Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Pendulum closing sparks protest, accusations


Supervisor Chris Daly at last week's news conference outside the now-shuttered Pendulum bar in the Castro. Photo: Bill Wilson
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The closing this month of the Pendulum – the one place in the Castro many African Americans called home – for a complete makeover of the 18th Street bar is adding to the acrimony between its owner and community activists who accuse him of being racist.

The activists allege the decision to shutter the bar is retaliation by Les Natali, who is in the process of selling the Pendulum, for their filing charges that he engaged in racist practices at his bar across the street, San Francisco Badlands. But former employees of the Pendulum dispute that contention, saying they knew last winter they would eventually lose their jobs and the bar would be closed for renovations.

Natali's move came less than a week after the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control refused to revoke his liquor license at the Badlands, saying it lacked sufficient evidence to find Natali discriminated against his patrons based on race, and conditionally approved his request to transfer the Pendulum's license into his name. The ABC issued its decision on the same day the Bay Area Reporter style='font-style: normal'> reported that Natali had decided to sell the Pendulum in order to settle a year-old lawsuit.

John MacNeil, who successfully sued Natali for breach of contract and expects to complete the transfer of the bar into his name by the fall, said he signed off on closing the bar and proceeding with the remodel when he learned the city had approved Natali's application for the necessary permits. MacNeil and Natali then met with the Pendulum's nine employees last Wednesday, July 20 to inform them of their decision to close the bar and lay off the staff. While Natali offered the employees various severance packages ranging from $500 to $5,000 depending on their length of employment, MacNeil invited the staff to reapply for their jobs when he is ready to reopen the bar.

"I thought it was a perfect time to remodel it. No one is going in there because they are pissed at Les. I figured now would be a good time to do it," said MacNeil. "When it is done – hopefully in three months – then we can have a fresh start and have a beautiful bar."

While Natali still owns the Pendulum until the paperwork is completed, MacNeil has been working with both the architect and the contractor on remodeling the bar to his specifications. He said since Natali has the permits to do the work, he saw no reason not to proceed.

"I agreed with Les that no matter when the permits came through, we would go. To restart that whole process it would sink our deal," he said. "If they say you can go, you have to take that opportunity to go."

MacNeil wants to make the bar completely handicap accessible, including regrading the back patio and lowering the bar's entrance to street level. Inside, workers will move the actual bar from the middle to the right side of the building and install a new dance floor. MacNeil said he wants to turn the Pendulum from a dive into a lounge-type club.

"It will be well worth it, that place was in bad need of a face lift," said MacNeil, who declined to disclose the cost of the construction due to the lawsuit. "I want it to be a cool, jazzy feel to the atmosphere. There will be a lot of places for people to sit and hang out."

With the city permits good until late October, MacNeil said he is hopeful work on the bar will be completed as quickly as possible.

"It's 115 days is what the contractor said it will take. By then it will have transferred into my name; I will own it. It will be costing me a lot of money for every day it is closed so I want it done as fast as possible," he said.

As for the community's reaction, MacNeil said, "I am a little surprised everybody is so angry. I hope they give me a chance. I have confidence in the long run we will make everyone very happy."

Nighttime protest

The closure of the Pendulum and the decision to lay off the bar's staff sparked a nighttime protest in front of the bar Thursday, July 21 attended by about 50 people, including Supervisor Chris Daly who called Natali "not only a racist, but an asshole." After denouncing Natali for closing the bar, about 25 people then proceeded to chant in front of Badlands, calling on both Mayor Gavin Newsom and Supervisor Bevan Dufty to take action against Natali.

"It is bullshit that the mayor is not here as pissed off as we are. It is bullshit that Bevan is not here," said George Smith, co-chair of Lesbians and Gays of African Descent for Democratic Action. "These city officials come down to our shops and ask for our support and just as fast abandon us. It is like being raped in front of the entire city and no one is coming to help."

"This is a violation of the norms and values of this community. It makes it so much more difficult to come together as a community," added John Newsome, an organizer of the community group And Castro For All, which has held weekly Saturday night pickets outside Badlands. "Mr. Natali has not been held accountable by the city. We are disappointed at not seeing the kind of support we would expect to see. It is time to put an end to Mr. Natali's free reign of terror."

