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"We're all concerned about
the loss of gay neighborhoods"

A SOMA leadership council white paper

Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Jim Meko

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 gay neighborhoods.

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 country.

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 fundraising.

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 was scheduled.

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 commercial populations.

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!"

Jim 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 Entertainment Commission.

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. James Brook,
Chris Carlsson and Nancy J. Peters, editors. Reclaiming San Francisco: History,
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 Statement.
Deviant History, Defiant Heritage, .pdf
SOMA Leather.doc

Editor's Note: Views expressed by columnists published on FogCityJournal.com are not necessarily the views or beliefs of Fog City Journal. Fog City Journal supports free speech in all its varied forms and provides a forum for a complete spectrum of viewpoints.



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