The 25th Hour – with special guest writer (sort of), Erick Lyle
Hello again at last! I’m sorry to have been away so long, but due to a writer’s block of epic proportions, I’ve been at a loss for words lately. But, while walking down Mission st. the other night, I passed by the restaurant formerly known as El Herradero. Recently sold, the building’s been stripped of its familiar sombrero sign and plastic Aztec siding to reveal a piece of Mission st. history laying just beneath:
This was where they were originally located, on Mission between 18th and 19th, when they first opened back in the 1920′s. They later moved to the corner of Mission and 20th, and it was there that Hunt’s gained it’s infamous status as a seedy hotbed of nefarious activity.
I loved that place.
I spent a lot of time there, back in the day, and I would like nothing more than to tell you it’s story. But somebody already did, and they did a better job than I can ever hope to. So it gives me great pleasure to present to you, reprinted here, in full, without permission,
The Epicenter of Crime: The Hunt’s Donuts Story
By Erick Lyle
“Like most people, it was the sign that drew me to Hunt’s at first. Within minutes of sitting down with my cup of coffee, way past midnight one night back in 1993, I knew that the sign hadn’t lied: here was a place that could only be described as being “Open 25 hours.” The air was thick with cigarette smoke, the tables were packed with men who were either yelling, or sleeping, or drinking wine, and the guy behind the counter looked terrified.
An orange-fizz drink the very color of nausea circulated endlessly in a clear, plastic dispenser near the register, and in the corner, the grimy, nicotine-stained wall was inscrutably decorated with a print of the shroud of Turin.
In the swirling drink in Christ’s closed eyes, I saw a vision of eternity. “The 25th hour…” I thought. “This is all happening 25 hours a day…” In long nights a Hunt’s over the years I would, however, come to see the 25th hour not as a time, but as a place. It was a destination that could only be reached after too much fluorescent light and coffee and donuts.
Or heroin and meth and box wine. I made it to that lost continent that night for the first time, when “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra came on the old Hunt’s jukebox. Suddenly, all the sleeping men in the shop lifted their heads off the table to sing along, they drunkenly shouted, “If you can make it there…you’ll make it…anywhere!” The last note of the song was punctuated by one guy pitching forward back on to the table. In the silence that followed, all you could hear was the coffee he knocked over dribbling onto the floor. I felt like I’d been welcomed into a secret society.
There’s one other thing about that night that will stick with me forever. At one point, A cop came in and ordered a coffee. The counter guy took advantage of this moment As the cop took his first sip, the counter guy declared “I’m going to the bathroom. You watch the place for a minute!” and quickly bounded out the door. The cops eyes bulged wide and he almost spit out his coffee, but it was too late. He was stuck. He looked warily around him at the huge crowd of wasted men that was already slowly advancing towards the refill pot. One after another, the men refilled their Styrofoam cups without paying, silently, while the cop surveyed the scene like he was watching a horror movie, maybe “Dawn of the Dead.”
I was young and new to the Big City. It was the first time I’d seen genuine fear in a policeman’s eyes. I went and got my own refill.
Soon after, my roommate, Greta, told me that she’d seen a report on TV news that had called 20th and Mission – and by extension, Hunt’s Donuts— “The epicenter of crime” in all of San Francisco. My mind reeled at the thought of it. For years afterward, I’d sit at Hunt’s and imagine all of the city’s crime somehow radiating outward from that very spot, an incredible twenty-five hours a day!
While the Mission would change around it over the years, Hunt’s remained thoroughly and irreducibly criminal a fluorescent-lit utopia for lowlifes, a north star guiding the way home for the regulars that answered the pull of the epicenter of crime and came there nightly to make up the 25th hour. Hunt’s was where prostitutes from Capp Street ate donuts and complained about their pimps, loudly, into cell phones, while passersby tapped on the floor-to-ceiling windows, trying to sell you crescent wrenches, jackets, fistfuls of stolen gold necklaces. Hunt’s was where you could see gang members and graffitti writers taking donut breaks, side by side. It was where guys just out of prison mumbled (?) with men who had fought and killed in the revolutions in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
I have years of memories from there, years of writing all night, sneaking in beers, making out under the tables. For five years in a row, a punk rock donut night met every Monday at midnight. and there were those long years of the court order, when the cops were trying to shut Hunt’s down, and the sign on the wall earnestly pleaded, “Don’t sell it here,” as if the donut shop was an underground punk venue that could only stay open if we all did our part to keep the cops away.
I did buy stereo speakers there once, but the only thing I consistently bought was clean, new socks that, for some reasons, guys always sold there. Bucky told me that when Hunt’s closed, he was working on a story about a guy who gets his heart stolent. He has to go down to Hunt’s to try and buy it back.
My last time at Hunt’s wasn’t much different than the first, even if it had long since changed its name to “Magic Burgr”, just like that without the “E”. Jimmy and I went to get ice cream cones at 2:00 am. The counter guy was closing the gate that closed off the back part of the shop for the night. Just then, a kid ran in the front door, yelling, “Wait!” he ducked under the gate, shoved a fist full of soil at the base of a sick-looking plant in the back, and pulled out a bunch of baggies. He grinned, sheepishly, and said, “almost forgot my medicine!”.
