"We're all concerned about
the loss of gay neighborhoods"
A SOMA leadership council white paper
July 16, 2007
Last Fall, the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force began
holding discussions on the subject of historic preservation. Rather
than focusing only on the preservation of building types unique
to the area, it became clear that SoMa was home to two particular
communities -- the Filipino and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual,
Transexual and Queer or Questioning) communities -- which have
contributed enormously to the character of the neighborhood over
the last fifty years. The continuing existence of these communities
has been threatened by the development pressures engulfing the
eastern neighborhoods of San Francisco.
Both communities have experienced a declining population, with
demographics shifting the center of gravity for the Filipino community
further down the peninsula and the LGBTQ community, still recovering
from the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, taking advantage of greater
acceptance throughout the Bay Area by moving away from traditional
Nevertheless, South of Market remains the symbolic geographic
center for both communities. The Bindlestiff Theatre is the only
resident Filipino theatre company in the United States, Bessie
Carmichael School offers the only two-way Spanish and Tagalog
immersion program in the Bay Area and cultural celebrations such
as the Pistahan Parade and the colorful Christmas Lantern (Parol)
Festival attract tens of thousand of visitors from around the
Likewise, SoMa's gay leather community has established such an
international reputation that the term "Folsom Street"
has become a brand name for kink. The Folsom Street Fair, the
third largest annual outdoor event in the state of California,
has inspired similar events such as Folsom Street East in New
York City and Folsom Europe in Berlin. The tragedy of AIDS hit
South of Market particularly hard and the community's response
became the international standard for compassionate care and grassroots
On April 18, 2007, the SoMa Leadership Council agendized the
topic, "LGBTQ cultural preservation in SoMa" at its
regular monthly meeting. Several representatives of the Castro
Coalition, Tito Vandermeyden and Demian Quesnel, and Frank Weiss
from the Eureka Valley Promotion Association joined us.
The Castro has seen an erosion of its gay identity, fueled by
speculation and gentrification, resulting in local institutions
being replaced by formula retail uses and affordable housing by
multi-million dollar monster homes. The Castro Coalition is a
grassroots effort to preserve neighborhoods that are friendly
places for the LGBTQ population to meet, that provide community
space, are accepting of LGBTQ social mores and celebrate our history
and outward identity. The group has attempted to find a place
within institutional planning circles -- and includes in its ranks
several professional planners and geographers -- but until now
has lacked a vehicle with which to engage in the sort of cultural
preservation Western SoMa hopes to codify. There was great excitement
over what the two groups might accomplish. A followup meeting
On May 3, 2007, again under the auspices of the SoMa Leadership
Council, another meeting, with the theme "We're all concerned
about the loss of gay neighborhoods," was held. In attendance
were Tito Vandermeyden, Michael Mullin, David A. Morgan, Randy
Alfred, Marc Salomon, Jazzie Collins, Alex Brennan, Demian Quesnel,
Steve Hall, Adam Light and myself. Others, including Brian Basinger,
Joe Curtin, Debra Walker, Terrance Alan, Tim Frye, Dan Dibartolo
and Alan Martinez also expressed interest but were unable to attend.
Martinez, along with Vandermeyden and Quesnel, were prime movers
of the Friends of 1800 project which produced a detailed report
to the Landmarks Board back in 2004 that established the context
for the creation of an LGBTQ historic district in San Francisco.
Their work was followed by another proposal for inclusion in the
Board's 2007 work program leading to the establishment of a "Gay
Leather Community Thematic District." Both proposals centered
around historic resource surveys of the city that would explicitly
recognize the contributions of LGBTQ peoples to the history and
culture of San Francisco.
The Planning Department has already sketched out the boundaries
for a South of Market light industrial historic preservation district.
Its boundaries encompass areas of importance to both the Filipino
and LGBTQ communities. The very industrial nature of South of
Market contributed to SoMa's attraction to both communities. Any
historic survey of the area has to combine its analysis of building
types and uses with the cultural context they promoted.
The Western SoMa Task Force has acquired a full time staff member
at the Planning Department who has begun to write the Strategic
Analysis Memo outlining existing conditions as they relate to
cultural preservation and the Complete Neighborhood Fabric Committee
has placed cultural preservation on its July agenda. With one
year left in this community-based planning process, it's time
to publish a summary of these two meetings.
South of Market is not intrinsically beautiful. Since the 1840s,
few populations have claimed it as their own. Rather, it has served
as an entry point for a succession of newcomers, from the gold
miners of 1849 and Chinese railroad workers of the 1860s to generations
of longshoremen, factory workers, auto body shop employees and
taxi drivers -- Latinos, Chinese, Germans and Irish -- but nearly
all eventually moved on to settle other parts of the city. It
was SoMa's inherit unattractiveness that promised the Filipino
community a respite from the push of gentrification and offered
the gay leather community space to be left alone.
