Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 29 / 20 July 2017
 

It's a Raid!

Nightlife

Historic Bar Sites from San Francisco's Darker Past


Outside the 1965 California Hall Mardi Grad drag ball, where many were arrested, despite protests from clergy. Published in the SF Examiner. Photo: courtesy GLBT Historical Society
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In Gus Van Sant's film Milk, there is a series of scenes as the film opens of men being taken from bars as they are raided. Some react by covering their faces and one even throws a drink at the photographer. It's a wonderful dramatic device that sets up a contrast between sad and ashamed men submitting to the law and resistance against that kind of stigmatization exemplified by the life of Harvey Milk.

Yet if we take a look at the lives of both men and women who were arrested in police raids of this sort in San Francisco, it is evident that a number of people resisted in a variety of ways from the start.

Some places that were involved in these raids have disappeared, like the Tay Bush Inn on Taylor and Bush streets. The after-hours club, which was the scene of the largest raid in San Francisco history on September 14, 1961, has been erased by a condo on the site.

Other sites like California Hall, where a drag ball sponsored by the Council on Religion and the Homosexual was raided by police on January 1, 1965, remain but are inaccessible to all but a few.

But there are four places in San Francisco where you can sit and toast to the memory of people who fought back. Three of the four are no longer gay or lesbian bars, but they are all welcoming spots and well worth a visit to see where history was made.

Jose Sarria at The Black Cat in 1961.
The Black Cat
The Black Cat at 710 Montgomery operated on and off from 1906. Beginning in the 1940s, it caught the attention of the police because of the sexual orientation of the clientele. These raids could be very brutal and sad.

The historian and writer Jim Kepner recalled an incident in 1943 to Allan Berube in an article I accessed at the GLBT Historical Society archives entitled "Remembering the Black Cat" for the 1983 Gay and Lesbian parade (as it was then called):

"Just as I approached, several San Francisco police thundered into the place. I retreated across the street and watched them haul out 15 of my brothers, though some might have been sisters for all I could tell at first glance. The police were damned rough about it, but except for some of the bolder queens, who gave the cops some sass and a little real physical resistance, the rest of my brothers went along like sheep to the slaughter."

The Black Cat exterior in the 1940s.
But the bar that was home to Jose Sarria's performances of arias as well as campaign headquarters for his historic 1961 run for supervisor was also a festive spot as well. In the papers related to Nan Boyd's book Wide Open Town (also at the archives) a patron recalled: "they used to have a gay parade, but it only went one block and they had floats and everybody was in drag."

Even when the bar was finally forced to stop serving liquor on Oct. 31, 1963 it served as a focal point. For years afterward there were "memorial services" performed on Halloween in front of the bar, which included a motorcade from Romeo's at 1605 Haight and the laying of a wreath.

Today what was the Black Cat is Bocadillo's, a tapas restaurant. They gladly celebrate the historic nature of the site (my waiter pointed out the plaque on the sidewalk outside). In honor of the police raids, I had a delightful pork belly tapas and an Anchor Steam.

Drag costumes from Li Po's heyday, on display as part of Forbidden City, USA at the San Francisco Public Library. Photo: Michael Flanagan
Li Po's
You may not think of Chinatown as a gay hotspot, but this has not always been the case. During World War II Li-Po at 916 Grant served as a refuge for a while from wartime bar raids. As Berube's book Coming Out Under Fire tells us, after raids on several bars in town: "Displaced customers started to fill up Li-Po's, a discreet gay bar in Chinatown that until then had attracted "well-dressed, handsome youths" including servicemen.

But the crackdown on the other gay spots drove some of the "swish crowd" into Li-Po's, starting a second wave of crackdowns. "Within the last week" (Jim) Kepner wrote (in a letter to an Army pen pal), "the management has been refusing to admit a large number of the more swishy 'girls.' This is really a shame...as the place is beginning to get almost dull now, but I guess it was necessary."

Li Po's today. Photo: Michael Flanagan
The same week the police raided the Rickshaw around the corner from Li-Po's and arrested two dozen customers, including "a couple of Lesbians [who] protested and were beaten up" in a fight that 'led to a small free for all.'"

Li-Po has had the proverbial nine lives, changing from a place where punk bands performed in the 1980s, to being featured in the book San Francisco's Best Dive Bars. It outlasted the Rickshaw, which was on Ross Alley (and reportedly served the Beatles when they were in town in 1964), which closed in 1984.