After that I went out of town for the summer and when I came back in August, 2004, Hunt’s had closed. Hunt’s was such a permanent-seeming fixture of the Mission landscape that I had used to joke that I wanted me ashes sprinkled there. No one had ever imagined it closing. The situation demanded answers. What follows in the results of my search, a sprawling memorial I wrote in November 2004, originally for publication in the Guardian. In the end, we couldn’t get it in the papers because it in no way really fits the description of “news”. Its true. At this late date, nothing about the gentrification of the Mission can really be considered news. The closing of Hunt’s could almost be seen as an afterward, a bookend to that long saga.
But the story of Hunt’s is both less than and more than news. It’s a rumor, an illicit history, the pull of the gravity of the epicenter of crime. At 20th and Mission, battles to control the identity of the Mission have been acted out again and again, between ever changing sets of police and thieves over the years. In the story that follows we have the Irish cop who shut down the Mission’s Latino bars and his cop father who shut down the city’s gay bars. We have the young kid who couldn’t beat the Hunt’s sponsored team on the baseball diamond who grew up to try to shut down the shop as police captain. We have the Latino teenagers who hung out in front of Hunt’s framed for a cop’s murder in the famed trail of Los Siete de la Raza. At 20th and Mission, history doubles back and repeats itself in new guises, again and again, like a Borges story about two knives that fight each other for centuries, long after the individual knife fighters die.
When I used to sit at Hunt’s I’d imagine a cop in the basement of mission station, ordered to watch and log all the Hunt’s Donuts surveillance camera footage, to make a true record of Mission history. It would take a full day to watch each day’s footage. The cop would never catch up.
Because the Hunt’s day was 25 hours. This is my attempt to imagine what that film would look like, a limited edition half-issue, Scam 5 1/2. Thanks to Caroline, Syi and Zee. This issue is dedicated to Peter, Matty, and all the donut night punks everywhere!
Hunt’s opened in 1952, a year after Bob’s Donuts on Polk Street and Silver Crest Donuts on Bayshore opened in their present locations. With their hand painted signs and egalitarian coffee counters, Bob’s and Silver Crest still harken back to a time when the donut shops were a cheap and dependable haven for a working class San Francisco, open 24 hours a day at their current locations ever since.
But Hunt’s was open 25 hours.
The donut shops was long a notorious hangout for criminals, but its sign, stretching down the block on 20th street, announcing “Open 25 Hours” gave Hunt’s a certain added mystique. The inscrutable sign that amused or intrigued passersby seemed to taunt police with a hyper-vigilant criminality.
Crowd on Mission at 21st Street in 1956.
Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library
Police brass, like former captain of Mission Station, Greg Suhr, still speak of the donut shop as a respect adversary.
“If you wanted false documents, Fake I.D.’s, stolen tools, a radio, or a watch, you would start looking at the donut shop,” said Suhr.
Hunt’s stories are common to the Mission. They relate a history of Mission criminal ingenuity and straight-up ghetto know-how.
Nosmo King, a legend in bike messenger circles, has been riding for a living for 24 years, and living on Lexington Street and 20th, around the corner from Hunt’s for 15 years, but he is still amazed by a Hunt’s experience he had a decade ago.
“Once I went in there (to Hunt’s) and told a guy hanging out there I need a pair of green Dickies, size 32 long and size 34 waist,” remembers King. “He came back 10 minutes later with the pants, brand new, and only charged me $5 for them!”
Lance Hahn, leader of the long-running, Mission punk band, J Church, too, has seen things at Hunt’s that could only have logically taken place in the 25th hour.
“Once I caught some old dude picking my pocket while I was riding 14 in the middle of the day. He saw that I saw and hopped off the bus and I followed him,” Hahn says, “He went straight to Hunt’s and sat down. I walked right up t him and he handed me my $5. That was the weird, surreal street justice you could expect there.”
How you felt about Hunt’s Donuts might reveal your position on the changing Mission District.
“Hunt’s was a celebration of all that was undomesticated in the Mission,” says novelist Peter Plate, who set much of his 2001 novel Angels of Catastrophe at Hunt’s Donuts’ scratched Formica tables, and has written 3 other novels set in the neighborhood. “It was lawless and you liked it that way.”
Captain John Goldberg of Mission Station, remembers it much the same way, but prefers to put it differently.
“The donut shop was the focal point for undesirable elements in the Mission,” Goldberg said.
Today, Bob’s Donuts’ storefront window proudly displays a certificate from the Board of Supervisors awarded in 2002 for over 50 years of “service to the community.”
But Hunt’s received citations from the City, instead of certificates. For the last five years of its life, the Hunt’s window displayed an enormous sign, at least 3 feet tall, announced in bold, red print, “These premises are under court order. Buying and selling of stolen merchandise, panhandling, drug dealing, and loitering are prohibited in this store.”
Hunt’s Donuts was a thorn in the side of the police at the heart of a neighborhood that has always been a thorn in the side of the police.
The pre-war Mission was a hard scrabble port of entry for Irish, German, and Jewish immigrants—a sort of Lower East Side for San Francisco. Socialists and Anarchists were common in the crowded rooming houses and dining halls of the Mission. There was an IWW hall on Clarion Alley and Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman lived on Dolores Street in 1916.
When a bomb went off at a pro-war rally on Market and Spear that year, police went to the Mission to look for the usual suspects. Police eventually arrested socialists Tom Mooney and Warren K. Billings, who would become the subjects of one of the early 20th century’s first huge cause celebres when they were both sent to prison for decades for the crime, despite plenty of evidence that they weren’t anywhere near the scene of the bombing.