SoMa's gay bars began on the waterfront in the 1940s and were
gradually pushed westward until now they primarily reside in Western
SoMa. With only a few exceptions, most are small neighborhood-sized
bars, frequently located where German and Irish working class
establishments once thrived, and the adjacent inexpensive housing
on SoMa's alleys attracted a residential population that flocked
to San Francisco as the sexual revolution spread the word that
this was the gay mecca. Bars, baths, leather shops and porn studios
were joined by art galleries, restaurants, clothing stores and
auto repair shops that explicitly catered to this new population.
SoMa became a community of caregivers as AIDS took its toll on
our best and brightest. Great art was lost but even greater art
was born in response. The gay economy was devastated yet beginning
in 1987, "Every Penny Counts," a charity that benefits
the AIDS Emergency Fund, has consistently collected between $100,000
and $200,000 in coins every year since. The definition of family
was rewritten in the railroad flats of South of Market's alleys.
Affordable housing is by far the most important component of
LGBTQ cultural preservation. With the gentrification of the Castro
and high-rise market rate housing crowding SoMa on all sides,
Western SoMa offers one of the last chances to preserve an economically
diverse LGBTQ population. Zoning controls for the residential
enclaves should set high standards for affordability, density
controls should be reevaluated, housing types reconsidered.
Architecture for gays is not necessarily the same as for traditional
families. A gay family usually has several breadwinners; they
develop extended families; adopt children; produce music and art.
Market rate SRO units might provide an attractive price point
but they ignore the social realities that SoMa's older housing
stock has had the flexibility to provide. The notion of one master
bedroom doesn't serve gay families very well.
Gay youth still flock to South of Market because of the vibrant
entertainment opportunities. Gay seniors hold on because of the
existing community institutions. Housing for an aging LGBTQ population
and housing for long term survivors of AIDS all reinforce the
need for more affordable housing.
An LGBTQ cultural preservation district should seek to encourage
the return of gay institutions. That might include art galleries,
theaters and community gathering spaces. A Folsom Boulevard that
respects the district's heritage should include arts and entertainment
opportunities that are compatible with existing residential and
The decision to close the bathhouses was made in an era of panic
and political pressure. Elsewhere such facilities continue to
serve as a focal point for the community that fulfills an educational
role and promotes safe sex practices. More than twenty years later,
this policy decision deserves another look.
Likewise, an LGBTQ district should preserve and enhance the cultural
aspects of community that developed here: respect, passion, uniqueness.
There are buildings of historic importance to the LGBTQ community
-- the SF Eagle for its history of prodigious fundraising, the
Endup and Philips Hotel (SF Asia) for their contributions to music,
dance and diversity -- but it remains to be seen whether historic
designation proves to be in the best financial interests of any
of these businesses.
Every generation that preceded the arrival of the LGBTQ community
deserves respect. Remnants of its ethnic, artistic and socioeconomic
past continue to define SoMa. More recent residents bring new
opportunities with them.
But one thing is certain: newcomers to Western SoMa should be
greeted by signs, plaques or banners proclaiming that this neighborhood
matters a lot to us. In "The Miracle Mile: South of Market
and Gay Male Leather 1962-1977," Gayle Rubin, the noted gay
leather historian, quotes Tom Ammiano back in 1988 quipping that
"when gay people take over a neighborhood, they call it gentrification
[but] when straight people take over a neighborhood, they call
it a renaissance." Rubin punctuates the observation with
a photo (circa 1986) of graffiti on a concrete wall proclaiming,
"South of Market Dies Screaming!"
Meko is a South of Market activist, currently serving as chair
of both the SoMa Leadership Council and the Western
SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force and as a member of San Francisco's
Gayle Rubin, Sites, Settlements, and Urban Sex: Archaeology
and the Study of Gay Leathermen in San Francisco, 1955-1995. Robert
A. Schmidt and Barbara L. Voss, editors. Archaeologies of Sexuality.
New York: Routledge; 2000
The Miracle Mile: South of Market and Gay Male Leather, 1962-1997.
Chris Carlsson and Nancy J. Peters, editors. Reclaiming San Francisco:
Politics, Culture. San Francisco: City Lights; 1998; pp. 247-272
Damon Scott, for the Friends of 1800, Development of Sexual
Identity Based Subcultures in San Francisco, 1933-1979 Context
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