Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 38 / 21 September 2017
 

Lone Star's state

Nightlife

Iconic bear bar gains legacy status


Hunky bears on the patio at The Lone Star's recent Cubcake on August 12. photo: Gareth Gooch
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In more good news for South of Market gay bars, The Lone Star Saloon was recently granted Legacy status by a new measure that aims to support historic businesses. The Lone Star is one of nine businesses, and the first gay bar on the list.

Known as the birthplace of gay bear culture, and a relaxing laid-back tavern for many, the bar has been home to sports team beer busts, celebrations, and the popular patio gatherings for decades.

Co-owner Tony Huerta explained the process of gaining legacy status, and how the recent sale of the building where the bar is located, once considered a threat to its livelihood, is now helping secure its future.

"Back in November, after Proposition J passed, I got together with Supervisor Jane Kim, and we filled out the application for the legacy status," said Huerta in a phone interview. "Six months later, we had a hearing date, we were vetted with the San Francisco Historical Society. We had passed all the hurdles, and last Monday was our hearing date."

Huerta, 43, and his business partner J.J. Beck, let friends and employees know about the open City Hall hearing, where he was pleasantly surprised by the turnout of support. Huerta and his colleagues spoke about the years of community connections with The Lone Star.

Faced with the former owner of his bar's building limiting his lease renewal to three years, Huerta faced a possible closure. "He knew he could get more money for the building," he said.

The situation led him to campaign strongly for Proposition J, which provides assistance to owners of buildings and businesses with historical relevance. The Small Business Commission granted nine businesses this status last week.

But that relief was not easy to achieve.

"It was stalled at City Hall for months," said Huerta. "The Mayor wouldn't find money for anyone to staff it and move it into the process. He kind of dragged his feet, and it sat there for six months."

During that time, Huerta said, he remained in contact with Supe. Kim, whom he said was frustrated, too. "We thought things would start moving."

Then, The Lone Star's building was put up for sale.

Lone Star co-owner Tony Huerta

"I thought I would lose everything," said Huerta. "I could lose my business. You see it happening all over the city."

Huerta contacted other city officials, including former Supervisor Bevan Dufty and current Supervisor David Campos, who asked Huerta to speak at a news conference at City Hall.

The night before the announced press conference, Mayor Ed Lee agreed to implement the Prop J legislation and hire a staffer, Richard Kurylo.

Huerta said, "Since then things have moved along quickly."

The legacy status designation does have limitations. A business should be 30 years old, or at least 20 and facing displacement. It sets aside money in city funds in the form of annual grants, which are optional for landlords to supplement increased rent, based on square footage. Other grants are based on a business's number of employees.

Although these options are helpful, for Huerta, "The money is nice, and it helps, but what mattered most was the legacy status. The city is reaching out and saying, 'We hear you, we see you, your contribution, and your businesses are important to us.'"

 

 

The Lone Star Saloon's original staff and co-owners outside the bar's first location on Howard Street, shortly after the October 1989 earthquake. photo: courtesy Tony Huerta

Lone Star legacy

The Lone Star Saloon was opened at 1098 Howard Street in June 1989 by founder Rick Redewell. The bar was later damaged in the October 1989 earthquake, forcing the staff to move undamaged equipment and decor to their current Harrison Street location, across the street from the site of the notorious gay leather biker bar The Ambush, which had closed in 1987.

"Rick wanted to reach out to blue collar working class gay men," said Huerta. "People were looking for that community."

Eschewing the shaved, coiffed and buff looks of the Castro '80s, The Lone Star, like its SoMa neighbors The Eagle and Hole in the Wall, are part of a long history of alternative gay bars popular with those who like rock music, and men with a bit, or a lot, of scruff.

Around the corner from The Lone Star on 9th Street, Bear Magazine's offices created the first publication in 1987 focusing specifically on the bigger, hairier men often under-represented in other gay media. The two businesses combined forces to define a culture.

Lone Star Saloon founder Rick Redewell

Redewell owned the bar for four years before he died of AIDS in April 1993.

"He was such a visionary," said Huerta. "I feel that legacy each day. As bear culture has become mainstream, the role of the gay bar as a sanctuary becomes less important. That, in a way, is a good thing. But I still go with that vision of a safe space where you can be different and come to The Lone Star and feel accepted."

Huerta and Beck took over the bar eight years ago, when it was, Huerta said, in rough financial shape. They endured the 2008 economic crash, and its slow recovery.

"When we bought the bar, I thought it was the smartest or stupidest thing I'd ever done," said Huerta. "Eight years ago, it was hemorrhaging money, and was going to close, if we hadn't bought it."

Huerta called their saving move a "Hail Mary pass."

Fortunately, they have survived, but he says the bar's patronage has changed.

"The people that make up my customer base got priced out of the city," said Huerta, then contrasting, "New people in San Francisco are young, but also working constantly to live. So they no longer need a place to come and be a barfly."

The eclectic back patio décor at The Lone Star. photo: Gareth Gooch

Still, the bar remains popular, with special events, fundraisers, even a women's night.

"The Lone Star is a vibrant viable business, with regular customers and loyal employees. They keep the lights on," said Huerta. Along with The Eagle and The Stud, "The three of us on Harrison Street are hanging in there."

But he is concerned about shifting economics, specifically in the Bay Area, and in the gay community.

"We're living in different times," he said. "The way we communicate changes the way we go to bars. We used to go to a bar to find out what's happening, or to meet people."

That's still going on, in a way, even if hook-up apps have changed the way some people meet. Huerta mentioned his bar's regulars, the hosted birthday parties, Thanksgiving dinners, even memorials and a wedding.

"We've raised untold thousands for AIDS nonprofits, for sports groups, breast cancer, homeless people and even dog charities." Huerta referenced President Obama's recent designation of New York City's Stonewall Inn as a national monument to gay culture and civil rights.

A historic poster from The Lone Star Saloon's 1990 reopening; art by Rex.

"The gay bar is just beginning to be recognized for the cultural importance it's had," he said.

But it's also a business, and, said Huerta, "the marriage of those two things can be complicated. People want businesses like mine to give them comfort and be there for them. They have to remember that our business needs a customer base. That's how you support bars. People want to support us when we're in scary situations. But also, the thing to do visit us and buy a beer."

The Lone Star, 1354 Harrison St. www.lonestarsf.com

 






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