Billings room was searched and police found several guns. He lived in a boarding house run by a socialist woman at 2410 Mission, the site of today’s Ton-Jo room, right next door to the future site of Hunt’s.
Plate says he set his novel at 20th and Mission because there is something compelling about the intersection.
“I call it the Bermuda Triangle of Mission real estate,” Plate says. “Lives change there and people disappear there. For Norteños and Sureños, or for police and thieves, it’s a heavy place.
Hunt’s Quality Donuts opened its doors onto a booming, post-war Mission Street, lined between 16th and 24th streets with furniture storerooms, clothing stores, and diners — the old Miracle Mile, considered the second most important shopping area in the City after Union Square.
Grand, art-deco, neon signs towered over the main drag, vying for the attention of the newly affluent working class families in brand, new automobiles. There was Leed’s Shoes and El Capitan, and the clock mounted atop the Lochmarquees of the New Mission, The Tower, and The Grand theaters.
At the center of it all was the donut shops’ brand new, fire red sign that features Frank Hunt’s name in one-story tall, glowing letters. Each letter was encircled by a ring, and, at night, a neon donut would gently fall down the sign, H-U-N-T-S, and a splash into a cup of coffee again and again, marking the time into the 25th hour.
Along with the 20th and Mission site, Hunt ran another location in the Marina on Chestnut Street. Hunt donated donuts generously to charities and school rallies and was connected politically, helping campaign for his friend, Mayor Joe Alioto. His shops became a family institution in the old working class Irish Mission and Italian Marina Districts.
Angela Alioto still goes with her mother, Angelina, every Sundan to the All-Star Donuts on Chestnut Street, where the Hunt’s Donuts of her childhood once stood.
“I grew up at Hunt’s Donuts!” Alioto remembers. “My dad and I went to Hunt’s every single Sunday right after mass. Dad would buy donuts for his mother and three sisters- four boxes every time.”
Suhr, now the Deputy Chief of Field Operations for SFPD, also remembers Hunt’s Donuts as a kid. “My dad ran the mortuary on 26th and Valencia,” Suhr said. “Every Sunday, he’d bring us home a box of donuts from Hunt’s.”
By 1970, Hunt ran fourteen successful donut shops throughout the Bay Area and had become head of the Mission Merchants Association. The next year, Mayor Alioto rewarded Hunt for his free donuts at fundraisers with an appointment to the city’s Fire Commission. Frank Hunt had come pretty far for a little guy from Shamrock, TX. With glasses perched on a big nose and tiny wisps of cottony hair crowning his bald head, he looked small and slightly comical in photos next to his friend, the robust Alioto. But when the Chronicle wrote about Hunt, they called him a “donut tycoon.”
Hunt gave his farewell address to the Mission Merchants Association in 1974, celebrating the battles merchants had fought to keep pawn and second hand stores ou of the Mission. He was a self made man who believed in the free enterprise system. As he retired he had no way of knowing that his speed was a valedictory tribute to a whole era of chamber of commerce civic boosterism in a almost all-white Mission that had already passed for good.
A few years earlier, a week of explosive events in the City that left a Mission police officer dead and a group of Latino youths who hung out in front of Hunt’s own shop on trial for murder, had brought the war between the old and new Mission to the surface. The resulting trail of Los Siete De La Raza helped change the Mission into a Latino Neighborhood in the eyes of the City forever.
This November, Oscar Rios, a four-term mayor of Watsonville, was elected to another term as a city council member in the small agricultural town two hours south of San Francisco where he has served in local government since the lat 80’s.
In April 1969, Rios was one of the El Salvadoran teenagers that hung out in front of Hunt’s Donuts at 20th and Mission.
“That’s where everybody met,” Rios says. “Either there, or the pool hall across the street.”
The teenagers who would soon be known as Los Siete De La Raza, included Oscar’s brother Jose, who hung out there, too.
The teens who would become known as Los Siete had attended the College of San Mateo and become radicalized during a student strike there. Members of the group who also walked the picket line and watched police beat protesters the previous fall at the six month student and faculty strike at San Francisco State. They had found a social consciousness at school and now urged young Latinos to attend the College Readiness Program, an enrollment program targeting youth of color.
“We would come down (to 20th and Mission) to recruit,” Remembers Reynaldo Aparicio, a lifelong friend of Rios, who was later active in the Los Siete De La Raza organization that would form to publicize the Los Siete trial. “We would try to politicize the brothers hanging out there to get them to that they could take positive action to change their community.”
The kids who hung out in front of Hunt’s or the Anchor Billiard Company were just as likely to be politicized by their frequent confrontations with Mission police at the corner, including the infamous plainclothes team out of Mission Station, Brodnik and McGran, that the cops and kids alike called Mission Eleven.
Joe Brodnik was known on the street for carrying a two foot rubber hose that he would use to work over uncooperative suspects. Paul McGoran was a huge man, known for his temper and for drinking on duty at Bruno’s, across the street from Hunt’s, where his girlfriend worked as a waitress.
“We’d see Mission Eleven coming in the white truck they drove and we’d split,” Rios says. “They were notorious for bullying people.”
