Turned-on town: Damon Scott's 'The City Aroused: Queer Places and Urban Development in Postwar San Francisco'

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Tuesday February 13, 2024
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Author Damon Scott
Author Damon Scott

On April 18, 1962 Jack's Waterfront Hangout at 111 Embarcadero closed at midnight for the last time. It was closed for construction of the Embarcadero Freeway. But instead of being a being a wake, this bar closure was a celebration. Starting before midnight, the patrons stripped the bar of memorabilia, all the while drinking stronger than usual drinks in order to finish off the open bottles. Then at midnight the staff and patrons proceeded to the new Jack's down the street at 226 Embarcadero.

At the hiring hall near the foot of Market Street, the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union dispatched crews to the waterfront to honor labor contracts it negotiated with shipping firms. Before the Lavender and Red Scares, this racially integrated union includ  

This is the story author Damon Scott uses to introduce us to the waterfront culture of queer San Francisco in his new book, "The City Aroused: Queer Places and Urban Development in Postwar San Francisco" (University of Texas Press). It's the perfect introduction to a tale of maritime workers, labor unions and the building of a sexual subculture that has its roots in the city before World War II.

Queer labor
I have written about the bars on the waterfront and the Embarcadero before, and looked forward to this book. I was not disappointed. Scott, a former intern at the GLBT Historical Society who now is an assistant professor in geography and American studies at Miami University in Ohio, expands knowledge of our LGBTQ past.

A major revelation of the book regards the relationship of labor unions to the queer history of the waterfront. Scott quotes the late historian Allan Bérubé:

Jack's Waterfront Hangout (ca. 1958), located across from the Ferry Building, became a popular gay nightclub in 1957.  

"In particular the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MCSU) 'transformed an all-white, all-male union into one that was mostly men of color and included great numbers of visible queens.'"

The bars they patronized were part of both labor and queer history, including the Sea Cow Café:

"Formerly known as the Mohawk Café, the Sea Cow Café had been the strike headquarters of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), led by Harry Bridges, during the waterfront strike of 1934. The strike led to the creation of a union-controlled hiring hall system throughout the maritime trades. In the ground-floor commercial space below the union offices, the Mohawk served as one of the ILA's strike kitchens, feeding dockworkers during a work stoppage that escalated on Bloody Thursday with the killing of two men —a marine cook and a longshoreman— by the police on the sidewalk next door."

In the 1950s when the Lavender and Red Scares decimated the unions, it sent a large number of men working on the docks to the waterfront residence hotels and bars:

"On the West Coast, the purge effectively destroyed the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MSCU), which right-wing critics characterized as 'a third red, a third black, and a third queer.' In truth, some members were all three."

Proponents of a 1955 proposal to raze a large swath of the Embarcadero prominently featured the Broken Drum, a new queer hangout.  

Orgy every day
One of the places these men went to was the Ensign Café, which was one of two places, along with the Broken Drum, patronized by gay men (and butch lesbians according to Scott) in the Merrimac Building at 1 Market.

When I wrote about the Ensign, I could find very little other than a quote an from oral history at the GLBT Historical Society with Bay Area Reporter cofounder Bob Ross, who said, "There would be a thousand bottles of beer and booze on the bar and nobody up there and you would go downstairs to the men's room, and there was just an orgy every day."

Scott's book reveals why little was written about the Ensign in the 1960s gay press. It was run by Mike Caldaralla, a straight man who was involved in the illicit liquor trade during prohibition. He opened the Ensign in 1934.

As Scott writes, "The Ensign Café was never a part of the city's network of gay bar operators that came together to fight against corrupt policing practices and a raft of liquor revocations. Caldaralla never advertised in gay newspapers or bar guides, nor did he host any fundraisers for the gay community."

As a result, the bar was not considered part of the community. Bill Plath, who owned the D'Oak Room and managed several other gay bars, is quoted from another GLBT Historical Society oral history as saying the Ensign "was never part of the gay bar scene. That was a sex operation... [run by a] straight owner that paid no attention to what was going on, and he knew damn well what was going on with the Ensign. But you could never classify it as a gay bar. I never think of it as a gay bar. Sex bar, oh yes."

