Tenderloin Twilight Zone

by on November 24, 2016

Lower Turk in 1944. The Silver Rail, then an underground gay bar, is on the right.

Fake News About Tunnels and the Compton’s Cafeteria Site

The November 17 San Francisco Planning Commission hearing on the 950-974 Market Street project became a Tenderloin Twilight Zone. Activists pushed to preserve the legacy of Compton’s Cafeteria while turning down funds to achieve this. Photos of basements in long abandoned buildings became a fake news story about “secret tunnels”  linking former gay bars at the project site.  New housing and a hotel on a derelict site became an attack on preserving the Tenderloin’s LGBT legacy. Opponents falsely implied that the project endangered the beloved bar Aunt Charlie’s and repeatedly claimed it was opposed by the Obama Administration.

Supporting the project was even linked to Donald Trump’s war on the LGBT community.

Adding to this Twilight Zone was the role of Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards. Richards is a Board member of the organization that filed the environmental appeal to stop 950 Market. Yet he actively participated in the hearing and voted in favor of his group’s appeal. Richards’ appeal lost 4-3 but he did everything possible to shift the vote the other way.

Richards also took the photos used by 48 Hills to create the fake news story two hours before the hearing claiming a new discovery of “secret tunnels” linking gay bars at the project site. The “tunnels” were exposed by CBS news as a fraud, but that was a day after speakers at the hearing used the fake news to justify their request for a continuance. They argued that the photos of the tunnels showed the Planning Department’s historic analysis of the site was incomplete, and that more time was needed to investigate the site.

Richard only got access to the site to take the photos due to his Commissioner status. He claimed that the photos were being misused, and privately acknowledged that they showed standard basements, not “secret tunnels.” But he never questioned a single speaker who promoted the fake news story about the tunnels.

Richards said the City Attorney approved his serving as both appellant and judge. But since his organization was demanding money from the developer, he voted on a matter in which his organization had a financial stake.

If that’s allowed, it should not be. Dennis Herrera’s office needs to issue a public explanation for its ruling on this.

Preserving the Tenderloin’s GBLT History

The appellant’s claim that they wish “to ensure that the blocks of dense historic and cultural resources surrounding the site of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot at Vicky Mar Lane and Gene Compton Way are treated with appropriate sensitivity and recognition.”

I agree, as does the project sponsor, and the San Francisco Planning Department. Everyone supports the creation of a GLBT historic district in the Tenderloin.

But the historic gay bars of lower Turk are long gone. The buildings they operated in no longer have architectural integrity, having been either torn down or left to disintegrate.

There is a real GLBT history on this block that does not require false tunnels. As I and others have written, patrons of the Silver Rail were constantly subject to illegal police harassment. These arrests proceeded despite the police violating a California Supreme Court ruling barring the arrest of bar patrons due to their sexual orientation alone. The Silver Rail had a “straight” entrance on Market and a “gay” entrance on Turk, but authorities were not fooled; patrons knew they risked harassment and arrest by going there.

I wish the Silver Rail had been taken care of three decades ago. But like the historic movie theater that once existed under the Market Street Cinema and the decayed interior of the historic Strand Theater, the Silver Rail no longer exists.

The Compton’s Reality

The one historic site that does potentially exist is the retail space under 111 Taylor that was the site of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in 1966. Among the fake news promoted by project opponents was the claim that 950-974 Market “would negatively “impact” this site.

The truth is exactly the opposite.

This site has long been part of a correctional facility (and would be a jail if I hadn’t stopped Sherriff Hennessey’s plans to do that). The facility closed the commercial space that once housed Compton’s and connected it to the residential portion.

I was long bothered by this elimination of ground floor retail on an historic Tenderloin corner. When a public notice was issued in early 2015 saying that the facility (now run by the “GEO Group”) had to be approved for a five-year renewal, I wrote a letter to the Bureau of Prisons saying that the contract should not continue unless the owner re-opens the former Compton’s space.

This led to a lengthy negotiation with Maria Richard, the Northern Area Manager of the Western Region of the GEO Reentry Division. We reached an agreement they would rent to Garden Creamery Ice Cream for the 600 square foot space at the corner of Turk and Taylor. I arranged with the teacher of SFUSD’s only LBGT history class for a mural of the Compton’s struggle to be painted insider the ice cream parlor.

Unfortunately, all of these plans fell apart when the cost estimates for installing the ice cream shop proved unworkable.

But with Group I now offering $73,000 to reopen this former Compton’s space, one would think that those seeking to preserve the area’s GLBT legacy would be rushing to make it happen. But they are not. Group I has tried to meet with the appellant repeatedly over the last month to discuss how they could help finance the revival of the Compton’s space, but their offers were rebuffed.

What Do Project Opponents Want?

So if those opposing 950 Market don’t care about obtaining the Compton’s space, what do they want?

Appellant’s representative Nate Albee told the developer at a cafe meeting brokered by Richards that they wanted money to relocate the Gangway Bar from Larkin and O’Farrell to lower Turk, to pay the lease for Aunt Charlie’s, and to purchase 111 Taylor Street. Otherwise, they would hold up the project through a CEQA appeal.

When I heard all the testimony at the hearing from people concerned about Aunt Charlie’s future, I asked the developer if they were willing to help Aunt Charlie’s on top of the $73,000 they were offering for the Compton’s site. Group I is happy to help, and at least one speaker announced that at the hearing.

But the other demands– relocating a legacy gay bar from one part of the Tenderloin to another and buying 111 Taylor which is not for sale and whose housing portion has no GLBT connection—prevent a deal.

950-974 Market had more public support at the Planning Commission than any market rate project in Tenderloin history. It includes an historic job training deal for Tenderloin residents, step up housing for SRO tenants, a labor agreement with UNITE HERE Local 2, and a space for the Magic Theater. The project also brings key resources into preserving the Tenderloin’s GLBT legacy by helping to finance a retail business at Compton’s former site.

The appellant’s are fighting against a nonexistent opponent. It is hard to see how pushing for the project’s delay rather than accepting support for restoring the Compton’s site to retail furthers the cause of GLBT preservation.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco,

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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