We shall not be moved

  • by Jesse Oliver Sanford
  • Wednesday July 12, 2017
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My friend Dahn van Laarz has a key to my house. He's a tall salt-and-pepper daddy on a motorcycle who checks mail here for one of the Radical Faerie nonprofits and, across the street at PO Plus, for the Leather Alliance. Van Laarz commutes to work in downtown San Francisco from his home in Martinez, then hangs around to work for our community. I've spent many hours in meetings and group process with this man, whom I admire for his calm, warm, grounded energy. Fittingly, the Faeries know him as "Happy Worker." Van Laarz has been part of the queer and leather community in the Castro since the early 1980s, but in 2003 rents drove him across the bay.

My house is also known as Grand Central. It's a Radical Faerie collective above the Sausage Factory, the classic Italian restaurant in the Castro. Our home gets its name from the sex voicemail business once run in the same location by the Hog Farm and managed by Jahanara Gravy, wife of Wavy. It's equal parts Love Shack and forested pagan temple in the heart of the city. We have been tenants here for 15 years. And as this paper has recently reported, our building is on the market.

This is a rare opportunity to transform the possibilities at 18th and Castro. Whether the Sausage Factory name and sign carry on is up to the current owners, but I would love to extend the restaurant's hours and expand the community use of the banquet room, which already hosts groups as diverse as the Rotary Club and the Log Cabin Republicans. As the first small business on Harvey Milk's block, the Sausage Factory is an ideal site for an intensely community-focused, queer-operated project, perhaps offering supportive job training services. The restaurant could even provide active management for the Bank of America's adjacent garden, a gorgeous unused green space in the heart of the Castro.

Spaces like Grand Central are worth preserving, too. One of the Faeries' spiritual and political practices is the offering of sanctuary. Over the last decade, my housemates have extended themselves to thousands of queers of all genders, helping people move to the city and stay in the city, offering food, shelter, and dressing room services to people of many genders, colors and situations. For years, Comfort & Joy, one of the largest and oldest gay Burning Man camps, operated out of Kitten's bedroom. We host weekly community dinners that draw a diverse crowd of 30-40 people. And in just the last year, hundreds of people have showered here, from traveling transgender performance artists to a gentleman who lives in the park to several straight elected officials.

I've proposed a queer land trust to raise funds to acquire and operate the Sausage Factory building and other properties in critical, highly visible LGBT neighborhoods in San Francisco. The land trust model has been in use in San Francisco for 50 years. Marty's Place, a collective house for HIV-positive people, was purchased last year by the San Francisco Community Land Trust, with which we are working closely, but what we need to do now is apply the model to the Castro and Folsom strips, the Compton's Transgender District in the Tenderloin, and other strongholds from which we must not be moved.

Land trusts can help protect these key locations from losing their character and their existing queer-occupied rent-controlled housing stock. They can reduce displacement and create affordable homes for queers to whom the property arrangements of the nuclear family are not accessible. Collective ownership offers cost reductions and the security of knowing that a space could be available to provide sanctuary over generations.

It has been enormously heartening to find that, whether they are on team "progressive" or "moderate," it seems everyone understands the crisis of LGBT displacement and wants to revitalize and protect our queer neighborhoods. I'm grateful to those who've already pledged major funds toward the acquisition of the Sausage Factory and stepped forward to join the advisory board for the new land trust.

Van Laarz tells me he doesn't mind living in Martinez. He and his partner enjoy the extra space. But where are they going to live in their 80s? Where are any of us going to live in our 80s? I wager we want to be around our loved ones, our queer families, our community. Openhouse's senior living facility at 55 Laguna is a good start, but to protect the character of the Castro we need to locate right in the midst of it.

LGBT neighborhoods have disappeared before. Walk down the Polk Street strip and there is almost no indication that you are visiting what was once the heart of the gay and trans community in the city. The same could be said of the Barbary Coast, or of any number of former enclaves in other cities. The gay population in the Castro has been declining for 25 years: first we lost friends and lovers to AIDS, then to the rising cost of rent. Yet the Castro still has the densest LGBT population in a major city and San Francisco the highest LGBT percentage overall. Much is possible here. We can't turn back time, but neither must we go gently, and we won't.


Jesse Oliver Sanford is a longtime Castro resident.