Brodnick and McGoran, ages 41 and 43 at the time, had both graduated from Mission High School. The Mission District they had been raised in and now patrolled was a changing district in a changing city.
In 1952 when Hunt’s Donuts opened, there was not a single taqueria on Mission Street and seven of eleven members of the City’s Board of Supervisors were Irish. By 1969, there were none on the Board and the City’s Latino population had grown 600% to around 100,000 Latinos. Most of the new immigrants lived in or around the Mission.
In a 1972 book about the Los Siete trial, Strictly Ghetto Property, Brodniks’ daughter, Colleen, recalls police attitudes towards the new residents of the Mission.
“There was a strong feeling among the police about the Brown people of the Mission,” Brodnik said. “They said they were going to bring peace to the Mission where the dirty Latinos were.”
The police were, increasingly, being used as the foot soldiers in a city wide attempt to “clean up” certain neighborhoods. In the Mission, the BART was soon to be built and the Redevelopment Agency was circulating plans for office towers and new condos to be built along 16th and 24th streets—entirely new redevelopment areas anchored by the new stations. The only Latinos in the agency’s proposals were the taco and glower vendors the agency envisioned to be working where a proposed shuttle bus would drop tourists from BART off at Mission Dolores.
A week before Brodnik’s death, a front page story in the Chronicle would ramp up the tension between police and Latinos in the Mission. The story, headlined, “A gang’s terror in the Mission”, was a largely fact-free piece of sensationalistic innuendo that described a reign of terror by the nonexistent “20th Street Gang.”
“A loose-knit gang of idlers and hoodlums are slowly closing a fist of fear around the business life of a once bustling Mission District neighborhood,” the Chronicle wrote.
“The donut shop had a bad image, but we were not in gangs,” Rios says. “What they wrote in the paper was a lie.”
In a follow up story, members of the Mission Merchants Association – and association president, Frank Hunt, dismissed the original story’s claims, saying business in the Mission was, in fact, good, and crime in the street was minimal.
“I’m doing better than ever,” Hunt told the Chronicle. “And I owe it all to the Latins.”
But Chief Thomas Cahill, another Mission High graduate with a thick Irish brogue, saw the climate of fear in the article’s wake as a chance to push tough, new anti-crime measures in the city, announcing that week that 150 new cops would start patrolling “high crime areas” like 20th and Mission.
Tensions that were already high throughout the City between police and black and brown youths escalated when the Tac Squad raided the Black Panther headquarters on Fillmore Street, just days before Brodnik’s death. Police said they had come because a Panther member was speaking into the street through a bullhorn without a permit. The situation escalated into a near riot when police fired tear gas canisters into the Panther storefront and 160 police battled with hundreds of angry black citizens in the streets.
The weeks of tension were about to explode in a gunshot that would change seven lives forever.
May 1st was an unusually hot day. Rios and Aparicio went downtown to check out a “Free Huey” rally at the Federal Building in SF, in honor of the Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. At the same time, across town in front of Rios’ parents house in Noe Valley at 438 Alvarado Street, Jose Rios and other youths who would soon be known as Los Siete De La Raza – Mario Martinez, Bebe Melendez, Pinky Lescallet, Nelson Rodriguez, and Gio Lopez – were loading furniture out of a van into Rios’ house, when a white dodge pickup truck showed up. It was Brodnik and McGoran.
Brodnik and McGoran suspected the youths of burglarly and started to question them. A scuffle broke out and, in the melee, McGoran’s gun went off twice, killing Brodnik and wounding McGoran.
McGoran would later testify that he was jumped from behind by Lescallet, who took McGoran’s gun and shot Brodnik with it. The suspects would testify that McGoran was drunk and aggressive and that he started a fight with Lescallet, in which his gun was accidently discharged, killing Brodnik and wounding McGoran.
The kids fled the scene. Police filled the neighborhood, raiding Rios’ home and shooting 60 rounds of bullets into the walls and furniture.
“We had to leave that day,” Rios says, “Our house was totally destroyed.”
The youths were all charged with Brodnik’s murder. Immediately, Mayor Alioto declared a citywide day of mourning and the Chronicle declared the suspects to be “dirty, hippie types”. Fearing that the defendants, now know collectively as “Los Siete De La Raza”, would be railroaded into the dead penalty, the Latino community in the Mission started to organize a campaign on their behalf.
The six defendants—Gio Lopez was never apprehended and soon fled the country—hired Black Panter attorney, Charles Garry who sought to make the case a political trial like the Huey Newton trial, highlighting the conditions of poverty and incidents of police brutality in the Mission. The Free Los Siete De La Raza organization, located in a storefront at 21st and Hampshire in the Mission, modeled their defense campaign on Black panther programs.
To publicize the case, the organization held rallies and protests, but also organized to meet the needs of the Mission Latino community. They started two breakfast programs for elementary school children at St. John’s Church on Julian Street and at St. Peter’s Church on Alabama street. They convinced progressive doctors and nurses from San Francisco General Hospital to donate time to the new La Raza Free Medical Clinic that the group opened at 21st and Folsom. They started a newspaper to spread information about the trial, called
“When I got the new issue of Basta Ya, I’d always go straight down to the donut shop and sell it,” Rios says today. “It was just where everybody was at.”
In May 1970, after McGoran’s long history of drunkenness and violence had come out on the stand, the jury chose to acquit all six defendants.
