Additional sites eyed for SF leather history walk plaques

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday October 3, 2022
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A Board of Supervisors committee unanimously recommended approval of additional sidewalk plaques for what is now being called the Leather History Cruise. Photo: Courtesy Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District
A Board of Supervisors committee unanimously recommended approval of additional sidewalk plaques for what is now being called the Leather History Cruise. Photo: Courtesy Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District

An additional 46 historic sites throughout San Francisco's South of Market district are being eyed for inclusion in what has been dubbed the Leather History Cruise. It is a planned walking tour of the neighborhood's current and former locations of gay bars, bathhouses, nightclubs, LGBTQ-owned businesses, and other sites that played a role in making the area a world-famous leather and LGBTQ destination.

The Board of Supervisors last year approved installing sidewalk markers at 50 locations tied to San Francisco's leather and LGBTQ culture in SOMA. The first set of bronze plaques are to be installed as part of the streetscape improvement project underway along Folsom Street that at one point was known as the city's "Miracle Mile."

It earned that nickname due to the many gay bars and bathhouses that operated on or near the main artery through the South of Market district in the 1960s and 1970s. But the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s soon would diminish SOMA's leather scene. The health crisis resulted in most gay bathhouses and sex clubs in the area closing their doors.

In the 1980s there were at least 40 LGBTQ venues, bars, and businesses in SOMA. Today, the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District knows of just 11.

"The leather and LGBTQ community has been established in SOMA since the mid-1960s and has experienced significant displacement through gentrification and redevelopment," said Bob Brown, president of the leather district's board.

The district's leaders have been working with city officials to turn the history walk project in western SOMA into a reality. It is just one of its initiatives aimed at preserving the area as an LGBTQ neighborhood.

The supervisors' land use and transportation committee unanimously voted 3-0 Monday, October 3, three days into LGBTQ History Month, in support of expanding the list of locations for the walk. The full board is expected to approve the resolution when it next meets on October 18.

Gay District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, appointed in the spring to the seat that includes SOMA, sponsored the resolution. Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman signed on as a co-sponsor, as did all three members of the land use committee: chair Supervisor Myrna Melgar (District 7) and Supervisors Aaron Peskin (District 3) and Dean Preston (District 5).

Robert Goldfarb, executive director of the SOMA LGBTQ cultural district who moved to the city in 1997 largely due to its thriving leather scene, had urged the committee members to sign on as cosponsors and support the resolution in order to help commemorate the leather and LGBTQ communities' "vibrant history" in San Francisco.

"This feature will help draw people to the area, both visitors and residents alike," said Goldfarb. "It is a symbol of San Francisco's acceptance of all."

The estimated $120,000 price tag for the first plaques to be installed is coming from local developers of projects in the area who are required to pay for community improvements as part of their permit approval process. The cultural district has collaborated on the sidewalk markers with the city's arts commission, Public Works Department, and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Leather district officials told the Bay Area Reporter Monday the timeline for when the first set of sidewalk markers would be unveiled remains unknown. The ones along Folsom Street are expected to be one of the last things done as part of the Folsom Streetscape Project. The website for the project now has construction beginning in 2023.

As the B.A.R. first reported two years ago, such storied establishments as the Folsom Street Barracks, The Arena, Ramrod, The Brig, and the Club Baths of San Francisco are to be memorialized with historical markers, as are the B.A.R.'s former SOMA locations. The paper's longtime home at 395 Ninth Street next door to the Stud nightclub's old location at the intersection of Ninth and Harrison streets was on the list of sites approved last year.

The paper's other SOMA location at 1550 Howard Street is among those up for being added to the list this year. Plaques would also be installed at 1137 Folsom, where Bald Billy's Bath House and Billy's Locker Club Hotel were located; at 209 Stevenson, where My Room and Latex Lilly's Saloon once were; and 735 Tehama, once the home of the Phallic Church of San Francisco.

The SOMA LGBTQ plaque project is similar to one undertaken several years ago by the Top of Broadway Community Benefit District in the city's North Beach neighborhood. It has installed sidewalk markers at the site of historic businesses in the city's Italian district, including a trio of LGBTQ nightlife spots shuttered decades ago.

A number of historic SOMA leather businesses have already been memorialized on stone plinths in the San Francisco South of Market Leather History Alley. Dedicated five years ago and recently refurbished by the leather district, the side street project spans Ringold Alley between Eighth and Ninth streets and sports bronze boot prints embedded in the sidewalk honoring various leather community leaders, some of whom owned the remembered businesses.

"It is vital to establish place making markers such as these sidewalk plaques to commemorate our rich history that has also been leading to the rich culture of this city," said Brown.

A full list of the new sites to be included on the history walk can be found here.

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