Mister SF in The Examiner Q&A

Hank Donat, aka Mister SF

December 9, 2002

Mister SF explores city's soul
Of The Examiner Staff

Hank Donat is a columnist, comedian, former ad man and creator of MisterSF.com, a Web site detailing every nook, cranny and personality that shapes The City. Not only has he documented the businesses that have come and gone, he's walked miles through practically every neighborhood in town.

Nina Wu: How did you come up with the idea for MisterSF.com? Are you Mister SF?
Hank Donat: Well, on the Internet, I'm Mister SF. I conceived of the Web site a couple of years ago because I was traveling a lot. And every time I came back to The City, I got word about one of our great institutions that was closing, whether it was the Washington Square Bar & Grill or Jack's Restaurant or the AIDS Memorial Quilt. I was looking on the Internet for an archive of San Francisco's evolving culture. When I found that it didn't exist, I said, "I'll create it." And that was really the beginning of it.

Q: Are you a native San Franciscan?
A: No, I've been here for 20 years. I did a column on what it means to be a native San Franciscan, and when you can give yourself a party and announce that you're a San Franciscan. What I wrote in the column was that you can be here 15 minutes and be a San Franciscan or be here all your life - and not. I think you're a San Franciscan when you realize you belong to it, and not the other way around.

Q: So you consider yourself a San Franciscan.
A: You bet.

Q: And you say the mission of your site is to preserve the character of The City.
A: The Web site is also the online outlet for my column, Heart of The City, which appears on Tuesdays in the San Francisco Independent. The vision of both the Web site and column is to be a well where you can go to for optimism, love of city and love of neighbor. When people complain about The City, I like to ask them what they're doing to make it a better place. This is my contribution. I'm going into my third year. I've had 6 million hits to the Web site in 2002 alone. I say on the Web site that the heart of The City is in the hills, the fog and these beautiful vistas, but it's the soul of The City that beats inside the people who live and work here.

Q: How do you define a San Franciscan?
A: Someone who loves this unique place, someone who is passionate about contributing to the character of this unique place, someone who looks at The City and says, "This is my home."

Q: How about Mayor Willie Brown?
A: Well, Mayor Willie Brown is a San Franciscan, to be sure. San Franciscans also have great character and, a lot of times, great character comes with great controversy. We got a lot of those and we embrace them. San Francisco lends itself to characters, to be sure.

Q: How much time do you put into Mister SF?
A: It's what I do 24/7 - because there are times I can't even get away from it. There are times I leave The City on an errand and I'll come back and have met three great local folks who wanted to say hello, or I'll stumble across a hidden stairway walk I've never seen before. All the columnists who write about San Francisco on a regular basis are looking for that essence, that unique essence that says San Francisco. So I go looking for that. And I'll tell you - sometimes it finds me.

Q: What are your favorite neighborhoods?
A: I spend a lot of time in North Beach, but I also spend a lot of time in the Sunset, which might surprise people. I spend time in all of the neighborhoods. Often, I'll meet a friend for coffee - it'll be one o'clock in the afternoon - and I'll have already visited seven neighborhoods.

Q: Tell me about the first time you landed in San Francisco. A: I landed at Transbay Terminal, 16 years old, with a friend. And my first trip to San Francisco was a walk down Market Street. So I can say I walked into this fantastic place with my eyes wide open. My first vision of San Francisco was not its loveliest. Mid-Market 20 years ago was just as Market Street is today. (When I came back to the City permanently after the Air Force, I took a limo from the airport with my last few bucks! - HD)

Q: Are you politically involved?
A: I'm politically minded, which in San Francisco is really touch and go. Again, I look for common ground.

Q: Who would you want to vote for as the next mayor?
A: I'm looking for a candidate with the ethics of (Tom) Ammiano, the passion of Angela (Alioto), the contacts of Gavin (Newsom), and the fiscal smarts of Susan (Leal).

Q: You advocate supporting independent businesses - tell me about that.
A: These independent neighborhood businesses are the heart of the city, let's make no mistake about that. These mom-and-pop businesses, these family-run businesses, these are the character of the neighborhood. What would North Beach be without these family-owned, independent businesses?

Q: Are we losing them?
A: Absolutely, we're losing them. Chain stores are a part of that, economic realities are a part of that. If we don't support our neighborhood businesses - there goes the neighborhood.

MisterSF.com Copyright 2001 Hank Donat
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