We learned last month of a skirmish occurring as a massive condo and hotel development at 950 Market Street is heading for its final approvals, due to the presence of several buildings that housed historic gay bars on the 900 block of Market Street that could be considered valuable historic resources in a proposed LGBTQ historic district. At Thursday's meeting of the Planning Commission (beginning at noon), the commission will be considering a request from a group of historians and legacy business advocates for a 60- to 90-day continuance in the approval process for the 12-story building at 950-974 Market in order to better assess the properties slated for demolition as part of the project. And new to the discussion as of this week are photos sent to SFist by legacy business and preservation advocate and former Board of Supervisors aide Nate Allbee showing one of a set of underground tunnels that existed connecting several of these bars as well as a hotel on the block that were likely used to help gay patrons escape arrest during police raids.*
Allbee, along with a group of current and former elected officials and activists, are calling for a pause in the process particularly in light of a new 1000+-page document released by the National Park Service discussing the process for and importance of preserving LGBT historic sites. "The document has only been out for a month," Allbee tells SFist, "and we're just asking for the opportunity to assess the value of what's there, and for commissioners to reconsider it in light of these new federal guidelines."
Just to go back, a four-block radius centered around Turk and Taylor Streets was, going back to the first half of the 20th Century, a historic hub of gay male and trans prostitution and especially nighttime activity. Nicknamed the Meat Market or the Meat Rack, as the Bay Area Reporter noted earlier this year, the area included several gay bars that faced Market Street, the Old Crow at 962 Market Street which operated from at least 1935 to 1980 without being shut down by police, and very well may have been a gay speakeasy during the Prohibition era and the Silver Rail at 974 Market Street, as well as the College Inn and the Pirate's Den, in buildings that no longer exist. The building at 101 Taylor Street that was home to Compton's Cafeteria also still stands (it's a halfway house owned by a prison corporation now) and this is perhaps the keystone property in what would be called the Compton's Historic District, the site of the 1966 Compton's Cafeteria Riots, an uprising of trans women that predated Stonewall in the fight for LGBT equality. It is not in imminent danger of demolition, but Allbee says there is work to be done to potentially acquire and preserve the property as an important landmark in trans history.
A previous study conducted by preservationist architecture firm Page & Turnbull failed to adequately address the cultural significance of the sites, the group argues and indeed, architecturally speaking, the Market Street buildings are just shadows of what they once were when they were gay bars. Group i, the developers behind 950-974 Market, have used this 2015 assessment to argue "that although three of the storefronts at the property had at certain times in the past been occupied by gay bars, none of the three storefronts retains physical features associated with those long-closed establishments (they lack 'integrity') and thus are not able to convey historic significance."
The revelation about the tunnels, as well as intact vintage liquor bottles inside one of them (shown below), could change this, as LGBTQ historians now argue that no one has had the opportunity to fully survey the sites that are facing demolition.
Vintage liquor bottles discovered in one of the tunnels. Photo courtesy of Nate Allbee
A staircase leading down into the tunnel network. Photo courtesy of Nate Allbee
A letter from the group the Planning Commission says, "The entire intersection of Market, Mason, and Turk was an important hustling and cruising site where gay men went to socialize in an era when our existence was illegal. These sites are connected by an intact underground tunnel system that patrons used to escape police raids and to avoid the loss of employment, family, and housing that were risked in those days by homosexual association."
Allbee further explains, "The discovery of the intact tunnels is huge and really deserves further research. So many gay bars faced raids and were shut down in the 1930's, 40's, and 50's, and it's never been clear how places like the Old Crow managed to stay in business so long. The tunnels may be the answer."
A total of 12 potential historic resources exist in the area, according to Allbee, including Aunt Charlie's Lounge on Turk Street, and efforts are being made to potentially relocate another LGBTQ legacy business to the district as well. The Compton's site is mentioned in the federal document in a chapter on transgender history in the United States, written by historian Susan Stryker.
Should the Planning Commission decide to move forward with approvals for the new development, work will continue on establishing the district, a first of its kind trans historic district in the world, and preserving the Compton's site across the street. Also, as Allbee explains, "We're also in talks with housing non-profits to secure some of the available housing stock in the area for trans people."
Housing activist and Q Foundation president Brian Basinger earlier told Hoodline, "Why on earth should we expect that we have to accept the bulldozing of our historically significant LGBT sites?" But he added that if the project moves forward, he at least hopes the developer will consider putting an LGBT-owned business into one of its ground floor spaces.
We'll update you when we know the outcome of today's hearing.
*Update: The Planning Commission voted 4 to 3 to allow the 950-972 Market development to move forward.
Meanwhile, CBS 5's Joe Vazquez visited the Market Street basement where the photos were taken and shows that while there are vintage liquor bottles there, and a second exit to Turk Street, there is no extant network of tunnels as Allbee and the preservationists described. Allbee himself did not shoot the photos, and tells the station he's "less excited" about the sites but still thinks further investigation is needed. They conclude "It may turn out somebody finds tunnels under other properties, and that the area could still be deemed important in LGBT history, but we found no evidence of any network of underground tunnels."
Update 2: While the current condition of the underground space at these businesses hasn't been assessed, and even if the connections between the buildings no longer exist, Allbee points to this 2000 article in the SF Chronicle that describes the Silver Spur at 974 Market and refers to the basement passage that allowed exit to Turk Street. "There were doors on both Market and Turk so when the cops came in the front, customers would run out the back, and vice versa. When the cops outsmarted them by coming in both sides, they'd outsmart the cops by going into a series of underground tunnels that connected the bars along the strip."
Beyond Chron also took up the story, noting that the developer has offered up potential funds to restore the Compton's Cafeteria site.