Park venues, however, the focus at Xanth is mainly on the underground.
“We've hosted some national and international acts, but smaller bands have been our focus since the beginning,” Marc says. “And, no matter what, they will always be.”
Other North Park venues include Claire de Lune Coffehouse (2906 University Ave.), which sometimes offers acoustic acts, and North Park Deli and Coffee (3823 30th St.). Live Wire (2103 El Cajon Blvd.) used to host bands regularly until, according to co-owner Sam Chammas, a neighbor's complaints forced them to stop.
Chammas is a strong supporter of local and independent music. Just down the street in the South Park section of Golden Hill, Chammas books local music at his other bar, The Whistle Stop (2236 Fern St.). He suggests the success of these venues goes beyond the practical (no cover) and into the philosophical.
“The whole D.I.Y. [do it yourself] ethic is so strong in the local scene,” he says. “Why wait two months to get a show at a big rock club when you can book your own show at a neighborhood bar, taco shop or tunnel?”
Proximity, he says, is also an issue. Since many of the bars' patrons live in the vicinity, a short cab ride is preferable to a DUI.
The patrons of these low-profile rock clubs usually are locals. North Park is still rough around the edges-seen by some as a less-gentrified version of neighboring Hillcrest-and it's exactly this characteristic that appeals to residents. While renters often pay an exorbitant amount for an apartment in Hillcrest, the same cost can get you a two- or three-bedroom Craftsman-built home or bungalow a few blocks east.
With the Live Wire, Chammas saw firsthand how an attractive nightspot adds to a community.
“Our section of El Cajon Boulevard circa 1992 was a mess of prostitutes, teenage gangs, graffiti, petty thefts and car break-ins,” he says. “Many store fronts and buildings were vacant and boarded up, including Live Wire.
“We came in and opened up a clean bar with nice style and it got a lot of press as a popular night spot with good people. Hookers, drug dealers and crooks don't like attention from people that don't like what they're doing. That helped eliminate the seedy element.”
Chammas' approximation of the area a decade ago is in line with how many once viewed North Park as a whole. Once a retail and entertainment center, the area suffered greatly as those who used to frequent it changed their focus to other parts of town. But few will argue that the community's situation is on the upswing once again.
“It's definitely getting better,” says Pohr, who downplays the impact of his own establishment. “There's awesome things going on all over North Park now, and though I'm sure some of the businesses around us have been positively affected by our success, I don't think our bar alone is responsible for that.”
Jay Turner, executive director of North Park Main Street, more openly lauds the efforts of Scolari's and similar venues. His organization is charged with the revitalization of the University Avenue business corridor. Their larger goal is improving the neighborhood as a whole.
“Arts, culture and entertainment are a definite spur towards revitalization efforts,” he says. “And a healthy nightlife is essential. It makes us alive. It brings in 20- and 30-somethings from Solana Beach, the South Bay, Mexico and all over.”
Turner cites the work of Richard Florida, an authority on regional economic development and author of The Rise of the Creative Class, as a mod. Florida believes the social class consisting of artists, young people and gays and lesbians are inquisitive enough to discover the potential of new areas before others do. Turner feels North Park and other “first-rung” outlying areas of downtown present a working model of this concept.
“North Park retains a certain alternative flavor in that businesses include skateboard companies, cool bars, tattoo and piercing parlors, music stores and coffee shops that appeal to a certain type of people,” he says. “Furthermore, while some communities seem to struggle with diversity, North Park is just naturally diverse-wonderfully so-and it doesn't present any problems.”
Turner's vision of a revitalized North Park is inclusive: “From the beginning, we want to build everybody in,” he says.
Turner says his organization plans to meet with a number of successful club owners from downtown, with the hopes that they consider North Park as a site for future endeavors. He also points to the refurbishment of the North Park Theater, which is scheduled to open in 2005.
“It will be a performing arts venue,” he says. “Though the effort is spearheaded right now by the Lyric Opera of San Diego, we intend it to be open to all sorts of music and performance.”
As well it should be. If Turner and his organization's ideals come to fruition, it won't be forgotten that rock 'n' roll played an integral role in the rebirth of North Park.