The Gangway: The Historic Bar's Not Gone Yet

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Saturday February 27, 2016
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Don't say your goodbyes to The Gangway just yet. The historic gay dive in the Tenderloin may not be closing right away, as has been previously reported. Jung Lee, who has owned the bar since 1998, tells the Bay Area Reporter that the sale to new owners remains in escrow.

"The new people may not have the money they said they did," Lee explained. "They want a five-year owner-carry (meaning that Lee would continue running the bar while the new owners paid in installments), which is a very risky deal."

Lee added that he thinks the new owners plan to keep Gangway as a gay bar, which would give his loyal customer base reason to breathe sighs of relief. Most Gangway regulars are older, many are seniors. The bar remains at the center of where they're able to find community. And the possibly premature news of its demise has inspired a burst of gatherings organized by LGBT fans.

"I've been coming here for 17 years," said 75-year-old Eddie Bellber as he nursed his drink. "I come in about once or twice a week. I like the friendliness here. All the other neighborhood bars like this have been taken over by hipsters. There's no place for older folks to go."

"We're all family here," added John 'Vera' Cruz, 85. "This is a cocktail lounge, a country club."

The Gangway opened at its current location in 1910. It's officially been a gay bar since 1961, making it the city's oldest. But the police conducted a gay raid at the Gangway as early as 1911, according to the National Trust For Historic Preservation.

Throughout its history, the bar welcomed LGBT people, even when other establishments didn't. Records from 1962 show that was a member of The Tavern Guild, a support organization comprised of gay bar owners and liquor wholesalers who were looking to curtail the police raids and other forms of anti-gay harassment which were commonplace during those pre-Stonewall years.

80-year-old Bruce Gardner remembers The Gangway of that era. "I've been coming here for 54 years," he said. "It's family oriented. If you know somebody here, you know them forever."

A friendly bartender at The Gangway. photo: Gareth Gooch

Gardner recalled that his first apartment in the city was right across the street.

"I love this town," he said. "I came across the Bay Bridge in a pink Cadillac in 1961. There was this little tiny city sitting on a cloud. I knew that must be what I was looking for."

The love that his customers have for isn't lost on Jung Lee, who said that he hopes the bar will indeed remain gay after he sells. He spoke of the disgruntled ex-employee who sued for back wages, claiming that Lee had paid his workers less than minimum wage. Lee claims that it was honest mistake on his part and that the city forced him to pay three times the amount actually owed. This incident was a deciding factor in his decision to sell, though he has family obligations which are also contributing to his decision to move on.

"I'm 63, almost 64," Lee, who lost his wife to ovarian cancer five years ago, said. "I have to retire. I have to take care of my ailing parents, who are in Los Angeles. My daughter is also in L.A. I need to be with my family."

Lee remains happy with the time during which he and his late wife owned , saying he's hoping to stick around another year or two.

Veteran patrons, who are also veterans, at The Gangway. photo: Gareth Gooch

"In 18 years, there have been no fights in here," he said. "We've had no major incidents and no crime. I'm very proud of that."

He noted that the surrounding neighborhood is a high crime area populated with street people and drug dealers, but he's kept all of that out of .

"Our drinks are cheaper and we have two happy hours, from 8am to 10am and from 5pm to 7pm," he added. As he spoke, music from the 1970s and 80s filled the bar; songs like "All Night Long" by Lionel Ritchie and the great gay anthem "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor. It was the music of his customers' era, and what they wanted to hear.

Jung Lee, owner of The Gangway. photo: Gareth Gooch

For some, The Gangway holds an even deeper meaning.

"A lot of our friends have died," said 51-year-old Michael Godfrey, a long time HIV survivor. "This is where we come to find out who's here and who's not. I want my memorial to be here when I die."

The Gangway is still located at 841 Larkin Street, open 8am to 2am. (415) 776-6828. Upcoming events include DeeDee TV's public access show, March 9, from 5pm to 10pm (