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GETTING WIRED IN THE GULCH CREATIVITY AND CODING MERGE IN SAN FRANCISCO'S MULTIMEDIA COMMUNITY

By Published on .

From atop a nearby hill, San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch, the so-called birthing place of the next generation in technology, doesn't look like much of a gulch, or much of anything leading edge, for that matter.

The collection of old brick warehouses, some precariously tacked together in this earthquake territory by steel strips, displays only the faded names of typesetters, printers and light industrial companies long gone.

It's different down on the streets, under the freeway where the Oakland Bay Bridge lands in the city, and around South Park, a piazza-like settlement that once was a premier neighborhood inhabitated by the families of tall-ship captains. People wearing black clothes and sporting pony tails, tattoos and body pierces, who know both creativity and coding, walk with a sense of urgency.

Here, "You have the epicenter of what may be the earthquake that changes communication," said Don Menn, editor in chief of International Data Group's Multi, a Gulch resident. "You feel like you're at the nexus," said another Gulch worker, Bruce Mowery, who has worked for Chiat/Day in Venice, at Apple Computer in the heart of Silicon Valley, and now as marketing director for MusicNet, an interactive shopping service.

Multimedia Gulch is the latest development on the sandy beaches of San Francisco Bay, once the southern end of the Barbary Coast.

The area once was home to the landing docks for boats hauling agricultural products from the fertile surrounding areas at the turn of the century. As the land was filled in, a number of warehouses sprang up. Over the years, the warehouses became home to typographers and typesetters. San Francisco's newspapers found a home here, as did numerous magazines, including the ultra-trendy Wired.

When the shipping industry moved elsewhere as the city evolved, photographers, architects, designers and artists looking for cheap loft space occupied the properties. They in turn attracted color processing labs and other support services.

Sound studios opened, producing the second-largest video community in the nation behind Hollywood. Pacific Telesis has its headquarters nearby, providing the industry with essential infrastructure tools, such as some of the first digital switches.

Nearby universities and research centers such as Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley brought talent. Most importantly, the Gulch boasts close proximity to the patrons of today's high-tech renaissance, the venture capitalists.

In the '80s, the area became known as Silicon Gulch, homage to the nearby Silicon Valley. But as multimedia became trendy, so did the name, and Multimedia Gulch stuck.

In all, the setting is perfect for the new "Hollywired" industry. The Gulch is home to more than two dozen multimedia companies and many more ancillary suppliers, according to the Multimedia Development Group, a San Francisco market development and trade organization.

Among those scattered about are magazine giants Ziff-Davis Consumer Media Group and IDG; Time Warner Interactive; multimedia game developers Mondo Media, Mechadeus and PF. Magic; music makers Dolby Laboratories, Dubeytunes Music & Sound and Light & Sound Publishing; computer-animation company Xaos Inc. and software company Xaos Tools; and numerous CD-ROM developers like Pop-Rocket and Sumeria.

"We need film processed. We need photographic supplies. We need sound production. There's a rich infrastructure of talent, expertise and support. And it's all within two blocks of us," said Jerry Borrell, founder and president of Sumeria, publisher of CD-ROM titles for Macintosh and Windows such as Scientific American's Exploring Ancient Cities.

Struggling entrepreneurs aren't the only ones flocking to the Gulch. Well-financed capitalists want to be there, too.

"I went through the labors of Hercules to be part of the fabric of this exploding new area," said J. Scott Briggs, president and publisher of Computer Life, who fought to plant the magazine in the Gulch instead of Ziff-Davis headquarters in New York.

"People who are interested in what I'm interested in just hang there," he said. "A few companies are in Foster City and San Mateo, but people don't hang there. Seattle has a high-tech community, but it's not a city. They only hang out at the health clubs."

The heart of hang in the Gulch is South Park, where buildings face an interior park space that feels like a London neighborhood.

Breakfast is served at the South Park Cafe or Centro, where the "in" drink is a decaf European-style brew with non-fat milk; other meals are more upscale at Ecco, a trendy restaurant serving California-tinged European cuisine, and more downscale at what is simply known as "the burrito place."

The park also sports an open-air employee lunchroom of sorts for those who brown-bag it or stop at a nearby mom-and-pop grocery store to pick up a bite. There are a few picnic tables in the center lawn at which to chat and get a bit of sun.

Aside from these natural gathering spots, entrepreneurship breeds entrepreneurship, and a new genre of restaurants has premiered near the Gulch, including the Icon Byte, which dishes up the Internet via on-site computers along with the more mundane lunch and dinner.

Multimedia World's Mr. Menn knows the power of these networking sites. He recently met Lily Burana, the editor of one of the hottest publications in the Gulch-FutureSex magazine-at one.

"I was introduced to a woman who said she was in the business," he said. "I asked what branch of the business, and it seems she has been in all the branches of the business," including working for an escort service, as a stripper and as a dominatrix. Currently, Ms. Burana is studying for a journalism degree at Berkeley, he said.

She's not unlike the other Gulchers devoted to making the virtual world real, often by working long hours seven days a week. It's a place where '90s hippies slave away long hours which "would put the head of General Motors to shame," said Mr. Menn, and where the big joke is that the greatest reward a boss can give a worker is to take the weekend off.

Inside, Gulch offices range from the traditional modern workplace decor to traditional Silicon Valley start-up motif. At CD-ROM developer Sumeria, a trio of black leather couches serves as a reception area and a nap site for those working long hours, strings of multicolored Christmas tree lights festoon the support columns, and a Ping-Pong table serves as the centerpiece of the action.

Like New York's SoHo, the Gulch has its artistic influences.

Across from South Park is the Capp Street Project, an alternative museum for installation art and a place some believe serves as a metaphor for what is happening in the Gulch.

One piece at a recent exhibition began with a sign next to a doorway cautioning persons who are pregnant or suffering from heart maladies not to enter. Once inside, the visitor finds an isolation booth with a second cautionary sign. This time, the warning involves the possibility of getting dusty. Inside the final room is a candle stuck into a mound of fine clay.

"Before you know it, you're up to your ankles in fine clay dust," said MusicNet's Mr. Mowery. And if the artist intended to remind man of his mortality, that he is made of clay and will return to dust one day, Mr. Mowery gets it. "When you're with a start-up, every day's a near-death experience," he said.

There are other artistic influences stemming from a spontaneity in the Gulch that cannot be confused with a stuffy financial district environment. This summer, old computers and antique machines were piled 10 feet high in South Park, topped with the sign "Tribute to Obsolete Technology."

That's the kind of thing that can happen only in the Gulch, said Lee Doyle, public relations manager for Gulch resident PC World Magazine.

For sure, not all of the multimedia world is centered in the Gulch. Some of the biggest companies have spread north, south and east as well.

Software developer Autodesk is in Sausalito, Calif. Books That Work is in Palo Alto. New York snared CD-ROM developer Voyager Co. from southern California's Santa Monica.

"I don't know if San Francisco is going to be the one [multimedia center] or not," said David Bunell, chairman and editor of New Media, whose offices are outside the city in San Mateo. "I think multimedia is this huge thing which is much larger than one place. It's going to be everywhere," he said.

Gulch workers have had cars stolen from a courtyard parking lot, and some have been mugged, attacked or robbed.

And while it's trendy now to be in multimedia, Gulchers recognize that trends aren't meant to last. What may be called Multimedia Gulch today may be something completely different tomorrow. But somehow, the melding of creativity and technology will remain.

"There's the taxes, high rents, city controls and lack of support," Sumeria's Mr. Borrell said. "But we all stay because of the creative environment. The cool air rolls in and chills our bones and keeps the blood flowing."

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