Things weren’t easy for the former suspects, and over the years, they met various fates. The Chronicle decried the verdicts and declared that justice had not been served. The youths were under constant surveillance by the police and could not get jobs. Melendezs and Lescallet would later get involved in crime and Melendez would be stabbed to death in jail in Tracy in 1977. Lescallet still serves a life sentence in Ione, Ca for the 1979 kidnapping and murder of an elderly school teacher. Lescallet has maintained innocence to this day.
The Martinez brothers still had to face charges in San Mateo County for stealing a car they used to escape the initial manhunt. Convinced that they would be put away in San Mateo as a penalty for getting off in San Francisco, they fled the country. Today, Tony Martinez is a professor of economics at the university of Mexico City in Mexico and his brother’s whereabouts are unknown.
But the effects of the movement the Los Siete trial berthed in the Mission are still felt today.
“All the things we did then are still happening now,” Aparicio says. “The La Raza clinic was eventually taken over by the City and became the Mission clinic on Shotwell. The free breakfast programs became institutionalized by federal government school breakfast and lunch programs.”
But more importantly, the example of immigrants standing up for their rights was instrumental in the Mission becoming recognized as the Latin Neighborhood of San Francisco. Throughout the 1970’s, contemporaries of Los Siete would for, institutions like the Mission Cultural Center—founded by El Salvadoran and Nicaraguan immigrants—and Galeria De la Raza, and work on Latino art programs like the mural project in Balmy Alley that commemorates the struggles in the civil wars of Central America.
“I am friends with people that I met when we went to recruit at the donut shop to this day,” says Aparicio, who recently was one of the managers of Renee Saucedo’s second place run for Board of Supervisors in the Mission’s District 9. “Most of the people from Free Los Siete are still in the community. They are doctors and lawyers and teachers and they have raised families here in the Mission.”
Oscar Rios also has come along way since police gunfire destroyed his parents’ home on Alvarado Street. In 1985, he went to Watsonville to take part in a cannery workers strike. Soon, he found himself encourage to run for city council in his new city, when Watsonville had its first district elections in 1988. He went on to become the first Latino mayor in a town long controlled by white agricultural interests, a representative of those who actually worked on Watsonville’s farms.
“I was called a dirty illegal immigrant. They said I was just a laborer. But I won,” Rios says.
By 1993, there were an all-time high 8 donut shops on Mission Street between 16th and 24th Street. After a wave of deindustrialization and real estate speculation, the Mission was out of work and out of luck. The old Miracle Mile drifted in a splendorous disrepair. Dust fell silently in the darkness of abandoned movie theaters, their screens blank after a half century of reels unwound in the dark, working class dreams on the main drag.
Hunt’s was often full of old men who lived in the Mission corridor’s SRO hotels, men form the long gone port and factories, who wore worn fedoras and argued and laughed. Sometimes, it would be almost impossible to see inside because of the amount of cigarette smoke clouding the big windows.
The stasis at Hunt’s Donuts echoed the eerie feeling of a Mission Street hat had survived past its prime.
“It was an anomaly, like the ‘Open 25 Hours’ sign itself,” says film maker Craig Baldwin, who has lives and worked around the corner at ATA for over 20 years.
“Time didn’t seem to be moving under those fluorescent tubes. It was a place in limbo, like the hour between twenty-four and twenty-five.”
The grand, old faded signs held watch over a Mission Street that had lapsed into its own 25th hour. The Hunt’s art deco falling donut sign, along with the other towering signs from the neighborhood’s past, captured the imagination of the punks and artists who were moving into the neighborhood, inheriting the burnt out, but still glamorous main drag.
“I always adored the donut shop, like I’d always loved the ’17 Reasons Why’ sign,” Baldwin said referring to the inscrutable message that stood on top of Thrift Town at 17th street until 2001. “It was old school, something from Mission history.”
Film maker Bill Daniel, now splitting time between living in Portland and traveling the nation, interviewing freight train riders for a film, remembers his own fascination with Hunt’s.
“I hung out there when I lived on San Carlos in 1988 or ’89. I made some audio recordings inside Hunt’s I still have tapes of the jukebox playing some off-brand metal song, mixing with the sounds of the coffee counter, sweeping and conversations in Spanish.”
“I was mesmerized by the sign,” says Lance Hahn, guitarist and songwriter for the longtime Mission pop punk band, J Church.
After 12 years living in the Mission, Hahn has relocated to Austin and now leads a new lineup of the band, but Hunt’s is still a part of his life.
“When I copyrighted my songs, I named my publishing company ‘Open 25 Hours Music,’ and to this day, all J Church songs are published under that name.”
in 1993, J Church appeared on 17 Reasons Why, a box set of 45’s featuring Mission District punk bands, singing songs about the Mission. The now legendary sign atop Thrift Town was on the cover.
The songs captured the sweetness and sadness of the downbeat early 90’s Mission. Steel Pole Bathtub’s song started with a recording of the clacking of an old manual typewriter. Jawbreaker contributed the famous “Kiss the Bottel,” which evoked lost love and 16th street hangovers. J Church’s own song was “Spilled Corona and the Sound of Mariachi Bands.” Hahn remembers the romance in the old world of Hunt’s and the Mission.
“Hunt’s was a great spot to take a date, because it was in a neighborhood that helped you known immediately how the date was going to go,” Hahn said. “Once, I went there wit this crazy goth-punk girl, named Karrie, and she got a hot dog! That was love.”
