Inclusion on the San Francisco Legacy Business Registry is an honor bestowed on many of our favorite local businesses that have been around for 30 years or longer. This honor has been given to legendary bars and restaurants, recording studios, or even particularly beloved mailing and post office box businesses.
But the Chronicle reported that today, the SF Historic Preservation Commission was considering a Legacy Business designation for the North Beach strip club the Condor Club. And while that club is considered to have been the first topless bar in the U.S., the nomination led to an intense debate over whether the city should provide funding and resources to a strip club whose legacy is more rich with sexism than, like, culture.
Several current and former Condor employees (all male) spoke highly of the club’s place in the history and culture of San Francisco. “The Condor is a pillar of community in North Beach,” longtime Condor Club employee Derek Thompston told the commission, also perhaps too-accurately saying, “It gives people a safe haven to go and relieve their tension.”
But commissioners noted the club’s history of “exploitation for profit,“ and said the club’s application showed no evidence that women had ever been promoted beyond dancer or bartender positions. Commissioners noted the Condor was a place “where employment or promotion was contingent on sexual parameters.”
Yes, the club was the launching pad for legendary topless dancer Carol Doda, and the Condor’s application included quotes from the late, great Herb Caen. But commissioner Ruchira Nageswaran pointed out, “The quotations of Herb Caen in the nomination were described as ‘honoring’ Carol Doda, but they were distinct in the objectification of her rather than describing her as a person or for her performances.”
“The Condor’s nomination notes that ownership has been solely with men throughout the business’ history.,” Nageswaran added. “And in the article memorializing her, Carol Doda left her long career at the Condor indicating she had never been paid enough. This is striking, in that she was integral in defining the business.”
And Nageswaran added that the club may have been a point in the Sexual Revolution, but in ways that may not hold up to the test of time.
“For nominees of all types, it is important to see an increment of racial and social equity reflected in their nomination,” she said “Women’s liberation ideally provides opportunities equal to that of other genders based on abilities and contributions outside of discriminating factors of sexualization.”
Other commissioners argued that the Condor’s application should not be penalized for sexism that was common in the past.
“I was raised in Indiana by a mother who sold real estate. And I’ll tell you right now she was treated like shit,” said commissioner Chris Foley. "I don’t think it’s our job, just like if someone’s going to sell me hot dogs and I only eat vegetarian food, that I should tell the hot dog manufacturer to make vegetarian hot dogs.”
But there was a consensus that the Legacy Business application relied entirely on Doda’s showing her breasts in the past, and did not reflect any commitment to genuinely advancing women.
“When I’ve seen other legacy businesses coming forward to us, they had already volunteered to show us how much community outreach, and how many things they will be doing and have already done to actually address the social and racial equity component,” said commissioner Lydia So. “But what we’re lacking to see [from the Condor] is what other things that you are going to do or have already been doing that will elevate a better place for women.”
The commission did recommend the Condor’s approval as a Legacy Business, but with several additional hurdles and a rather tortured add-on bureaucratic process that requires some commitment to advancing women rather than just having them strip.
They recommended approval, but with a stipulation that Condor consider “developing a framework” to provide training and promotion of women, particularly those at the business’ core, and incorporate those recommendations to review by the SF Department on the Status of Women and the Small Business Commission.
So the Condor Club did not get final Legacy Business approval Wednesday. Their application now goes to the Small Business Commission, which might also possibly send it to the SF Board of Supervisors before final approval.