While he called for reopening the Pendulum "as quickly as possible," Newsome added that the Badlands "and Mr. Natali should be removed from this community."


Former Pendulum manager Berin Nakamura, left, and bartender Enrique Jimenez, in happier times. Jimenez is suing Nakamura and Les Natali. Photo: Rick Gerharter
vin Gipson, an activist within the city's LGBT African American community who has expressed concern about Natali's owning the Pendulum, criticized his decision to shut it down.

"I am very troubled by the fact Les Natali is chasing black people out of the Castro. Black people have come to this place to celebrate as proud LGBT black people. For Les to take this away from us and do it in such a cold, evil fashion, and to have left his employees without an income, is wrong," said Gipson. "I challenge our city leaders to do something about it."

Ex-employees speak out

Missing from the lineup of speakers were Pendulum employees. Several former employees contacted by the B.A.R. style='font-style: normal'> said they were at home, watching the protest on local news station KRON 4, and took issue with the comments of the protesters. Margarita Samra, 48, a gay woman who worked as a bartender at the Pendulum for four years, said she "wanted to put my fist through the screen" when watching the news report and hearing Gipson's remarks.

"None of what he said is true. He is trying to manufacture facts that support his agenda as opposed to getting the real information. The truth is we all knew it was coming. We were pretty much told officially in February we were going to be closing for renovations; they just didn't know when," said Samra, who said she received a severance package "I am quite happy with" and plans to go on vacation.

Berin Nakamura, the Pendulum's general manager for the last eight years, said he in fact has been offered an assistant manager position at Badlands but is taking a month off first. Nakamura, 35, who is half Japanese and gay, said all the bar's staff knew their employment would come to an end as soon as the bar was closed. What came as a surprise, he said, was Natali's selling the bar to MacNeil.

"It is not at all retaliation. He sold the bar, he is done," said Nakamura, who plans to visit his family in Hawaii. "We closed everything down and the new owner took over. He is starting the renovation himself. He told everyone to reapply and we would get the first opportunity to come back and work there again."

Considering how outdated and rundown the Pendulum had become, said Nakamura, the community should be celebrating the bar's renovation, and hopefully, rebirth.

"The Pendulum has served the community for 35 years but the time has come where it needs to be renovated and this is a good thing. We appreciate all the patronage and loyalty of support over the years and we do hope these people come back," he said. "All of this was in place before we even knew Les would be vindicated of these charges and the state agency came back with their findings. The timing was just coincidence."

Samra said it angers her to see those involved with the Badlands case convolute that issue with Natali's purchase of the Pendulum. She said last week's protest had nothing to do with her or her fellow staffers and more to do with the animosity the activists have toward Natali.

"Our bar had nothing to do with it. I don't know Les well enough for me to make any kind of comment about him personally. I had very little interaction with him the entire time he owned the bar," she said. "It is more personal now. It is more about power and politics than what the initial charges were a year ago. I can assure you a high percentage of the people who initiated all that stuff and now say he can't close the Pendulum are basically saying 'We don't want to come to the Pendulum but you can't close it.' You think one of them gives a real rat's patutty about us? How all that affected our life and our income?"

As soon as Natali bought the bar, Samra said business plummeted.

"It certainly declined the minute the bar went into escrow last May with Les. You would not believe how fast people ran screaming from our bar," she recalled. "It's really been bad since then and that is unfortunate. You can't blame an owner for what the bar becomes. If you don't show up, it won't be diverse."

For the last three years, even prior to Natali's buying the bar, Nakamura said the Pendulum was on life support and that former owner Rod Kobila "just couldn't compete" with the other Castro bars.

"We've been in trouble for the last three years. The Pendulum was slowly dying," he said. "It was very dated, very run down, and we had problems with the plumbing and electricity. If the bar hadn'at sold it would have gone out of business."

Samra said MacNeil's plan for the Pendulum "is going to be fabulous" and as its new owner "he will be great." She said depending how long the bar is closed would be a deciding factor in whether she reapplies for her job.

Nakamura agreed, saying, "I think it is going to look really good. Once it is done, the Pendulum will be reborn into a much better space and much more able to accommodate and support our community."

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