For their 1994 zine, You Bet Your Sweet As I’m a Turtle, Mission punk rockers Matty Luv and Aesop Hantman of the band Hickey wrote of one days’ attempt to drink coffee at, hang out in, and write about, every single donut shop in the Mission. Hunt’s was their favorite.
Luv had gone to Hunt’s for coffee every single morning for the whole year that he dated a girl who lived around the corner on San Carlos Street, because he could not stand the hipster joint, The Club, that was only one block away, at 20th and Valencia, in a now gentrifying parallel Mission universe.
“This is where people go to get the last cup of coffee before they die,” Luv wrote, “I love this place!”
“I am convinced this place has a free cup of coffee for anyone with an oozing head wound policy,” wrote Hantman.
For punks, the squalor of Hunt’s was the principal attraction. Matty Luv captured an afternoon at Hunt’s in 1994 like this:
“Shady dudes out front trying to sell me stolen bicycles, wheelchair-bound miscreants smoking through tracheotomies, mean counter persons, mismatched tables with ‘PUTO’ scratched into the formica; and a dazed, old hunchback woman walking from table to table, mumbling ‘Buy me a cup of coffee’ in an evil, nicotine growl.”
He summed it up, “Yeah, this place rules.”
“Hunt’s was a great place for punks to go, drunk and stumbling, and at times, I’d go every other night,” remembers Hahn. “When I lived with (members of the band) Jawbreaker in the notorious Sycamore Street house, we would try to get to Hunt’s at 4:00 AM when the new donuts would come out of the oil.”
“Perfect for those 2:00 AM drunken donut quests,” Hantman wrote in Turtle. “But, buyer beware: you could get shot.”
Hantman’s warning is echoed to this day, for posterity, in a panel of a mural painted by SF film maker, Greta Snider in 1995 in Clarion Alley, as part of the Clarion Alley Mural Project. Along with people playing soccer in Dolores Park and a couple drinking beers at Original McCarthy;s, Snider painted a scene of someone buying a donut at Hunt’s while watching someone getting shot outside, under the neon donut sign.
Roger and Lin Chao, immigrants from Cambodia, bought Hunt’s Donuts in 1995 and renamed it Magic Donuts. They added some plants and new tables and brought the donut shop into the 90’s by introducing different sizes and flavors of coffee and getting rid of the jukebox. But, 20th and Mission would change them more than they could change it.
Like the Latino Mission teenagers standing out front of the shop, the Chaos had traveled a long and improbable road to wind up at 20th and Mission in San Francisco. Roger Chao had come to the United States from Cambodia in 1980. Both Roger and Lin had camped in the Cambodian Jungle for 6 months to escape from Pol Pot dictatorship.
Their arrival in the Mission came at a time when man Asian immigrants were now making North Mission their first stop in their new country. It also came at a time when Cambodians had come to dominate the entire California donut industry.
According to Asian Week magazine, by the year 20, there were approximately 5000 indepedently owned donut shops in California and, incredibly, 90% of them were owned by Cambodians.
Owning a donut shop has become “a way for Cambodian immigrants to become part of the American Dream,” Dennis Wong of the Asian Business Association told the magazine in 2000.
Upon his arrival in the U.S., Roger Chao started working for minimum wage at two Southern California donut shops in the Winchell’s chain, working the morning shift at one and then going straight to the night shift at the other, saving up to one day own his own shop.
Magic Donuts was their chance. The falling neon donut sin, still standing tall over the dividing line between red and blue gang turf, was a beacon of hope, a symbol of chance for a better tomorrow for the Chaos. The family moved to Hayward and worked day and night to make the new shop in the City a success.
While the Chaos were hiding out in the Cambodian jungle, young Greg Suhr was playing high school age baseball in a city-wide summer league for the Irving Street Embers, a team sponsored by an Irish bar in the Inner Sunset.
“Hunt’s Donuts was the team to beat,” Suhr now remembers, of the team of Mission and Balboa High School kids that Frank Hunt sponsored. “They were absolutely the New York Yankees of the San Francisco high school summer league baseball.”
Suhr could never beat Hunt’s Donuts on the baseball diamond, but he would try again later in life. “Who knew one day I’d be the Captain of the Police Department, running sting operations and trying to bust people in there for stolen property?” mused Suhr.
In a series of successful undercover operations, plainclothes police were able to sell stolen jewelry to Magic Donut employees on several occasions over a series of months in 1996. The Chaos fired the employees and spent even more time in the shop themselves.
A sign reading “Warning: Please do not sale or buy merchandise inside the coffee shop. Thank You.” went up in the place where the Shroud of Turin print had once hung. But the Chaos were woefully unprepared to deal with the forty years of criminal history that they had inherited with the shop.
“The family that ran that place was helpless to stop the problems there,” Suhr says. “It was in a critical location, on the dividing line between norteños and sureños.”
Little did the Chaos know, but when they called the police to complain about drug dealing or fighting in front of the story, the incidents were being compiled in a file that the police were hoping to use to shut the donut shop at The Epicenter of Crime down completely.
And they weren’t the only ones complaining about the incidents in front of the stop. The Mission was now full of people who had come there in hopes of turning a slice of Mission real estate into a new life.
