SOMA leather alley dedicated
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Today, Ringold Alley is barely recognizable from its golden age of the 1960s, when it served as a beacon of sexual freedom for San Francisco's leather community. Although it has been years since gay and bisexual men cruised the industrial, dark alley looking to get lucky, the area once again experienced a landmark moment Tuesday afternoon.
After some 11 years in the making, a leather ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for the South of Market redevelopment project that includes LSeven, a 420-unit apartment complex, a public park, and a $2 million installation honoring leather community luminaries that began with an idea from Jim Meko, who died in 2015.
Officially known as the San Francisco South of Market Leather History Alley, the installation includes bootprints honoring men and women who made a lasting contribution to the city's leather community. Developer 4Terra Investments paid for the leather historical elements as part of the capital improvements it was required to fund.
More than 300 people gathered in the park under the late afternoon sun July 26 to hear the story of this collaborative project and to honor the leather community's influence and contributions to the neighborhood. Many were dressed head-to-toe in leather, including people from the Mr. S Leather contingent, Society of Janus, San Francisco's Leathermen's Discussion Group, along with members of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, local officials, and people from LSeven's various teams.
"This gives me a warm feeling inside," said Rio Spooner, a lesbian proudly decked out in her leather pants and vest that read "The Exiles" on the back, a women's leather club. "As a community we're so used to being in the shadows and being overlooked. It's very validating to be recognized for our contributions to the community."
Before speakers of the event like gay former state Senator Mark Leno and leather historian Gayle Rubin came to the podium, people walked the alley, which runs between Eighth and Ninth streets, to get a glimpse of the new installation.
Vibrant black, blue, and white stripes adorn several newly built bulb-outs on the sidewalk of the one-way alley representing the leather flag. Stone plinths, recycled curbstones that once lined city streets, come up from the ground of the bulb-outs bearing the names of iconic leather businesses. Bronze bootprints, made from the left and right soles of a pair of Dehners boots owned by Mike McNamee, the founder and former owner of Stompers, also grace the sidewalk bearing names of 30 significant leather figures.
After viewing the installation, three men sat together reminiscing about the time they cruised Ringold Alley and what today's event means to them.
"I used to hang out here all the time. I was here a lot," said Jason Macario, a member of the Bears of San Francisco. Macario sat with Steve Holst and Mike Caffee.
"I knew all those guys. I was in a relationship with Peter Hartman for 10 and a half years," he said.
Macario said it was Hartman, owner of 544 Natoma art gallery and theater, who brought Alan Selby, founder of the Mr. S Leather store and known as the "Mayor of Folsom Street," to San Francisco. Both men's names are represented in the installation.
Macario and Holst went on to tell stories about how the industrial area was quiet during the day, but after the bars would shut down, the gay scene came alive; the significance of the monument; and how the leather community was hit hard by AIDS.
"It's important to have something to remember them by," Holst said of the people memorialized.
The installation also includes a rendering of a mural by Chuck Arnett once found on the wall of the Toolbox and shown in a photo in the June 1964 issue of Life magazine that accompanied the now infamous article "Homosexuality in America." An image of Caffee's sculpture, "Leather David," a rendering of the famous biblical character decked out in a leather outfit, also adorns the marker.
Caffee is one of the men pictured in the "Homosexuality in America" photo and proud to have attended the ceremony on Tuesday. He also talked about what Ringold Alley used to be like.
"Cars were wrapped around the corner, there were so many people," he said.
During remarks, Amir Massih, northern California president of 4Terra Investments, served as host. He thanked everyone involved in the project, including the San Francisco Planning Commission; Folsom Street Events, which agreed to maintain the leather installation; and the West SOMA Task Force.
Leno spoke about the city's increasing housing shortage. He emphasized the redevelopment's low-income housing, retail and makers' space and said that the project is an exemplary way to create housing without displacing those who have been living here for many years.
"This is a great project that represents so many community voices," Leno said. "So much of the history of what the neighborhood used to be is here today."
Rubin talked about the community's history, including the start of the Up Your Alley Fair, which began in 1985 and will hold its 33rd iteration Sunday, July 30. She said although this is a significant moment in leather history, there is still more work to be done.
"There is nothing else like this anywhere in the world," she said of the installation. "But we haven't done everything there is to be done. We need to make new stories of durable public art, especially of stigmatized communities."