Remembering Esta Noche as queer, POC spaces shutter
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Growing up, Anthony Lopez already knew something of the bar business — his parents owned two bars, one in San Leandro and one in Hayward.
"I used to do the inventory for them, so I had some experience with that," Lopez said.
With that in mind, when he came to San Francisco during the heady 1970s, Lopez, a gay man, had an idea when he experienced discrimination in the newly emerging gay mecca.
"I used to go to the Castro and I didn't like the vibration, the vibes," Lopez said. "They were discriminatory. So, I said, 'I think I'll open my own bar,' because I didn't like the way I was treated."
Lopez's partner, in business and in life, is Manuel Quijano. Quijano, 59, who had come to the United States from El Salvador, said that it was hard to find a space where one could feel comfortable being both Latino and gay.
"At that time, Latinos were asked for two pieces of ID in the Castro in order to get in a bar," Quijano said. "You couldn't see gay people even in the Mission district. It was under a cloud. You couldn't go in the streets and hold hands. It was horrible even to get a liquor license, let alone a permit for a place of entertainment."
Lopez, who declined to share his age, said he had the idea for his bar, Esta Noche — or, "Tonight" — in 1976, but couldn't get it opened for three years because of a protracted fight with the city establishment.
Quijano said that the police put up unnecessary barriers to make things harder for them, so the pair hired an attorney.
"They had no reason to deny us, so I got an attorney," Lopez said. "I brought all my friends and people who supported me, and we made our case that there wasn't any reason. Nobody could explain it. People in the room applauded for me and were on my side. They didn't want any minorities to have permits to open bars. If you were Irish, fine. All the police were Irish, basically, so they didn't want anybody else to have a license.
"My attorney suggested that this was unconstitutional, that I had the right since I wasn't a criminal, and they let me have the permits and the rest is history. But I never would have gotten them without the support of the community," Lopez added.
Esta Noche finally opened in 1979 at 3079 16th Street, on the block between Mission and Valencia streets. The bar was open from noon to 2 a.m.
Open for 35 years, Esta Noche became a hub for San Francisco's Latino LGBT community, with a regular lineup of drag shows, competitions, and other events.
The bar hosted Mr. and Miss Gay Latino, a Mr. Latin Leather contest that started in 2007, and Selena impersonator competitions.
"I started the first drag show at Esta Noche at a very, very critical time because Latinos couldn't perform anywhere else," Quijano said. "The police would harass them."
Quijano said that tensions with the police remained even after the bar was finally permitted.
"There was a lot of drama with the police," Quijano said. "Sometimes they wanted us to shut down by midnight because they said the music was loud or there were too many complaints."
Lopez said the bar's patrons began to populate the residences near the bar.
"My customers came down to the area and started filling in the apartments and taking over the area," Lopez said. "I believe I was good for the neighborhood."
The bar played a particularly important role in the AIDS crisis; HIV was already spreading in the gay communities of San Francisco and other major cities as the bar was opening.
"When we started seeing the first cases of AIDS, it was dramatically a shock, especially for the Latinos, because how do they tell their parents? How do they tell their families?" Quijano said. "The other thing was that nobody knew that much. There was no education. The Latino culture is very private and people felt they couldn't tell anybody."
Quijano and Lopez said Esta Noche started distributing condoms as a way to promote safe sex.
"We were close with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation at the time," Quijano said, who added that the bar hosted AIDS fundraisers in the 1980s.
"We had someone who worked for us for a long time and he was one of the first cases and we had to raise some money for him to go back to El Salvador because he didn't want to die here, so we had to put him on a plane and send him back home, pay for his airfare because he didn't have family," Quijano said. "When he arrived over there, nobody knew what had happened with him, so he had a pretty bad end."
The bar started Miss and Mr. Safe Latino to call attention to safe sex practices; titles which continue to be awarded today.
Quijano said that David Campos, a former District 9 supervisor and now the chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, was one of many politicians who campaigned at Esta Noche.
"We hosted everyone running for the city," Quijano said. "Mayor Willie Brown was at Esta Noche. Some of the last supervisors there were David Campos, Mr. [Mark] Leno."
Campos said that the bar held a personal significance for him.
"Esta Noche was a place where if you were a gay Latino you went there. When I first came to San Francisco, it was a place I felt both sides of my identity were represented," Campos said in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "It allowed us to connect with two sides of who we are. It was a very special place."
In 2013, Esta Noche announced it needed $9,000 to stay open due to an increase in city licensing fees.
An Indiegogo campaign raised several thousand dollars, and a fundraiser featured DJ Steve Fabus, who used to work with the late disco star Sylvester, among other big names.
Then the supervisor for the district that included Esta Noche, Campos said he was involved in the fundraising effort.
But in spring 2014, Esta Noche did close. It is now Bond, which is not a gay bar.
Representatives of the Bond did not respond to a request for comment.
Quijano said that they sold the bar due to the effects of the gentrification on the Mission district.
"We lost a lot of customers who couldn't afford to live in San Francisco," Quijano said. "A lot of them moved to Oakland and to the East Bay because they couldn't afford it at that time, let alone now.
