On April 10, 1996, Bottom of the Hill accidentally became a mob scene. Radio station Alt 105.3 (then known as Live 105) had spoiled the venue’s big surprise show that night: unknown band Quasar was actually the mega-popular Beastie Boys. What was supposed to be a small, word-of-mouth secret snowballed until more than 1,200 fans had lined up outside of the venue with a capacity of 246 people.
“It was really crazy and the police came, and it didn’t look good for us,” recalled Kathleen Owen, one of the Potrero Hill concert venue’s owners. “But for the people that were inside who came to see the show, it was pretty amazing and exciting.”
Bottom of the Hill, which opened in 1991, has its fair share of crazy stories like these from the past few decades. In 1998, Green Day’s drummer shattered the window behind the stage during the filming of MTV’s “The Ten Spot.” A glassblower transformed the broken window into a stained glass work of art, only for it to get shattered again by another punk band years later.
In the beginning, Bottom of the Hill was a restaurant that served breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a little music on the side. But soon, the venue’s music reputation eclipsed its food.
“We started chipping away at food service and got rid of breakfast as things in the neighborhood changed,” said Owen. “People also didn’t want to go out to dinner and listen to soundcheck for a band.”
Thanks to the booking expertise of co-owner Ramona Downey, the venue built a formidable reputation for itself among indie bands. Many now-famous bands played BOTH when they were still relatively unknown, including Arcade Fire, Bad Religion, Death Cab for Cutie, Marilyn Manson, The Donnas, Elliot Smith, Alanis Morissette, the White Stripes and the Strokes.
Today, you’ll still find a lot of indie rock bands playing at BOTH, from Best Coast to Surfer Blood — this week alone, an impressive lineup including up-and-coming acts Rosie Tucker and Destroy Boys are playing shows at the venue for Noise Pop Festival. But Owen claims that the internet has made a huge difference in which bands they book and how fast they grow. Now, instead of gradually spreading in popularity by word of mouth, a musician can get huge on YouTube or Soundcloud and sell out the venue their first time playing there. And everybody already knows the words to all their songs.
But no matter the talent, BOTH can’t deny that location-wise, it’s definitely off the beaten path.
“When we opened, everybody thought that we were so far away and that nobody was going to come all the way out here, because all the nightlife was at 11th and Folsom, in SoMa or the Mission,” said Owen. “But the bands loved playing here. We just got a really good reputation.”
It turns out that San Franciscans will make the trek all the way down to Potrero Hill if the music is good enough. Plus, people in the neighborhood felt grateful to have some life brought to their streets.
“People say that they like that there’s activity at night,” said Owen. “If we weren’t open, it’d be a dead zone. It’s completely different from day to night here: During the day, it’s super crazy because of Mission Bay and everything being built, but at night it’s dark and quiet and creepy sometimes.”
Of course, the neighborhood is changing. While Potrero Hill was once a working-class residential neighborhood in the 1990s, it’s now drawing white-collar professionals who work in nearby Mission Bay’s biotech hub. Tons of new market-rate housing is being built to accommodate them.
Naturally, the influx of new neighbors could spell trouble for a noisy rock venue — especially with the empty lot behind BOTH recently transforming into condos.
“Now that they’re there, I think we’ll probably get more noise complaints,” speculated Owen. “We’re close to 280 and the train station, and all the Mission Bay employees want to live in our neighborhood. But they don’t want to listen to the music.”
One change Owen has already noticed in Potrero Hill is the parking situation.
“We’ve always had parking. That’s been a plus because we’re so far out there, away from BART — BART doesn’t run after midnight to the East Bay,” said Owen. “But because there have been 3,000 new units built around us, they don’t all have parking.”
These newcomers, as well as people heading to the new Chase Center, snatch up valuable parking spots from the venue’s customers, employees and even bands with big vans and trailers to unload.
According to Owen, one band BOTH booked recently didn’t apply for a bus permit from the city and took their chances on finding a parking spot. They received three parking tickets and were almost towed, which would’ve been a disaster costing thousands of dollars, as well as keeping them from making it to the next show on their tour.
While some might suggest that all the new neighbors would be good for business, Owen disagrees.
“We’re just a destination place. Nobody’s walking down the street, saying, ‘Hey, let’s go here!’” she explained.
Owen has also noticed an increase in car break-ins, inescapable in SF even in their mostly residential, upper-middle-class neighborhood.
“The whole city got so much bigger really fast,” said Owen. “We’re one of the last neighborhoods. The city needs housing — I understand that — but I wish it wasn’t on my block.”
With the transformation of Potrero Hill, BOTH definitely has some new challenges to contend with. But in its nearly three decades, the venue has survived worse.
In 2003, a fire broke out that caused significant damage. In 2009, a crackdown on all-ages venues in SF by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control nearly shuttered the club. BOTH’s loyal community helped it bounce back — in 2009, neighbors sent in letters of support, stating that “the venue was an integral part of the neighborhood,” with parents sharing support for its role in keeping their kids off the streets.
The venue has made small changes over the years to accommodate a changing San Francisco — earlier concerts, promoting shows on social media — but the fact that they own the building means that even rising rents in the area can’t push them out.
This probably comes as a relief to the venue’s many longtime, diehard fans. BOTH has been around so long that they’re even starting to get second generation Bottom of the Hillers — bands that played in the 90s now see their kids perform in the same room.
“Time’s gone by really fast, so I don’t even really remember the last 20 years,” laughed Owen. “It seemed like there was the first two years, and then everything came up really fast.”
Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th St., San Francisco) is hosting several shows this week for Noise Pop Festival: Rosie Tucker on Wednesday, Feb. 26; Mirah and Pom Pom Squad on Thursday, Feb. 27; Califone on Friday, Feb. 28; Habibi on Saturday, Feb. 29; and Destroy Boys on Sunday, March 1.
Madeline Wells is an SFGATE associate digital reporter. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @madwells22