'Cultural Districts' in San Francisco Exacerbate Issues of Displacement and Affordability
By Stasha Lampert and Toshio Meronek
In 2018, San Francisco put the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District on its official map, designating about ten blocks of the central South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood as culturally significant to the queer kink community. Landmarks like the city's first gay bar were disappearing, replaced with techie dorms by a real estate industry adept at flipping counterculture into cash. Are San Francisco’s officially recognized Cultural Districts protecting and supporting existing subcultures or aiding in their displacement?
In the 1970s, SoMa became a magnet for people who wanted to be out: out about enjoying sex, and exploring their fetishes. As the city was redeveloping and gentrifying other neighborhoods, hundreds of kink fans descended on the city's industry-heavy center. They got jobs at newly opened leather bars, cruised the area's many alleyways, and squatted warehouses or scraped together rent to live in flats and week-to-week hotels that were relatively affordable, for San Francisco. In 1984, the group of mostly outsiders to the city's white gay and lesbian establishment started what is now one of the biggest US state's biggest annual events, the Folsom Street Fair, which drew half a million people pre-COVID. Its origins, like Gay Pride, were in protest. Specifically, against the redevelopment of SoMa by real estate and real estate-backed politicians. Another kink fest, the Up Your Alley Fest, a.k.a. "Dore Alley," began the next year to raise money to support people with HIV/AIDS.
Now, the limits–and possibly sabotaging effects–of city-backed Cultural Districts are clearer. Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Action Project (WRAP), calls a cultural district "a gravestone on where a community used to live." His organization worked with UC Berkeley on the most extensive study of California's "Business Improvement Districts" (BIDs), the business-oriented predecessor to "Community Benefits Districts" (CBDs). The study from WRAP and the Public Policy School at UC Berkeley describes in painful detail how districtification overwhelmingly benefits the real estate industry, rather than the community. In city planning, CBDs speak on behalf of the populations who live where they're situated, rubber-stamping development projects local residents may not even know they exist. In cities where multiculturalism is political currency, cultural districts are easily exploitable.
In June 2018, seven people put on hardhats and picked up shovels with black, blue, and red blades—the colors of the Leather Pride flag—to pose for cameras at the groundbreaking of Eagle Plaza, a park dedicated to the kink community. Flanked by two guys in black leather outfits were San Francisco's mayor and several other local politicians, plus reps from a local subsidiary of the real estate multinational Greystar. They were gathered in front of The Eagle SF, a leather bar located across the Plaza from future high-end apartments dubbed "HQ" by the developer.
The Greystar subsidiary BUILD, Inc. manages HQ. BUILD is a sibling to thousands of similar subsidiaries in 300 global cities from São Paulo to Singapore. BUILD:SF needed to show buy-in from locals for the company's new market-rate condos in SoMa, where many of the city's 40,000 vacant units were concentrated (as of 2019). A major part of that buy-in came dressed in leather.
As of July 2022, HQ's leasing office is offering empty apartments with 10 weeks rent-free,"no strings attached." Assuming, of course, you're in a position to prove you have great credit and can pay the up-to-$4,300 per month rent.
The California Arts Council oversees the Cultural Districts across the state. It commissioned a study which surveyed San Franciscans and Oaklanders about their top concerns about the Cultural District model. The top-three results:
1. Gentrification (particularly of existing arts and cultural activity/communities)
2. Displacement of existing residents
3. Lack of grass-roots focus and community inclusion
As the houselessness crisis worsens, districts add a layer of bureaucracy that may lead to more evictions, police presence and abuse, surveillance, and the displacement of homeless people and their belongings. We've known for a long time that these are problems more likely to hit queer and trans people, especially those who didn't grow up wealthy or white.
The 2010s brought a wave of queer establishment closures.The sorta-legal, sorta-not sex club Blow Buddies is gone forever; a bakery specializing in X-rated cakes moved to a less-gentrified part of town; San Francisco's oldest gay bar, The Stud, open since 1966, closed in 2018 after its landlord increased rent by 150%. The landlord painted over its murals in greige to match the new condos towering over the one-story bar.
