SF leather district marks Pride with new signs, report

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 19, 2024
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Placemaking signs denoting the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District have begun appearing around western South of Market in the district's footprint. Photo: Bryan Dahl
Placemaking signs denoting the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District have begun appearing around western South of Market in the district's footprint. Photo: Bryan Dahl

The Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District is marking Pride Month with new placemaking signs in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood as the district finishes its cultural report. The district's executive director also was recognized by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

The signs, which say "Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District," started going up under street signs last week, according to Cal Callahan, a gay man who is manager of the district. There will be 26 signs in total that will be installed within the district's noncontiguous boundaries — between the Central Freeway, Howard Street and the 101 Freeway, as well as between Bryant and Harrison streets and between Fifth and Sixth streets.

"A second batch of signs is currently being produced at the MTA [San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency] sign shop," Callahan said. "They're going up in stages, the last of which will be installed with the Folsom-Howard streetscape project. Some on Folsom [Street] should go up this year and more next summer."

The streetscape project, intended to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety on the streets as well as upgrade traffic signals, started last month. The Folsom Street portion of the project is anticipated to finish in 2026, and the Howard Street portion in 2027.

Report contains community recommendations

The district also finished its CHHESS, or Cultural History, Housing, and Economic Sustainability Strategies report, Callahan said, making it the third of the city's 10 cultural districts to do so. Every district has to write a CHHESS report, which serves as a roadmap for how the district will achieve its goals as per its founding legislation. The reports are approved by the Board of Supervisors and are revisited on a three-year basis, though this report will be revisited on a six-year basis, it states.

The Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District was established in 2018, and, after the Transgender District, is the second of three cultural districts catering to the LGBTQ community. The other is the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District.

The leather district's report discusses the history of the area.

"SOMA became the San Francisco neighborhood most closely associated with leather, a distinctive LGBTQ subculture that began to form in the late 1940s in several major American cities," the report states. "As described by anthropologist and leather historian Gayle Rubin, leather was associated with a subgroup of gay men as a symbol of masculinity. Although the 'leather' in question referred primarily to black leather motorcycle gear, community members also donned other styles of working-class male fashion. Levis were popular, and some early leather bars were often called 'Leather-Levi' bars."

Folsom Street earned the nickname the "Miracle Mile" due to the many gay bars and bathhouses that operated on or near the main artery through SOMA 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 cultural district knows of just 11.

The report also lists recommendations for the district based on community feedback. One long-term goal outlined in it is opening a Leather and LGBTQ community center in the district's boundaries.

In the meantime, district leaders plan to identify and utilize vacant spaces within it for "community events and new businesses." Other priorities include continuing research into the district's history and exploring ways to update zoning rules.

Meeting the housing needs of the leather and kink community is also addressed in the report. It calls for supporting "models of LGBTQ and/or communal housing" within the district boundaries and expanding "dignified and humane housing and sanitation options for the ... district's unhoused community members."

The report has 32 total recommendations. One calls for creating "clear paths to LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District leadership for and increase engagement among BIPOC, women, trans, sex worker, and disabled community members."

It also recommends the district "create a nightlife and entertainment revitalization and sustainability plan" and create a task force to explore community safety and conflict intervention strategies. It also calls for continued support of the district's entrepreneur training program, which the Bay Area Reporter's monthly Business Briefing column featured in January; another cohort is planned to begin this summer.

"Moving forward, the district and city will continue to work together to implement these recommendations, and will aim to evaluate progress on the report every three years and update the report every six years," the report states.

The supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee approved the report at its June 13 meeting. It was sponsored by the three gay supervisors — District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who represents the SOMA neighborhood on the board; District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman; and District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio. Before she joined fellow committee members Dorsey and Engardio in voting yes, District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani was added as a co-sponsor at her request.

The report should be heard by the full board at its June 25 meeting, Callahan said, when it is expected to be approved.

Bob Goldfarb, left, executive director of the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District, was presented with a commendation from Supervisor Matt Dorsey at the board's June 18 meeting. Photo: Courtesy Supe Dorsey's office  

ED honored
Dorsey chose June 18 to honor Robert Goldfarb at the board's meeting. Goldfarb is a gay man who is the executive director of the district and moved to the city in 1997 largely due to its thriving leather scene.

"Bob's leadership and dedication has been truly transformative," Dorsey said. "Bob has been a steadfast leader in the leather community for more than two decades."

He mentioned Goldfarb was featured as Mr. February in the Bare Chest Calendar back in 1988. The calendar is a fundraiser for LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS organizations and recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.

"I know some of my staff members are looking forward to having those in their offices next year," said Dorsey, noting that Goldfarb had joined him in celebrating the installation of the district's first street signs, which are "similar to those you can find in other sections of the city."

Goldfarb thanked Dorsey and the board for the certificate of commendation.

"I have a long history with San Francisco," he recalled. "In 1976, I saw an article in Time magazine that said there were homosexuals in San Francisco.

"They had a picture in front of the Painted Ladies, and so I knew that there were six of them," he said, to laughter, referring to the iconic homes next to Alamo Square Park. "In 1990, my mother brought me here for a high school graduation trip, and I was looking for those six people but I didn't find them.

"Six years later, my boyfriend said, 'Let's go to San Francisco for the Folsom Street Fair,' and I said, 'Sure. What's that?' Little did I know, 10 years later, I would be producing the fair," said Goldfarb.

He moved to San Francisco six weeks after he was in an airport and noticed "all the fun people were going on the San Francisco flight, and I was on my way to another concourse and I thought, 'I'm on the wrong plane,'" he said.

"I love this city and am glad to be here," he concluded.

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