Walking tour looks
at Folsom's history
by David Duran
A new walking tour of San Francisco's Folsom district provides an entertaining history of the birth of the leather community, as well as honors and celebrates a neighborhood that was hit hard by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Explore San Francisco, a tour company, has begun offering its Historic Folsom tours. While Michael Moran, owner of Explore SF was doing some research, he came across the proposal for the LGBT Social Heritage Special Use District and was surprised he had never heard of it before. He later discovered that the proposal is to create a historic area in the old Folsom district that recognizes the areas as the center of the city's LGBT leather community.
"It just seemed too important for me not to try and create more awareness of it," said Moran.
As he continued to ask more people about the special use district, he was startled at how many LGBT people didn't know much about the Folsom district at all.
"It seemed like maybe there was some awareness that there were bathhouses out there somewhere, but they were shut down because of AIDS and had nothing to do with the wishes of the redevelopment agency," he said.
Moran feels it's important for the community to know where it came from and to understand how it came to be what it is today. The whole South of Market area has long been a battlefield between developers and residents.
South of Market used to be a working class neighborhood, with butchers and beauty salons, bars and flower shops. Many of the residents there were single men living in single-room occupancy hotels and many were retired longshoremen and seamen.
"These guys knew how to organize and they were scrappy, they fought back against City Hall and although in the end they lost, there were many victories," said Moran. "Next time you are in the area look around and notice how on some blocks there are still old buildings left, the master plan for the area was to raze every building and build big office/condo/box store towers but clearly that didn't happen."
The gay men who colonized the Folsom district moved into an area that was in a state of flux. Most of the previous residents, who had the means to move, did so, because the area had been declared blighted by the redevelopment agency and was going to be re-built, according to Moran. But the court battles with the longshoremen and other groups in the area effectively stalled the redevelopment so there were lots of cheap rents to be had and a lot of empty buildings.
At one time there were 30 gay bars and bathhouses in the Folsom area. There were also many gay hotels and guesthouses, restaurants, coffee houses, theaters, motorcycle clubs, social clubs, a gay shopping center, and lesbian-owned businesses.
The onslaught of the AIDS epidemic led to a debate about the gay bathhouses. Health officials wanted them closed to slow the spread of the disease; many gay men wanted them to remain open.
"When the AIDS crisis hit, the city had its chance to make a move and they took it, they closed the bathhouses," said Moran.
After the closure of the bathhouses, many bars that depended on that traffic ended up closing as well.
"Just when it seemed that the Folsom district was going to be paved over and made into a giant office theme park, the Folsom Street Fair came out of nowhere – the fair was a brilliant idea and a Hail Mary pass to call attention to and to save what was left of the neighborhood and it was a move that worked, and for now, continues to work," added Moran.
The fair, which started in 1984, has become one of the world's biggest street parties catering to the leather and fetish communities. The 29th annual Folsom Street Fair takes place Sunday, September 23.
The Historic Folsom tour highlights important places while the tour guides tell entertaining antidotes.
"I think people are surprised at just how gay 'crack alley' on 6th use to be," said Moran. The guides tell a story of how many of the early streets were named. There is also a segment of the tour that focuses on bathhouse fires.
The tour guides are Alixx Ortiz, who is a seminary student at the Pacific School of Religion and his partner Kevin Roberts, who is also a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence (Sister Mora Lee D'Klined).
"A preacher and a Sister, and they kind of have a Sonny and Cher vibe, almost," stated Moran.
As far as their preparation, Moran did the bulk of the research, mostly with the assistance of the GLBT Historical Society. He compiled months of research and gave the info to Ortiz, then they walked the route several times.
"Then they did their magic and compiled all of the data into a script of sorts, and memorized their lines and facts," said Moran. "It is a lot of information to convey and they do a fantastic job and have a lot of fun doing it."
The next Historic Folsom tour will take place on October 20, (always the third Saturday of the month). Tour groups max out at approximately 15 people in order for everyone to be able to ask questions. There is an additional add-on combined with the tour for participants. Kink.com offers a special promotional tour price of $15 for guests who opt to attend the armory tour after the Folsom tour (18 and older only). Guests can take both tours for $40. More information can be found at http://exploresf.biz/.