The Leather District asks developers to notify any new residents in their leases that they’re moving to a place known for its kink scene—“that they may be on the Folsom Street Fair Grounds, to sort of help them integrate, and not be surprised by the neighborhood that they are arriving in,” says Ronald Goldfarb, the District’s President. Outside of community-building events, like a regular erotic story-telling hour temporarily moved from a kink-themed cafe onto Zoom due to COVID-19, cultural districts "have been instrumental in increasing the amount" of housing under the city's BMR program, he says, though he’s well-aware that BMR (short for "below market rate") is a fraught answer to the problem of a lack of deeply affordable housing. In short, BMR programs now in place across the country set aside small percentages of new housing units as "affordable," a small offering developers make to cities like San Francisco, where landlords and the politicians they fund are increasingly invested in killing tenant protections like rent control and vacancy control propositions. But "below market rate" itself does not necessarily equate affordability: developers are allowed to price new housing at up to 150 percent of what the city defines as "affordable." As BMR becomes one of the most-touted answers to the government's wider abandonment of non-rich people and efforts to end public housing options, developers are lobbying to reprogram BMR to fit their own desires. Definitions of "affordable" often include those who make six-digit salaries, and BMR housing is used by Planning Departments to rubber-stamp the bulldozing of currently available housing so that developers can build from scratch, increasing their own profits. "These higher-end BMRs aren't really worth much other than checking the box that [developers] have the BMR in the building," Goldfarb said, describing the case of a high-end BMR unit in a large 20-unit building within the Leather District. The developers "weren't able to rent it, so they're applying to make it non-BMR. My guess is that they will get the exception to make it market-rate."
The SF Planning Commission has issued declarations time and again about the importance of LGBTQ cultural heritage in SoMA. In its 2011 planning recommendations for SoMa, it explained that preservation of local heritage had concentrated on LGBTQ small businesses and nonprofits and symbolic gestures like murals, rather than LGBTQ residents. Residents were being gentrified out of the area, and preservation efforts were not helping them stay in their homes. SoMa had become a place of queer "resort" rather than "abode."
This continued five years later as Eagle Plaza makeover plans were presented to the public. Plaza plans involved placing commemorative placards at designated historical sites, creating a "heritage path,” renaming streets, and other decorative nods to the history of the space. But look up, and the sky is increasingly owned by the real estate industry via empty "ghost condos" that look indistinguishable from gleaming, new, floor-to-ceiling glass buildings in large cities across the world.
The Leather District, similar to other cultural districts, is a partnership between some well-intentioned leather daddies and the daddies who run City Hall, plus building developers. These developers have a multi-billion dollar master plan to redevelop SoMa, and know how valuable local community support, or the appearance of it, can be. Having locals vouch for them at the city's Planning Commission might fast-track a condo complex, and it can also defuse anti-gentrification activism in a city where a culture of protesting runs deep and long. A nonprofit organization’s approval can show "community buy-in" for Planning Department records, fast-tracking building permits for real estate developers who aren't based in the city, or sometimes even the state. These tactics ultimately result in the displacement of the very communities supposedly represented by these cultural districts. It's the same situation with the city-funded organizations that have turned queer enclaves like Chicago’s Boystown and Seattle’s Capitol Hill into areas often indistinct from neighborhoods in other global cities.
In April 2021, just under two years after the Eagle Plaza’s celebratory leather ribbon-cutting, we walked through the new landmark for leather. A couple of literal tumbleweeds were caught in a succulent garden next to a walkway made of concrete inlaid with metal hearts. Some of them were engraved with memorials, paid for by friends of now-gone leather community members. Scattered among them are permanent advertisements from sponsoring companies like Airbnb (the vacation rental site hosts a dedicated page advertising itself as "an amenity at HQ"). The exteriors of the condos are wrapped up in the faux-rusty metal/"weathering steel" trend that followed the reclaimed barn-wood shortages of the 2000s. Walking through the for-lease signs, fake rust, and ghost condos cast an apocalyptic mood.
In addition to Eagle Plaza, the Leather District has plans to add to the first leather pride flag-colored crosswalk, installed in 2021 at a cost of around $40,000. While symbolic representations of the history of the kink community aren't meaningless, what purpose do they serve when those they seek to represent are priced out of the neighborhood? When San Franciscans voted to pass the Cultural District preservation law in 2018, they dedicated at least $3 million in funding each year and created official roles to maintain what are now nine districts, including another LGBTQ district in the Castro gayborhood, and the Transgender District, located just north of the Leather District. The purpose was to support the existing community and "[slow] down gentrification," in particular focusing on the most "vulnerable, minority communities." Tellingly, the National Association of Realtors has been studying "LGB Trends" since 2015, leaving out trans people who deal with housing insecurity and homelessness more than most.
"Public space isn’t public space anymore," says Boden. "It’s sundown town time." Proof: the ubiquity of hostile architecture; the harrassment and arrests of homeless people; the ballooning number of private contractors who can act as another layer of police; "sit/lie" laws that criminalize resting on the sidewalk; and wealthy neighbors' antagonism of homeless youth that prevents queer youth shelters from existing.
