Queer SOMA challenged by COVID

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday July 22, 2020
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Last year's Up Your Alley street fair was a sea of men; this year will be a virtual affair. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Last year's Up Your Alley street fair was a sea of men; this year will be a virtual affair. Photo: Rick Gerharter

San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood — home of one of the city's three cultural districts geared toward protecting LGBTQ heritage — has experienced an epidemic before, when AIDS ravaged the area.

But the shutdown orders and other restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic are presenting new challenges to a neighborhood that was already experiencing a decline in the number of queer spaces.

A virtual Up Your Alley

In spite of the disappearance of much of the "Miracle Mile" — the strip of SOMA bars and bathhouses that drew queers from around the world — the neighborhood is still known internationally for its street fairs.

The Up Your Alley street fair Sunday, July 26, and the Folsom Street Fair in the fall normally draw thousands of members of the leather and kink community of all sexual orientations; but unlike bars, this year they have the option to continue in virtual space.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, it was announced the events would go virtual April 27 by Angel Adeyoha, the executive director of Folsom Street Events, which puts on both street fairs.

The virtual Up Your Alley takes place from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an after party scheduled from 7 to 10 p.m.

Adeyoha told the B.A.R. July 21 that Folsom Street Events will provide as participatory an experience as possible.

"The main thing in planning this is we want to feel connected," Adeyoha said. "A lot of people with virtual events feel like they're watching a show but we wanted to replicate the experience of seeing and being seen that we all love about the fairs."

Part of that connectivity will be several spaces people can engage in explicit chats with each other — some in groups, others in "private rooms."

"It's going to be a few specific areas folks can experience — the main stage, which will have our DJs and dancers — a cruising and play area, and some of our partners are building areas for folks as well," Adeyoha said.

One of those areas is going to be the Queer Naked Dance Party, which is going to be hosted on a relatively new media platform called Joie de Vivre.

"Think of it as Zoom, but nudity-friendly and sex-positive," Adeyoha said. "People are welcome to wear whatever amount of clothing they want, or none at all, if they so wish."

Organizers are planning even more events for the virtual Folsom Street Fair, which is scheduled for September 27. These will include areas for storytelling.

"It will be similar but much expanded," Adeyoha said, adding that Up Your Alley "will be a great way to get a taste of what we have planned for Folsom."

Blow Buddies shutters as other businesses struggle

As the B.A.R. previously reported at least one bar — The Stud — already announced the permanent closure of its physical location, citing COVID-19. The B.A.R. reached out to 13 South of Market businesses that cater to the LGBTQ community to ask about the state of their businesses, of which three responded.

The sex club Blow Buddies at 933 Harrison Street announced this week that it has permanently closed due to COVID.

The move came just days before the Board of Supervisors voted to lift restrictions on gay bathhouse operations that the city had placed on adult sex venues in the mid-1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic. [See related story.]

Rakesh Modi, a queer man who owns Club OMG at 43 Sixth Street (between Market and Mission streets), stated that the location of his bar presents particular challenges. While many Castro neighborhood bars have been able to reopen outside by partnering with area restaurants, that solution wouldn't work as well for OMG, he said.

"Even if we were to consider collaborating with a restaurant to serve food, Sixth Street isn't a neighborhood that anyone wants to sit on the sidewalk to eat lunch," Modi wrote in a Facebook message to the B.A.R., adding that restaurants in the area offering take-out and delivery are doing badly because of the lack of foot traffic from downtown workers.

"Bars that aren't in 'party zone' areas such as the Castro or Valencia have been specifically affected," Modi stated. "We do not wish to reopen under unsafe conditions and put our staff and patrons at risk."

Modi stated that "the government needs to consider some kind of stimulus to bail out these businesses that aren't allowed to reopen for months," and touched upon some of the issues more unique to South of Market businesses.

