A Celebration of Streetbar - How the first gay bar in Palm Springs signaled a change
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Writing about LGBT history in San Francisco tends to give you a particular perspective. We have seen the reduction of neighborhoods (like Polk Street) and the closing of the Lexington Club, the last lesbian bar in town. It's easy to assume that we are in a time of decline.
But it's important to understand that not all cities are the same and that they're not all following the same trajectory.
In honor of Palm Springs Pride, which happens at the beginning of November, here is a very different story from a Southern Californian city.
Palm Springs has been associated with the gay community for a very long time. But as David Wallace points out in his book A City Comes Out: How Celebrities Made Palm Springs a Gay and Lesbian Paradise, for a long time its association with Hollywood (and celebrities like Rock Hudson and Liberace) also meant that it was a closeted association.
Part of the bargain that closeted celebrity status entailed was dealing with politicians and a business community that abhorred public displays of homosexuality — and it was well known. In 1980 Mr. Marcus, writing in the Bay Area Reporter referred this in a column:
"Handsome Troy Hignite, manager of the CC Construction Co. in Palm Springs area blew into town last week. In case you didn't know it, CC means Cathedral City, a suburb of the Springs. Everyone knows gay bars are banned there."
Marcus was correct. Damron's guidebooks list all of the gay bars for Palm Springs through the '80s as actually being in Cathedral City. Since Cathedral City was not incorporated as a city till 1981, it was easier to open gay bars there.
But the animosity that Palm Springs politicos expressed towards gay people went further than this. At a press conference in late 1984 to express opposition to a clothing-optional resort becoming an AIDS hospice, then-Mayor Frank Bogert said,
"The whole world now has the idea that Palm Springs is the place you go to get AIDS. When (tourists) hear Palm Springs has an AIDS place, they're not going to come here."
It took considerable nerve for Dick Haskamp, the late owner of Streetbar (224 E Arenas Road), to buy the bar with a partner in 1991, before effective AIDS therapies were available.
It is true that by that time Sonny Bono (who was less antagonistic to the gay community than Bogert) was Palm Spring's mayor. But it is also true that Haskamp was a first-time business owner. He had initially been a bartender at Streetbar Named Desire (as the bar was initially called).
There were LGBT restaurants prior to Streetbar's opening (Gloria's and the Red Raven), but Streetbar was the first gay bar in town. In a 2010 interview on KPTR's Business Outvoice program, Haskamp said that in 1991 the bar was the "only gay business on Arenas road — most of the storefronts were vacant."
That certainly wasn't the case for long. In the next few years other LGBT businesses moved onto the block. I spoke with Streetbar Manager David Farnsworth who told me, "I started in 2000 and the street was full at that time."
Clearly the reason that the bar was such a success was that Haskamp enjoyed entertaining the bar's guests and hired a crew of workers with the same attitude. In the 2010 interview, he said (in response to a question about when he was going to retire), "This is not work, this is just fun. I can't imagine not having this job."
Should you ever wonder whether or not a neighborhood bar can have an effect on an entire city Streetbar would prove that case. The Pride Parade, which had originally been on Williams Road, moved downtown to Ramon Road in 1996 and incorporated a festival on Arenas Road in 1996. Having a downtown gay business district gave Pride a focus in the downtown area.
Part of Streetbar's success was due to Haskamp's involvement in the Palm Springs LGBT community. When he died in March of this year, Gay Desert Guide posted an obituary which mentioned that Haskamp was on the board of the Desert Gay Rodeo Association, the Desert Business Association, the Palm Springs Desert Gay Tourism Guild, AIDS Assistance Program (a/k/a AAP), and the LGBT Community Center of the Desert. Farnsworth told me that the bar "has raised over $275,000 for various local charities, primarily AIDS-related."
One of the major charity projects they are involved in is the Artwall Project, which dedicates a wall of the bar to local artists. Farnsworth told me, "Artwall Project is the brainchild of several Streetbar employees, themselves artists, who select local artists to display and sell their works to benefit the AAP and other charities." More than fifty local Palm Springs artists have had their work displayed at the bar since 2003.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about Haskamp is that he made plans prior to his death to keep the bar going after he passed. In both writing and reading about LGBT history, one of the things that I have discovered is that business owners rarely plan in advance for the continuity of their businesses, whether they retire or die. That Haskamp did and that Streetbar continues on is a tribute to both.
It is also a tribute to Haskamp, Farnsworth and the entire crew of Streetbar that the charity work that was part of his vision for the bar continues. During his memorial earlier this year, the bartenders from Stacy's, a bar which had suffered fire damage, took over for the crew of Streetbar, and all sales and proceeds from the bar went to the displaced bartenders.
Since then the bar has had fundraisers for the Palm Springs Hot Rodeo, the Community food bank, and on December 5 they hold their annual Holiday Wreath Auction.
This season of the year is traditionally when we express gratitude for the good things in our lives. One thing that I will be adding to my list is gratitude that there are businessmen like Dick Haskamp and bars like Streetbar that know the value of community. And further I am grateful that there are places like Palm Springs, where the LGBT community continues to thrive and grow.
The author would like to thank Ron Williams, David Farnsworth and especially Jim Suguitan for his splendid Palm Springs history site: http://www.dejaival.com