The city bowed to another homeowners' association it funds, the SoMa West Community Benefits District, whose executives found Leather District queer artists' submissions too "explicit" to display on public trash cans around SoMa. Specifically, they rejected images of unicorns wearing fishnets, as well as PG-rated hanky code references that were removed after neighbor complaints.
There's also the group of artists who went to court over the painting over of queer murals at The Stud. A federal law could mean the landlord has to pay $150,000 per piece of art destroyed, but access to lawyers and possible lawyers' fees aren't something everyone being forced out of SoMa have. The landlord, Citi Commercial Investments, is a multi-state operation that can draw out the court case and pay a settlement that won't bring back The Stud.
During the pandemic, city officials granted the Eagle bar historic status, and ended a ban on bathhouses (sex clubs) in the city, though it's hard to imagine new openings when the reopening of the sole gay bathhouse in the city depended on relocation to a more affordable neighborhood, halving its hours of operation, and a GoFundMe donation campaign.
Cultural districts are regarded as markers of progress by many elected officials, but visibility and arts funding doesn’t solve the crisis faced by community members facing crises of material need. Rather than addressing the root causes that keep adequate housing a remote possibility for so many of us, conversations around districting can be circular, discursive non-remedies.
In 2018, when Gerry Luce closed the Nob Hill Theater, San Francisco's last gay strip club, he told San Francisco Magazine, "Once this is turned into a WeWork bullshit place, or a day care, it’s hard to go back without a lot of legal wrangling." Luce was loud about his hopes that the next owners keep the place rooted in queer history, and the city and federal government had long recognized the building as historically and architecturally significant, but that didn't save it; its eventual demolition and blueprints for four luxury condos and a medical office were soon approved by the local Planning Commission. The shaping of subcultures by government agencies and private developers continues the tradition of attempted “renewal” of South of Market that began in the 1950s.
Recently , in August 2022, several Districts were criticized online for being out of touch with the communities they’re supposed to serve. Staff of the Transgender District thanked San Francisco’s new “tough-on-crime” District Attorney Brooke Jenkins after she joined them on a walking tour. Days before, Jenkins announced intentions to reopen cases and extend jail sentences for people convicted of survival crimes. The District’s Juneteenth drag brunch was canceled when featured performer Nicki Jizz pulled out, citing the Transgender District’s alignment with “the Mayor to use our show for a [public relations] moment,” as it came to light that the mayor’s office had diverted millions in federal COVID-19 assistance to the police department for officer bonuses and a campaign to legalize police access to private surveillance cameras.
Community members living within the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District borders were likewise disgusted by the District’s erection of a wall around a Bay Area Rapid Transit station to block public space access for low-income street vendors.
In Boden's words, Cultural Districts often reflect "something that this country has a long history of: Destroying a community and then memorializing their previous existence." The districts, says Boden, are "about commodifying an existence of people and their culture," a problem that goes back to indigenous genocide and land-taking. (Without the city's help, local Lisjan-Ohlone tribe members created space for the largest community and powwow of two-spirit people in the country.)
Small but successful movements, like the Moms4Housing occupation of an empty house in Oakland, give hope to people who've been in queer liberation movements long enough to remember some victories. The many, many mutual aid projects that have sprung up during the pandemic and fighting to keep rent-controlled buildings from being bulldozed are ways queer communities are figuring out how to negotiate through their planned decimation.
Communities are also rejecting the lure of developers' low-ball "community benefits." In San Francisco, benefits often come in the form of a mural, and maybe some "seed" money for Districts and a couple of nonprofits. In most cases, it's money that wouldn't buy you a single unit in a new condo complex. State and federal COVID relief funds that could've gone to securing housing for houseless people went unused. With the end of the bailouts to landlords known as the COVID-19 eviction moratoriums looming , more radical, permanent public housing has to be on the table. Organized trans and queer co-op housing like the Fishbowl Collective in SF, the GLITS House in Queens, Lucie’s Place in Little Rock, Lupinewood near Greenfield, Massachusetts, plus trans/queer elder housing run by Openhouse in the Castro or SAGE in New York are a few examples where queer people are doing what we’ve always done, with or without official names or documents: experimenting with living situations that are sometimes messy, usually drama-filled and often temporary, but necessary for the survival of anyone who doesn't have the shield of extreme wealth.
Stasha Lampert organizes in San Francisco.
Toshio Meronek is a San Francisco-based writer focused on housing and queer politics. His work appears in Al Jazeera, In These Times, Truthout and the anthologies Captive Genders, Trap Door and Surviving the Future. Miss Major Speaks, a collaborative book with the iconic Black, trans activist Miss Major will be out January 2023 on Verso Books.