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San Francisco

Supervisors establish SoMa LGBTQ Leather Cultural District

The Board of Supervisors unanimously voted this week to establish the city's first LGBTQ and Leather Cultural District in the SoMa district.

The resolution, sponsored by District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim and District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, aims to commemorate historical sites, preserve existing spaces, and allow for continued planning for the "thriving and vibrant communities that are Leather and LGBTQ affirming." 

"Establishing this District does more than honor and commemorate the people, places and institutions that have given the South of Market its distinctive culture and appeal," Kim told Hoodline via email. "It will also protect the remaining businesses and spaces, and sustain the people who live, work and recreate there."

2017 Folsom Street Fair. | Photo: torbakhopper/Flickr

According to the resolution, police crackdowns on gay businesses along the waterfront in the 1960s led many to relocate South of Market, where vacant buildings — a result of urban renewal and deindustrialization — became home to many gay bars, bathhouses and restaurants. 

The neighborhood also birthed a concentration of businesses, political organizations and artists integral to the city's "cultural richness, economic prosperity and historical significance," the resolution reads, including pioneering civil rights groups like the Mattachine Society, The Society for Individual Rights, and the Daughters of Bilitis

Powerhouse location at 1347 Folsom St. | Photo: Google

In addition to historically being a refuge for the city's LGBTQ population, SoMa has also been a local and international destination for leather culture.

The neighborhood's first gay leather bar, the Tool Box, was featured in a 1964 Life magazine exposé titled "Homosexuality in America," with an interior photo featuring a mural painted by local artist Chuck Arnett. 

Once a hub for printing and publishing, the neighborhood was home to Drummer magazine, a global publication for the leather community that ran 1975–1988. 

Later, other leather-themed bars such as Fe-Be's, the Ramrod and the In Between — now home to the Powerhouse — opened along Folsom Street. By the 1980s, "there were at least thirty South of Market bars, baths, shops and restaurants serving the leather population," according to the resolution. 

The impetus for the designation stems from displacement due to rising rents and land costs, "resulting from the ongoing economic and physical reconstruction of much of South of Market," the resolution continues.

As evidenced by the number of construction cranes casting shadows, the area is undergoing a redevelopment boom that's increased competition for commercial space. 

"The goals of providing and protecting affordable housing, protection of bars and clubs, creation of a new community center, even the survival of institutions like the Folsom Street Fair, could all be affected positively by the creation of a Cultural District that recognizes these Communities in this neighborhood over the last half-century," said Kim, who represents the area.

The resolution also provides more than a honorary designation, "the Cultural District will also now have negotiating rights in future development and access to public money," said a spokesperson for Kim via email. Under the terms of the resolution, the Mayor’s office of Housing has a year to put forth policies that "promote the area and preserve existing historic assets."

"I think it’s a much deserved designation," said former State Assembly Member and San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano via Facebook Messenger. "The leather community has contributed heavily to the political and cultural vibrancy of San Francisco."

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