Li Po still exists in Chinatown and has even had Anthony Bourdain as a visitor, and still draws a crowd of locals and tourists, which are decidedly straight, but friendly. If you would like a better idea as to why Li Po appealed to the "swish crowd" in the '40s, however, you might be better off checking out the exhibition Forbidden City, USA at the San Francisco Public Library in celebration of the book Forbidden City U.S.A.: Chinese-American nightclubs 1936 – 1970 by Arthur Dong. Dong worked on the documentary for Berube's book (as well as many others) and the exhibition shows off costumes with doubtlessly inspired many a drag queens fevered dreams in the war years.

 

Bartender Grace Miller (left) at Tommy's Place before it was raided.
Tommy's Place & 12 Adler
Spec Twelve Adler Museum Cafe (12 Saroyan Place) is on the alleyway (formerly Adler Street) across from City Lights. A colorful North Beach bar with enough bric-a-brac and curios on the walls to keep you entertained for hours, it's also full of North Beach characters.

But in the 1950s it was a lesbian bar, owned by the openly lesbian Tommy Vasu (and attached to Tommy's Place on 529 Broadway, now the Garden of Eden strip club, by a back stairs). The bars were the site of a sensational raid that resulted in a trial and months of hysteria in San Francisco.

A newspaper clipping of the Tommy's Place and 12 Adler Place busts.

Boyd's Wide Open Town puts it this way: "...when Tommy's Place was raided on 8 September 1954, it was part of a much larger police agenda. Because the arrests involved a handful of underage girls, the event escalated into a multifaceted investigation into juvenile delinquency that fleshed out the ostensible connection between organized 'sex deviates' and the corruption of minors." Two bartenders and a patron, Jessie Joseph Winston, were put on trial. Winston and bartender Grace Miller served jail time and both bars were shut down.

 

News footage of police attacking patrons inside and outside the Elephant Walk after the 1979 White Night Riots.
The Elephant Walk
The final stop on our raid tour, Harvey's at 500 Castro, is also the site of the most recent raid. In 1979 the bar was the Elephant Walk, and it was the site of a police riot after the White Night Riots. At 1 A.M. on May 22, 1979, the police attacked the Elephant Walk.

An article in the San Francisco Sentinel stated, "For no good reason the cops stormed the Elephant Walk...they surged inside, banged heads first and ordered people out later. One man, a straight man, saw a friend lying unconscious on the street, bent over to help and immediately a cop descended on him, clubbing him in the head. He shouted, 'Stop, stop, I'm an epileptic!' But the cop just kept hitting him."

Harvey's is the only site on our tour which is still a gay bar. You can appreciate the historic implications of the site by looking at the installations of photos from the GLBT Historical Society.

 

The Castro Sweep police attacks of 1989. Photo: Bob Smith, via Cop Block
Castro Sweep II
The raid on Harvey's wasn't the last major police action in the Castro, however. Ten years later, on October 6, 1989, there was a major police raid in retaliation for an ACT-UP protest. The Bay Area Reporter summed up the event this way in Brett Averill's article entitled "Castro Held Hostage" from October 12, 1989:

"What started outside the federal building Friday evening, Oct. 6, as a bland plea for more AIDS funds ended five hours later with bloodied heads, mass arrests and the specter of fully-armed riot police marching in military formation through the heart of the Castro, sweeping demonstrators and confused passers-by from the streets and sidewalks."

The ACT-UP action was part of a coordinated national response to the lack of funds for treatment, but San Francisco was the only location where there was a police riot that night. Police Chief Frank Jordan reported that he had not notified the mayor of the events in the Castro because he didn't know how severe they were. At least ten people, including some just going home, were swept up in the raid. Again from the B.A.R.:

Harvey's wall of historic photos today.
photo: Michael Flanagan
"They hit me with their billy-clubs when I went to help a woman," said Gilbert Criswell Saturday afternoon displaying a bruised, bandaged arm. "This is terrible. I was just on my way home from work. I wasn't even part of the protest."

The police riot did not bode well for the future of San Francisco's LGBT community or AIDS activists, as the next mayor would be Frank Jordan. Unlike the earlier raids, businesses were not the target of the action and even stood against it. The manager of the Castro Theater opened its doors to people on the street trying to escape the police violence and would not allow the police to follow them and businesses provided ice to stop the bleeding of some on the street.

So, as you sit and muse at these sites, you can be grateful that we no longer have to fear raids of this sort. This is probably due in no small part to the efforts of the people in these bars and those like them who fought back. As you look at the photos on the walls inside Harvey's Bar of Milk and his friends, you can be thankful that we have left these dark times behind.

(The author would like to thank the GLBT Historical Society for use of their archives in the preparation of this article. )






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