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Crackdown on booze at jazz fest

By Barbara Kate Repa

FOR THE FIRST TIME in its 28-year history, those who wish to drink beer or wine at the Fillmore Jazz Festival this year must buy and consume it within the confines of one of seven “beverage gardens” — designated areas within the festival carpeted in artificial turf and enclosed by white picket fences.

In the past, police suspended the laws against public liquor consumption during the festival. As long as drinks were in plastic, festivalgoers were allowed to walk around with them, wherever purchased.

Northern Station Captain Ann Mannix tightened the rules on bars and restaurants last year, no longer allowing them to sell outside. This year, she barred alcohol at the festival, except when consumed in beer gardens or inside bars and restaurants.

“Alcohol is always the ‘X’ factor,” Mannix said via email. “Given grossly underfunded staffing levels and a reduced number of officers citywide anyway, trying to provide for the public safety at an event where alcohol flows freely is a difficult task. Beer gardens, a designated drinking area, make it more manageable.”

The Fillmore Merchants Association, which sponsors the festival, opposed the change, as did some individual merchants. Their pleas fell on deaf ears.

“It’s a damn shame,” said Thomas Reynolds, president of the merchants association. “We’ve got three stages of great music to wander among. To change the Fillmore festival — where there’s never been a problem — to be more like other festivals that do have problems makes no sense.”

Sgt. Mark Moreno, who was put in charge of handling special events in the Northern District about six months ago, confirmed there has been no increase in arrests in recent years at the Fillmore festival. “But a lot of issues can arise after the fact,” he said, “like at the Union Street Fair, many fights broke out after the event ended. We didn’t experience that with Fillmore. We just want to keep it that way.”

“This new policy is 100 percent the idea of the San Francisco Police Department,” said Steven Restivo, whose firm has been producing the festival since 2007, and who has worked on the event since the early 90s. “I firmly believe the Fillmore Jazz Festival is one of the most mellow in the city. There’s no way we should have to have beer gardens.”

Restivo said the issue of outside alcohol sales began to escalate last year when a number of merchants along Fillmore wanted to sell outside their doors. “The police didn’t used to care,” he said. “They used to look the other way when the Elite and Harry’s did it.”

Restivo said beer gardens are not required at the Polk Street Fair, which he also stages. But alcohol has been eliminated completely at the Union Street Fair for the last two years.

“I firmly agree with that policy for Union Street — no alcohol at all — because the kids used to get drunk and go on the rooftops there,” he said. “But for Fillmore, it’s just so wrong. Getting a glass of wine and being able to stroll the street is what the fair is all about.”

Restivo said he expects beverage sales at the festival will be down this year by a third and possibly more.

“You won’t be able to take a bottle of wine with you? Incredible!” exclaimed local resident Chuck Smith. He and his wife Lorna have been fans of the festival for 14 years — well before they became the first residents to move into the Fillmore Heritage condos above Yoshi’s in 2007.

“The Fillmore fair is more civilized than the others because it’s always been music-oriented,” Smith said. “It was respectful of the whole heritage of the neighborhood.”

Added Lorna Smith: “We’re used to being treated like grownups. But now, we’re like all the other fairs.”

Chuck Smith’s prediction: “There will be people smuggling in alcohol and sipping it out of their jackets.”

One of them might be Bruce Levin, a Sutter Street resident and a diehard jazz festival fan. “I’ve been to every one except for 1990 when we lived in Philadelphia,” he said. “I flew in for the others, no matter where I was.”

Levin said he and his wife Heather always set up their chairs near the California music stage, sample the street food and share a bottle of wine in their prized Fillmore Jazz Festival logo glasses purchased in years past. “We still have a shelf of them,” he said. “We sip wine and listen to music. And this new rule will not change that. If they want to throw me in jail, I’ll just try to distract them with the pot smoke.”

In all his years of festival-going, he said, he’s never seen anyone out of control. “Slapping kids’ hands before they do anything wrong can’t possibly be the right approach,” he said.

Peter Snyderman, owner of the venerable Elite Cafe at 2049 Fillmore Street, at the heart of the festival area, said he found out about this year’s changes by calling Northern Station, as he’d done in previous years. He said the change will have a significant impact on the Elite’s operations.

“We have almost built a tradition of having a whole bunch of staff out front making Bloody Marys, margaritas and sangrias,” he said. “Fillmore was the one fair where people could actually walk around with drinks.” Snyderman said the Elite will still serve the traditional drinks, but customers will have to drink them inside.

“The whole atmosphere of the fair had become a perfect balance of fun, freedom and an easy-going time that fits with its spirit,” he said. “It’s not a soulless event with the same old food booths. This change is criminal.”

D&M Wine & Liquors, the neighborhood’s nationally respected source for champagne and spirits, will close this year for both days of the fair. D&M is usually open every day of the year. Owner Mike Politz said the last time it closed was one Saturday 20 years ago — for his wedding.

“You have no idea how pissed off I am about this,” said Politz, whose family has been operating D&M for nearly 50 years at the corner of Fillmore and Sacramento Streets.

“I have to close because if I sell anything to anyone, they can’t drink it, or they’ll be cited,” he said. “My shop is losing $23,000 gross on those two days. Who will cut me a check? The city? The police department? The Fillmore Merchants Association? They are depriving me of a livelihood. I have a nasty attorney on retainer and I do believe I’ve got a good lawsuit.”

Politz cited greed as the motivation for the new restrictions.

“Who do the beer gardens help? They help the producers of the fair because now people must buy from them,” he said. “For them to charge people 9 or 10 bucks for 20 ounces of shitty beer just proves they’re more concerned about the vendors than the local merchants.”

The police support the festival, Politz charged, because they get paid overtime to oversee it.

Sergeant Moreno of Northern Station said the crackdown came because of concerns arising out of recent festivals.

“One of the biggest problems in the last couple years has been open container drinking on the street,” he said. “What people were doing was going to the stores and buying six packs and bottles of wine.”

He admitted that enforcing the alcohol restrictions this year may be challenging, given that no additional police personnel will be added. As in years past, seven to 10 officers will be slated to roam and police the festival grounds.

Moreno acknowledged the change will come as a surprise to many consumers. “We’re not out looking to give out tickets,” he said. “We’ll go up and explain the changes — that beer and wine must be consumed inside the beer gardens. And 99 percent of the time that will work. But a citation is our hammer if it doesn’t.”