Caldaralla was involved in criminal activity as far back as the 1920s. In 1928 he was implicated in the murder of a business partner at the Broken Drum when it was a speakeasy. In 1956 he shot a relief bartender five times over back wages, was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sent to county jail for a year. Yet he was able to continue running the Ensign Club (as the bar was known beginning in 1960) and the Broken Drum with the collusion of city officials in their efforts at "vice containment."

As Scott notes, "While police and liquor agents cracked down on the Black Cat and several other gay bars in North Beach and the Tenderloin, Caldaralla was able to run the Ensign Club and the Broken Drum with the full awareness of local law enforcement, who turned a blind eye to its more sexual and gender-transgressive crowd. The tacit support of local authorities, rather than Caldaralla's business acumen alone, explains why the Ensign Café stayed in continuous operation during the height of crackdowns on so-called homosexual hangouts."

The layers of signage on the façade of the Merrimac Building in 1961 reflected Caldaralla's years of managing and controlling queer nightlife crowds by partitioning, concealing, and subleasing different commercial spaces. (San Francisco Redevelo  

Sarria served lunch
The story of the Ensign Café/Club stands in stark contrast to the story of 90 Market Street. 90 Market Street became a gay bar called the Castaways in the summer of 1959. After the initial owner ran into trouble with the IRS in 1960 it was taken over by Sol Stoumen, owner of the Black Cat and renamed Talk of the Town.

Along with Stoumen came Jose Sarria, who set up the Five an Ounce food concession which served lunch to the burgeoning population of gay male clerical workers at the Southern Pacific Building (who referred to the building as the 'swish palace' for the large neon SP which topped the building). Southern Pacific threatened to fire employees going to Sarria's lunch service. This harassment led to the formation of the League for Civil Education.

Scott writes, "On the evening of March 21, 1961, Guy Strait and Jose Sarria convened a meeting at 90 Market to discuss forming a new civil rights organization, the League for Civil Education (LCE). Known as 'Elsie' for short, the League would bring together 'all persons supplying food and drink to the Community' to push back against growing incidents of police harassment and revocation proceedings."

It also led to Sarria's run for supervisor. "A threat to his livelihood and that of his lunch counter customers at 90 Market prompted Sarria to mount a political challenge to harassment and discrimination. The defining element of this plan was to demonstrate the electoral strength of the city's gay population by mobilizing gay bar patrons to go to the polls to vote for him in a bid for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. He envisioned the LCE to be a vehicle to unite gay bar publics that would launch his run for office."

After taking over operation of the Edgewater Hotel and reopening his bar on the first floor, George Bauman promoted his new enterprise to out-of-town visitors, particularly gay men who recognized "Jack's" from reading the LCE News. (image f  

Pubs and publications
In the long run it had even bigger consequences. It led to the publication of the LCE News, the first newspaper concerned with the goings on at gay bars in San Francisco. The LCE also eventually spawned the Society for Individual Rights, a lesbian and gay civil rights organization that existed from 1964 to 1977 and published the magazine Vector.

It did not, however, prevent the closing of 90 Market Street, as Scott informs the reader. "Law enforcement treated Jack's and 90 Market, which formed the nucleus of the League for Civil Education, as 'centers of resistance.' These bars had a history of challenging corrupt policing practices and discriminatory licensing procedures. As a result, they, along with other LCE-affiliated bars, faced the harshest penalties when state and local authorities ejected them from the waterfront. They were subjected to unlawful property seizures, early evictions and unchecked physical intimidation."

"The City Aroused" is full of revelations of this sort. For readers interested in early LGBTQ history and its association with labor history and the history of development of a queer community nearly a decade before Stonewall it is essential reading. With around 40 pages of notes and quotes from sources not readily available before this book it expands knowledge of our history in a vital way.

'The City Aroused: Queer Places and Urban Development in Postwar San Francisco,' Damon Scott, University of Texas Press. $45. www.utpress.utexas.edu

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