A couple of blocks away from the shop, Lexington street was filling up with young, white dot-com-ers who were buying old Victorians on the tree-lined street and fixing them up. The new residents of Lexington were also unprepared for their new neighborhood’s criminal history, but unlike the Chaos, they were more in a position to do something about it.
Soon, the Lexington Lookouts, a neighborhood watch group had formed. Fittingly, the new group met not in person, but online. Their chatrooms overflowed with complains about the donut shop and the group made it a point to call the police every time they saw something they thought might be criminal there.
It is not certain whether it was the heat from the Lexington Lookouts or something else that brought Office Ludlow into the picture. There is much of recent Mission history that can’t be traced with empirical facts. It is a history that is at times sensed more than actually verifiably known.
But this much is indisputable: in the late 90’s, as the dot-com money flooded the neighborhood, all the cheap, working class Latino bars in the neighborhood gradually closed and became trendy, upscale hotspots that catered to the Silicon Valley newcomers. On many Saturday nights, Officer Jim Ludlow, the permit officer working out of Mission Station could be found at Bars like Docs Clock and Treat Street, bragging to bartenders, door guys, and yuppies about how he personally made it all happen.
While raising rents were driving out Latino and working class renters in the neighborhood, the situation with the bars was more complicated. Because of the moratorium on liquor licenses, one could not simply but a bar in the Mission, no matter how much money you had. A bar would need to close and sell their license first. This is where Ludlow came in.
Ludlow had announced to the New Mission News in 1996 that he was going to shut down all the bars on his “bad bars list” which he gave to the paper to print. One by one, Ludlow fined and ticketed the bars until he had, in fact, closed many of them. Then, new buyers came in to the neighborhood and bought up the liquor licenses at a bargain.
Perhaps coincidentally, all the bars on this list were Latino owned and operated, and the new buyers were young and white. Ludlow, whose father had father’s father had been Irish SFPD cops, now avenged Brodnik and McGoran in the Mission. Instead of a two-foot rubber hose, he carried a citation book.
Many in the Mission speculated that Ludlow was taking a cut of the profits to help broker these deals. Adam White, the owner of Mission Records, says that when White first met the landlord to rent the Mission Records space at 18th and Mission — the former 7 Coins of Gold Bar — Ludlow, himself, showed up with another group of perspective tenants. Ludlow assured them in front of the landlord and White that he could personally make sure they got their liquor license for a new bar there.
Whether Ludlow was on the take or not has never been proven, but it is known that he hated Hunt’s Donuts. In 1996, he took steps to shut it down. Donuts on 16th and Valencia and the Western Donut at 16th and Mission, did not have permits to remain open 24 hours — let alone 25 hours.
The Western Donut and Johnny Donuts would have to close from 2 to 6 AM as a result of Ludlow’s efforts. But the Chaos were able to go to court to get a conditional use permit that would keep them open all night.
Unfortunately, for Ludlow, the law he was now enforcing, also caused the Happy Donuts at the very low crime 24th and Church street corner in Noe Valley to close from 2 to 6 AM, too.
This time, Ludlow had gone too far. Happy Donuts was the coffee shop of choice for police from Mission and Ingleside stations.
“Everyone’s unhappy, including the commander,” Ludlow told the SF Weekly in 1996. “He was roaming the district one night and couldn’t get a cup of coffee he said, ‘What the heck is going on?”
Ludlow on his own was no match for the shop at the Epicenter of Crime. But, soon, the piles of complaints added up against Hunt’s. Using calls to the police and results of police sting operations as evidence, the City Attorney served the Chaos with a public nuisance complaint in 1999, claiming that it was the shop and not the street corner itself causing all the crime. Eventually, after paying thousands of dollars in legal bills, the Chaos decided to settle out of court in 2000 and pay the city nearly $10,000 in fines.
“I felt so bad for that family that I even offered to get my own coffee there every morning,” Suhr remembers. “It seemed like a big gesture for the Captain of the police station to come in and personally buy coffee from them. It showed we were paying attention.”
The late 90’s was an intense time in the Mission. People are still not sure exactly what happened. As the decade ended, there was even a rumor on the street that Ludlow was going to close Hunt’s so that a Starbucks could move to 20th and Mission, a move that would be the symbolic death of the old, lawless Mission. by 2000, the falling donut sign, now broken, seemed to sum up the era. The neon donut no longer fell slowly into the cup, but raced frantically through all the stages in seconds, broadcasting a slightly nauseating, hyper-stressed amphetamine twitch to the neighborhood 25 hours a day.
Whether Suhr’s extra attention was a comfort or not to Roger Chao in those times, we’ll never know. In early 2001, after years of police harassment and nearly going broke from legal fees and fines, Roger Chao died of a heart attack. He was only 40.
In the Mission, old battles never end. They just change shape and appearance, often on the same site.
For instance, today’s era of cutthroat real estate speculation came to the Mission when the Gartland Apartments at 16th and Valencia burned to the ground in a suspected landlord arson in 1975, killing 12 and leaving over a hundred people without homes.
When a new building finally grew out of the pit 15 years later, the ground floor storefront featured a donut shop that was always full of homeless people.
Sometimes the battles just move from generation to generation. My own file on Hunt’s Donuts is now overflowing with odd, little irreducible facts that I don’t know what to do with—facts somehow peripheral and yet, somehow completely related—like this one that I turned up about Officer Jim Ludlow’s father.