"The gay bars in SOMA have always been the 'outsiders' within the gay nightlife, catering largely to a minority demographic, whether it be non-white or nonbinary or non-vanilla," Modi said. "A lot of the trans Latinas and drag performers are out of work and without any income ever since OMG has been closed. The supervisors and mayor need to intervene and help small businesses that need a lifeline to stay alive."

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

After the initial press time of this article the mayor's office responded, stating that more state and federal funds are needed for those businesses particularly hit hard by the pandemic.

"Locally, our work on COVID grants and loan products are focusing and setting aside resources specifically for industries that are not allowed to open under the current health orders," mayoral spokesman Jeff Cretan stated in a July 22 email to the B.A.R. "But local resources are not enough to meet demand, which is why we need state and federal support to provide more opportunities for these industries and businesses that are impacted by the COVID crisis."

Modi has started a GoFundMe to help support the bar through the closure. The effort, which began in May, has raised $1,911 out of a $10,000 goal as of press time.

Carissa Hatchel, co-producer of "Hot Trash" and programming coordinator for Oasis at 298 11th Street, stated that the drag nightclub is open for to-go service and socially distant activities.

Oasis is closed but is doing online performances such as brand new original content like "Hot Trash."  

"Oasis, while closed, is working hard to maintain our place in the community with a very robust social media presence, especially our YouTube channel, featuring archival footage of past shows, as well as brand new original content like 'Hot Trash,'" Hatchel wrote in an emailed statement to the B.A.R. July 21. "We have also created Meals on Heels, a dinner, drinks, and drag delivery service, with curbside socially distant drag shows. It has been really popular and powerful in bringing joy into people's lives and helping support local drag performers."

Tony Lewis, the manager Folsom Gulch, at 947 Folsom Street, stated that it is likely the adult entertainment store can weather the storm of the pandemic.

"We are open, but with modified hours and doing about a quarter of business we used to," a July 17 email to the B.A.R. stated.

As the B.A.R. previously reported, Manny Alferez, a straight ally who is the managing partner at The Great Northern near Potrero Hill and at the Monarch nightclub at Sixth and Mission streets, was planning on opening the latter in July for indoor dining but could not after the city indefinitely delayed that due to an uptick in COVID cases.

The food was going to come from the Pawn Shop, an adjacent restaurant Alferez also manages.

"They said we could do outdoor dining, but you can't really do that at Sixth and Mission," Alferez said in a July 22 phone call with the B.A.R.

When asked about take-out, he said that because Pawn Shop has a lot of hot food and seafood "it doesn't sit well for 45 minutes." While they tried take-out for a while, "it just didn't work."

Alferez said the property owner for Monarch, Triterra, has not been responsive since Monarch stopped paying rent this month. On the other hand, the landlord for The Great Northern has been working with Alferez and his business partners.

"That landlord has communicated with us and said we'll come back to talk at the end of December," Alferez said.

Powerhouse, Hole in the Wall, Lone Star Saloon, The Eagle, Wicked Grounds, Mr. S Leather, Monarch, 1015 Folsom, and The EndUp did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

The EndUp, at 401 Sixth Street, did do a soft reopening with a limited-capacity party on its patio July 18. A similar limited capacity event is being planned for July 25.

The Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District, which encompasses some of the South of Market neighborhood, was established in 2018 to help offset some of the effects of gentrification in the area, which many large tech companies and their employees have made their home in the past decade. The district's website contains a list of a number of COVID-related resources for businesses and individuals as well as a list of current business operations in the district.

"If you look at a majority of the businesses that serve our community, most of those businesses are bars or other venues that are completely closed," Robert Goldfarb, president of the cultural district, said in a July 16 interview with the B.A.R. "It is really rough to maintain a business when you don't have customers. All in all, I'd say they've been doing very badly."

Goldfarb said that the district was "trying to reach out to all the relevant businesses in the district" to see what help they may need.

"Some have landlords amenable to negotiating and some don't," Goldfarb said. "We've already seen The Stud close and we wouldn't be surprised to see other businesses close during this period."

For more information on Up Your Alley, go to http://www.folsomstreetevents.org

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