The Florida Room, a bar on North Killingsworth at Haight, boasts a tall, retro-kitsch sign—reminiscent of old motels and drive-ins—visible from at least three blocks away. A white oval with the bar's name sits atop a 40-foot pole. Below, a flashing yellow arrow points toward the bar. Nestled in the arrow, a three-line marquee advertises the bar's "Church of the Bloody Mary" Sunday brunch.
In January, another message was added—borrowing a phrase from the bar menu, "SIN ALL THE DAMN TIME" went up on the illuminated sign (SIN is an acronym for "Service Industry Night," a common phrase in bar lingo). Below, "GO TEAM EVIL" references the corporate name for the trio of owners, a name that also appears on T-shirts for sale behind the bar.
"When we put it up, it was spur of the moment," says co-owner Mike Hanson. "We didn't think it would be any big deal. We're not trying to be provocateurs."
But almost immediately, complaints from neighbors started pouring in. Bartenders fielded calls nearly every day, passersby popped in to voice their opinion on the SIN phrase (two also inquired about co-owner Patti Earley's "relationship with God," she says), and the Humboldt Neighborhood Association (HNA) asked Florida Room's owners to attend a meeting to discuss the sign. On March 13, the bar got a letter from two North Portland residents, asking that the Florida Room "immediately remove this advertisement," which they contended was "offensive, inappropriate, degrading, misleading to the children in the community, and insensitive to the history and tradition of the community."
Earley handled many of the complaints. "I was very patient, trying to explain that everyone knows what [SIN] means," Earley says, sitting at the end of her bar on a Monday evening, nibbling on fries. "I don't feel like we're personally encouraging people to do bad things."
The Florida Room's two other owners attended a HNA meeting. "Some Humboldt residents felt that the sign promotes violence and bad behavior. The owners of the Florida Room that attended the January neighborhood meeting felt differently and stated they would not change the sign," explains HNA President Nancy Clark via email. "They even presented a petition that was signed by patrons who felt that the community was being overly sensitive."
Hanson, who attended the HNA meeting, says the SIN motto speaks to "who we are and who we cater to." Sitting next to Earley at the bar, Hanson explained that many of their regulars are servers and bartenders at other bars and restaurants. Earley pointed to the dozen or so patrons sipping drinks, and counted at least half as service industry employees. "We really like service industry clientele," she says. "They know how to drink, and how to tip."
"And they know exactly what we're fucking talking about [on the sign]," Hanson adds.
That said, the Florida Room isn't out to anger neighbors: Indeed, the bar has done plenty to maintain a working relationship with those who live nearby. Their patio closes at 10 pm. A sign on the front door asks patrons to keep it closed, which keeps the noise inside. And the owners hammered out a Good Neighbor Agreement with the HNA. (Clark says, "The Florida Room has worked hard to abide by the Good Neighbor Agreement and may feel like this is one thing they will not compromise on.")
"I'm all for reasonable compromise. But just driving by and being offended by words is not reasonable," Earley says. When it comes to the sign, "we're not going to meet in the middle."
Clark concedes that the Florida Room's sign is protected by freedom of speech. "I am in no way trying to censor the Florida Room," she says, "but instead ask that they be a part of the solution that promotes a positive image of Humboldt as a safe and culturally diverse neighborhood."
The Florida Room's owners say they don't want to be reactive, and change the sign just because of complaints. But Hanson says they are expecting a letter-changing pole to arrive any day, and then they'll likely change the sign. "Maybe to something else offensive and vulgar," Earley says wryly.