In 1961, Jose Sarria, was the first openly gay man to run for SF Board of Supervisors was running for office. Jim Ludlow, Sr. reacted to changing times by initiating the police raid on the Tat-Bush Café at Taylor and Bush Streets, the largest police raid on a gay bar in the history of the city.
The arrest jailed “101 sexual deviants”. Ludlow told the Chronicle that he called for the paddy wagons when he saw “25 people dancing and none of them were women.”
These layers of history do not sit quite well with each other, especially not in the Mission. there is a feeling sometimes that battles like those that took place at 20th and Mission are still happening, just below the surface.
In 1999, the Mission Branch of the S.F. Public Library put out a call for old family snapshots from Mission families to be donated to an archive that the library was putting together.
When it opened, I went to look at it. There were 8 binders full of family phots. Black and white photos of Irish cops’ funeral processions along Guerrero Street next to color photos of Carnival.
In one photo, there is a strong, healthy looking man, grinning in black and white on the steps of Mission High School. The caption says, “Joe Brodnik in 1948, the year he graduated from Mission High. He was later a police officer and was killed by the Latino Los Siete group.”
Another, in color, shows a woman, grinning, holding a child. It says, “Judy Drummond with her daughter. Judy was in the Los Siete organization.”
The photo albums don’t explain why this gentle looking woman with the child would join a group that ills cops. There was a disconnect, or at least, evidence of an uneasy truce in the binder’s pages.
I went to the librarian at the reference desk and showed her the Brodnik caption Innocently, I said, “This caption says that Brodnik was killed by the Los Siete. But the members of Los Siete were acquitted of the crime. It shouldn’t say they killed them in a book in the library when they were actually found not guilty.”
Instead of shrugging and saying she’d look into it, as I’d expected, the woman became livid and started yelling at me, right there in the library. “How am I supposed to know what’s on every single thing in there?” she yelled. I had touched a nerve. I studied her more closely. She was in her late 50’s or early 60s, most likely. Blonde hair, freckles.
Her name plate said “Colleen.”
The two views of Mission history still clash at 20th and Mission.
The last couple of years of Magic Donuts depressingly mirrored many of the increasingly hard times for immigrants and longtime Mission residents. The donut shop had become a place where you could see 19 year old prostitutes get hit by 17 year old pimps. It was the place where Chaos nieces, Chan and Ra, worked all night in the shop before taking the early BART back to Hayward to attend high school.
In the last few months of the shop, there was often a 12 year old boy working all night often alone.
Today, the Sierra Hotel, a 55 unit SRO, remains empty across the street from the boarded p shop. The tenants were evicted during the dot com times from the hotel above the site of the old Anchor Billiard Hall where Rios and Aparicio once recruited.
The donut shop’s landlord, Bradley Jones of Novato, refuses to say what kind of business will soon occupy the shop’s site. The workers on the site all say it will be a pharmacy.
The closing of the shop after 52 years signals the end of an era for the neighborhood and asks what will come next for Mission, the longtime thorn in the side of police. A clue to the direction of things to come might be next door where the old neighborhood, working class bar, the Ton-Jo Room is now being threatened with losing its lease.
Ton-Jo Room bartender, Richard, is a big guy with longish, combed back gray hair and the tough-sounding, old Mission accent that is more Brooklyn than California. He is 68 but looks like he could easily fight and beat men half his age. He was born in Mission and has lived there his whole life.
“This is the neighborhood, what’s left of it,” Richard says, looking over a half-full bar of regulars, drinking at noon. “It’s not just the same people every day. They sit in the same seats and order the exact same drinks every day.”
At the Ton-Jo Room, time seems to stand still, like it once did at Hunt’s in the 25th hour. It is, already, like something out of Mission’s past, a black and white still in the library on 24th Street.
The Ton-Jo Room space is currently up for lease on Craigslist. The ad calls 20th and Mission “in the most improved part of the Mission,” and seeks a tenant to turn the building where Warren K. Billings once hid his guns into a nightclub “within two blocks of a Foreign Cinema and the Andorra Bed and Breakfast.”
The real estate agent leasing the Ton-Jo Room is Kevin Strain. I called him to ask him if he knew what might be build in the old Hunt’s site and casually mentioned htat I was working on a story about the history of the donut shop.
Strain responded with a completely unprovoked rant, talking uninterrupted for 3 or 4 full minutes.
“You’re writing a history of the donut shop? What? A history of pimps, dealers, and whores!?!” he bellowed into the phone. “I can tell from your accent that you’re not from around here. Well, let me tell you something. I’m six generations in this city since my family came from Ireland. The Mission is going to be gentrified and there’s nothing you socialists who live down there can do about it !”
At 20th and Mission, so one chapter ends as another appears to have begun. But the Epicenter of Crime exerts a curious hold on people. As if on cue, the white hipsters imported to the neighborhoods to “clean it up” have turned to drugs, too. The gang members still come from as far away as El Salvador or Mexico, only to fight each other at an imaginary line dividing the Mission at 20th Street. Is it a new chapter, after all? Or is it the same old film, years of grainy, black and white Hunt’s Donuts surveillance camera footage spinning off the reel?
The film that plays again and again in a closed loop. Somewhere in the 25th hour.”
To read more by Erick Lyle, BUY HIS DAMN BOOK! It’s called ” On The Lower Frequencies” and it’s awesome.