Alley project to highlight leather history
by Matthew S. Bajko
Five decades ago San Francisco's Ringold Alley was the go-to place for gay and bisexual men to engage in late-night sex once the leather bars scattered about South of Market had closed. Dingy and dark, the roadway was far removed from more heavily populated areas and offered a modicum of privacy.
Today the alley, which runs between 8th and 9th streets and parallels Harrison Street, borders a massive redevelopment project that will bring hundreds of new residents as well as new businesses to the neighborhood. Known as LSeven, the first residents of the apartments fronting 8th Street have started to move in, and work on the other buildings is near complete.
Developer 4Terra Investments, as part of the capital improvements it is required to pay for, has worked with leather community members and city officials to reimagine Ringold Alley into a streetscape that honors local leather aficionados and their colorful past. Construction on the $2 million redesign should soon commence with an official ribbon-cutting likely in early 2017.
"This is going to make a big difference for this neighborhood," Amir Massih, 4Terra's northern California president, told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent interview at the site of the project. "This was such a neglected, beat up street. It needed some love."
The location is a fitting spot for such a commemoration of the local leather community as the neighborhood since the 1960s has served as its heart. The alley also parallels Folsom Street, which at one time was known as the "Miracle Mile" for the gay bars, sex clubs, and bathhouses clustered on or near it.
But the advent of AIDS in the 1980s led to the closure of many of the businesses, while the growth of the internet in the 1990s, and more recently social media and hookup apps, have continued to eat away at SOMA's leather and fetish scene.
The alleyway project, officially known as the San Francisco South of Market Leather History Alley, is seen as a way to capture the heyday of the city's leather scene and educate visitors about its importance.
"The leather history installation on Ringold Alley will preserve the knowledge and memory of what was one of the most important gay areas in San Francisco. And during the 1970s, South of Market became one of the largest, densest and most visible concentrations of leather institutions anywhere," explained Gayle Rubin, an associate professor of anthropology and women's studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who lives in San Francisco and has been documenting the city's leather community since the 1970s. "This is a history worth remembering. And it is particularly exciting that some aspects of that history will be quite literally carved in granite and cast in bronze."
Rubin has been one of the local leather community members advising on the project and working with landscape architect Jeffrey Miller to flesh out the final design. The initial concept for the idea came from Jim Meko, who prior to his death last year, had long pushed for a rezoning of Western SOMA that would honor the area's leather history.
"Jim Meko kicked our asses for years. He wasn't easy on us, but at the end of the process, he trusted what I had to say," recalled Massih, who believes Meko would approve of the planned changes for Ringold.
Rubin added that Meko "worked very hard on finalizing it during the last year of his life."
Meko will be among those honored as part of the alley project. The names of important participants who helped shape the history of the leather community will be etched in 28 bronze bootprints implanted in the sidewalk along Ringold Alley between 8th and 9th streets.
To get the right shape for the bronze bootprints, Rubin borrowed a pair of Dehners boots owned by Mike McNamee, the founder and former owner of Stompers, that Miller then scanned the soles of to use as a model.
Among those who will receive their own bootprints are the B.A.R. 's former leather columnist Marcus Hernandez, who died in 2009; Alan Selby, the founder of the store Mr. S Leather, who died in 2004; and leather pioneer Cynthia Slater, a founder of The Society of Janus, who died in 1989.
The names of various leather institutions, long-shuttered clubs, and community events will be etched into granite standing stones that will be placed along the roadway. The list includes the names of long-gone bars such as the Why Not, Toolbox, Febe's, the Ramrod, the Brig, and the No Name.
The colors of the leather flag will be incorporated into the paving treatment, and an explanatory marker will be placed at the intersection of 9th and Ringold to welcome visitors to the street. It is expected to include a rendering of a mural once found on the wall of the Toolbox made famous by a photo in the June 1964 issue of Life magazine that accompanied the now infamous article "Homosexuality in America."
"It will introduce people to the SOMA leather community and explain the historical significance of this community," said class=st>Folsom Street Events Executive Director Demetri class=st>Moshoyannis, who oversees several fetish fairs held in the area, such as Sunday's Folsom Street Fair, from a nearby office on 8th Street. "There are a number of features in the Ringold project that are really cool. It will very much be a historic walk, if you will."
A new public mini-park will also be built adjacent to Ringold at the intersection of 8th. It will abut the entrances to a restaurant on the ground floor of the residential building fronting 8th Street and that of a cafe in a building of townhomes entered from Ringold.
For more information about the LSeven development, visit http://www.l7sf.com/.