Leather Renaissance Ends

Historical Essay

by Gayle S. Rubin


Slaves await auctioning at Folsom Street Fair, c. 1995
Photo: Rick Gerharter

By 1978 the Folsom's days as a gay and leather Mecca were already numbered. Redevelopment of South of Market, which had been stalled for years by court cases and political maneuvering, was accelerating. After the assassination of George Moscone in 1978, Mayor Feinstein made rapid development a major goal of her administration. The Moscone Convention Center was quickly built. It was soon surrounded by the expensive skyscrapers, office buildings, housing complexes, and glitzy shopping centers that have increasingly encroached on the old low rent commercial neighborhood. The massive redevelopment began to drive up rents and land prices. Low rent leather bars could not compete easily with higher rent yuppitoria.

As development began to transform the area, city officials, the police department, and the Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC) threatened the leather bars more directly. In 1978, the police and the ABC came down on the leather bars with a series of raids and visits that drove several out of business. New parking regulations made it difficult to park cars and bikes at night without getting ticketed. By the time the impact of AIDS began to hit in 1982 and 1983, the economy and stability of the leather bars had already been undermined. When leather bars began in waves from 1983 to 1986 to close and be replaced by straight oriented businesses, it appeared as though AIDS were responsible. But the impact of AIDS on the leather community South of Market only deepened a crisis already underway.

Whatever their causes, the changes are indeed breathtaking in scope. The block of Folsom between 7th and 8th epitomizes this drama of urban succession. This block has a lot of leather history. Moving east down Folsom from 8th St., there used to be at the end of Rogers St. a large space used for both gay and straight SM gatherings. It is gone, and Cafe Milano sits on the corner. Across the street, the Border Cantina occupies the former site of a lesbian bar, The Bay Brick Inn, which in turn replaced a leather bar called Headquarters. Across from the Border Cantina is the corner of Hallam Alley. Dozens of leathermen used to live on Hallam Alley and Brush Place. They were among those who lost their homes in the Folsom St. Fire in 1981. New buildings are only now being built on several lots that have been empty since the fire.

At the corner of Folsom and Hallam, the Watering Hole is located on the site of the old Red Star Saloon and the Barracks. The Watering Hole is the only gay bar remaining gay bar on the block. Next door is Eddie Jacks. The Stables and Templar Hall (former clubhouse of a now defunct gay leather organization) used to be located between Hallam and Langton. These have been succeeded by Rings, Buster's News, and Julie's Supper Club. Along this block, the "Miracle Mile" has become "Restaurant Row."

The intersection of Folsom and 11th St. is another vivid indicator of profound change. Ten years ago, leathermen traveled a circuit between the various bars, baths, and eating places. When they prowled the streets on weekend nights, 11th and Folsom was a major passage. It was bounded by Febe's, the Drummer Club, and Chaps. Men would pass this corner as they walked between the Eagle and Ambush at the southwest of their territory to the Brig and Ramrod further east and north.

Now there are far fewer leathermen on the streets. And the intersection of 11th and Folsom, once the heart of the Miracle Mile, has become a formidable barrier. The Oasis has replaced the Drummer Club. Febe's has become the Paradise Lounge. Chaps is now the DNA. On weekend nights there are hordes of straight teens hanging around the rock clubs and affluent adults going to the restaurants nearby. To get from the Eagle to the Powerhouse or My Place, a leatherman has to navigate through crowds that are often hostile and sometimes violent, or avoid the corner altogether.

While gay leather no longer dominates the nightlife of the Folsom, it is not true that "leather is dead" or that it is not still a substantial presence in the neighborhood. There is still a large and viable gay male leather community, and much of it is still located South of Market. A few of the bars have hung on. There are new businesses catering to the community, including an art gallery, a publishing company, and a number of private social spaces. The leather community has become more privatized, and its ability to occupy public space in the Folsom has become more limited and occasional.

However, the Folsom is still a magnet, a piece of sacred ground, and a powerful symbol. Leathermen are no longer the major population on the streets at night, but they are always present. They come out in great numbers for special events such as the Dore Alley Fair, held every August, and the Folsom Street Fair, held each September.

--Gayle Rubin, excerpted from "Requiem for the Valley of the Leather Kings," originally published in The Sentinel, 1989

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