"The landlord didn't want to renew the lease unless there was a tremendous increase in the rent," he added, saying that the rent started at $360 in 1979 and that it was close to $7,000 by the end.
"We were very sad but we had to close the doors," Quijano said.
Property records identified the landlord as a trust for Jimmy Chun and Ying Shuk. The B.A.R. reached out to several phone numbers associated with the landlord but did not receive a response to voicemail messages.
Lopez agreed that the impetus behind the closing was the landlord raising the rent.
LGBT spaces in Oakland, Polk Gulch closing
Quijano reflected on the closure earlier this year of Club 21, an Oakland nightclub that catered to the LGBT Latino community, and Club BnB (formerly Bench and Bar), which catered to LGBT African Americans.
As the B.A.R. previously reported, (https://www.ebar.com/news/latest_news//285543), those bars closed in January due to the owner of the property deciding to turn it into office space.
"We always had a great relationship with the owners of the gay bar in the East Bay" Quijano said. "They patronized our business for the many years they were in business, just like us, so we are also very sad that they had to close the doors."
Quijano said it is sad that many iconic LGBT spaces in the Bay Area have closed.
"It is sad that this is happening all over," Quijano said. "They're increasing the rent. There's nowhere to go."
Carlos Uribe, a queer man who managed Club 21 and Club BnB, told the B.A.R. in a February phone interview that he wants to re-open Club 21.
Uribe said that Oakland Pride, whose offices were located in the Club 21 building and thus were shuttered, may have new office space coming soon.
"City of Refuge, run by Bishop Yvette Flunder, is a queer-affirming church that has other nonprofits hosted there," Uribe said. "We are in touch with them about the possibility of moving there. That is promising."
City of Refuge confirmed to the B.A.R. that it is in discussions with Oakland Pride about office space.
Uribe said he remembers going to Esta Noche, too.
"We were supportive of their efforts, especially of those helping the queer, Latinx community," Uribe said.
Club 21 and Club BnB have been just the latest in a series of closures of LGBT spaces, particularly those outside the Castro district that cater to something other than a white, cis, gay-identifying crowd.
Diva's, a bar that catered to transgender women in Polk Gulch, closed in March 2019. Drag artist Alexis Miranda, a former manager at Diva's, got a job at 800 Larkin, a bar at 800 Larkin Street in the Tenderloin (Miranda used to work at Esta Noche).
"The owner wants to make it a diverse group for everyone," Miranda, also known as Fredy Miranda, said.
Before physical distancing and stay-at-home orders due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, Miranda said that he had reestablished his show, "Showtime at Barbarella with your hostess and M.C. Alexis Miranda," every other Sunday at 7 p.m. But the bar, along with all others, is not open due to the public health order that shuttered non-essential businesses.
Miranda said that many people of his generation are upset at the disappearance of "niche" LGBT spaces, among other things that made the San Francisco Bay Area unique, bringing up the closure of the play production of Beach Blanket Babylon at the end of last year.
"San Francisco is changing a lot and it's hard to keep up," Miranda said. "Everything about San Francisco that made it what it was is going."
"In the past there were gay Latin bars, gay black bars; now they are taking away descriptions and opening up as bars. A lot of people in my generation and older are having a hard time adjusting and they don't know where to go or how to react," Miranda added.
Miranda said that many people in his generation knew where to go based on posted flyers, and that since the advent of the internet, a lot of older LGBTs don't necessarily know where events are held or where hot spots are.
"If you didn't do flyers, nobody knew anything," Miranda said.
On the other hand, younger LGBTs are less accustomed to prejudice and so "don't know how to react when someone's coming at them," Miranda said.
Campos said that the Esta Noche closure spurred city officials to action to help offset some of the effects of gentrification.
"The first thing I did was create, through legislation, the legacy business program," Campos said. "The idea is to support what we call legacy businesses — 25 years or older — trying to stay in the city. We hoped to incentivize long-term leases and we allow the city to match some of the rent. ... If you're the landlord you're going to have more stability if you know the city is involved."
Campos now works as a deputy county executive for Santa Clara County.
Another initiative Campos said Esta Noche's closure influenced was the creation of cultural districts — areas where communities and the city work together through zoning regulations and city planning to safeguard a particular heritage within a particular set of boundaries.
The first cultural heritage district was formalized in 2014 in the Mission along 24th street. Since then, three specifically LGBT cultural districts have been established — The Transgender District in the Tenderloin, the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District in the South of Market neighborhood, and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District.
There are also SOMA Pilipinas (a Filipino cultural district in the South of Market neighborhood) and the Japantown Cultural Heritage District in the Western Addition.
Quijano is currently a real estate adviser for Engel and Völkers Real Estate in San Francisco.
Quijano and Lopez said they were one of the first couples married in City Hall by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004.
"We were, like, number three," he said.
Lopez said his favorite memory of Esta Noche was New Year's.
"We had a wonderful New Year's all the time," Lopez said. "Champagne — the whole works — it was exciting. We had a wonderful show to ring in the new year."
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