In SF LGBTQ Castro district, commerce moves outside

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday July 29, 2020
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Ramsey Garcia, right, co-owner of Fable, serves Katie Brillault and Rick Holthouse on the patio of the restaurant. Photo: Steven Underhill
Ramsey Garcia, right, co-owner of Fable, serves Katie Brillault and Rick Holthouse on the patio of the restaurant. Photo: Steven Underhill

Missing one of her favorite spots in the Castro, Veronika Fimbres took her friend Desiree Ruskin to Harvey's last Friday for lunch, grabbing one of the tables set up on the sidewalk. Like a number of restaurants and bars in San Francisco's LGBTQ district, the corner eatery at Castro and 18th streets has moved its operations outdoors.

"The Castro has always been my favorite place, just because I know everybody there," said Fimbres, a nurse and well-known transgender activist. "It is a really exciting thing to see it coming back to life."

Up the street at the restaurant Fable, co-owners Jon Vargas and Ramsey Garcia have moved a few tables onto the sidewalk, particularly during their weekend brunch service. But they prefer to seat their customers in their backyard open-air patio, which allowed them to reopen for table service in early June after focusing solely on to-go orders since April.

"It was a tough two months. The Castro looked like a ghost town," recalled Garcia, as most businesses on the street were closed during the spring. "We thought we needed to be open because the community didn't have a lot of options."

With indoor dining still banned by city officials due to the coronavirus outbreak, but outdoor dining now allowed, a number of restaurants and bars on the 400 and 500 blocks of Castro Street and a portion of upper Market Street have taken over the sidewalk and parking spaces in order to serve patrons outside. For bars that don't serve their own food, such as the Edge on 18th Street and 440 Castro on the 400 block of Castro Street, they have teamed with nearby restaurants in order to reopen, though they now close around 10 p.m. most nights.

"If you've been to Europe, you know there is a whole sidewalk feel there. It is exciting to see the vibrancy you would see at bars and restaurants falling out onto the streets," said Dave Karraker, a spokesman for the Castro Merchants business association. "It opens up a whole new experience for residents and tourists."

The neighborhood merchants' group is looking to add more of a European flavor to the Castro by closing a portion of 18th Street to vehicle traffic on the weekends so that nearby bars and restaurants can turn the roadway into a spot for al fresco dining. The plan is to close off 18th Street between Hartford and Castro streets and between Castro and Collingwood streets from 1 to 10 p.m. Fridays through Sundays.

The city's transit agency is expected to approve the request Monday, August 3, as part of its Shared Streets program that has allowed for similar street closures in other business districts such as North Beach and the Mission's Valencia corridor. If it does, then 18th Street could be turned into a dining piazza as soon as next Friday, August 7.

The Castro Merchants are also expected to seek a similar weekend closure request for Noe Street between Market and Beaver streets. It is the same block that is closed to traffic Wednesday afternoons for the neighborhood's seasonal farmers market.

"We want to provide a little bit of hope to the residents and businesses going through this challenging time," said Masood Samereie, a local Realtor who is president of the merchant group.

Vargas of Fable hopes it will attract more patrons for all businesses in the Castro by increasing foot traffic in the neighborhood on weekends.

"It will drive people from other neighborhoods to go to the Castro," he said.

Veronika Fimbres, left, enjoyed being back in the Castro last week when she dined with her friend, Desiree Ruskin, outside at Harvey's. Photo: Steven Underhill  

Struggles remain
But not everyone supports the street closure, which will also result in the loss of the city parking lot accessed from 18th Street. Patrick Batt, owner of Auto Erotica on 18th Street, is concerned it will drive away visitors to the neighborhood.

"The biggest issue for customers coming into the neighborhood is looking for parking. As the stay-at-home order is lifted, obviously more people are out and about," said Batt, who relies on tourists for the bulk of his business selling vintage gay porn magazines and other ephemera.

Turned down for a government loan because he is deemed an "adult entertainment business," Batt was able to negotiate a rent reduction during the spring months from his landlord. Now he worries if he will be able to survive through the end of the year without additional assistance.

"The bulk of my deep-pocketed collectors come from New York, Los Angeles, and Europe. They loved the store, especially New Yorkers," said Batt. "They have disappeared completely, which is beginning to scare me."

Other businesses also worry how much longer they can hold on while forced to remain closed, such as nail salons, barbershops, and gyms. Among them are Karraker and his husband, Glenn Shope, who own MX3 Fitness on upper Market Street.

Earlier this month they started offering fitness sessions on the sidewalk in front of their gym. Demand has steadily increased, and they are now providing supervised workouts in addition to the personal training.

"It has been inspiring," said Karraker.

Nonetheless, the San Francisco Independent Fitness Studio Coalition the couple belongs to upped its pressure this week on city officials who continue to bar small, locally owned fitness studios and gyms from reopening with new safety protocols in place. They filed a request for information on what is behind their decision.

"We are trying to work with the city cooperatively to develop reopening guidelines for small fitness studios," said Karraker, adding that the group "is not ruling out potential legal action."

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