The Ringold Alley Art Walk Opens Just in Time for Up Your Alley

San Francisco officially acknowledges the importance of leather culture and BDSM sex to the city's history.

One of the many curb bulb-outs in the Ringold Alley Art Walk with plinths dedicated to various kinksters and leather organizations (Peter Lawrence Kane)

The present moment is a good one for the official recognition of San Francisco’s subcultures,

The displacement emergency continues apace, no doubt. But in the face of late capitalism’s gale-force winds, the city has designated SoMa Pilipinos, Calle 24, and the Compton’s TLGB districts, lending aid to the Filipino-American, Latino, and transgender communities and helping them remain rooted in the neighborhoods they have long called home. It’s now time to look at an unassuming block in Central SoMa between Eighth and Ninth streets, where, just in time for this Sunday’s Up Your Alley street fair, the freshly launched Ringold Alley Art Walk commemorates San Francisco’s importance as a home for alternative sexualities.

At a ribbon-cutting Tuesday afternoon, speakers from the city and the various leather organizations gathered at LSeven, a 410-unit, mixed-use development on a former bus depot at 1222 Harrison St. The project abuts Ringold Alley, which was for decades a cruising ground for queer men, bikers, BDSM fetishists, and others — and which is now home to a public art installation by Jeffrey Miller that consists of stone plinths embedded in bulbed-out sections of sidewalk painted in the white, blue, and black stripes (and red heart) of the Leather Pride flag, plus bronze boot-prints.

Apart from the fact that it’s pretty rad to live in a city that acknowledges the historical importance of a street where men used to fuck each other a lot, the public-private partnership that made it all possible is significant as well.

LGBT people have long been erased from “American-pageant” accounts of U.S. history. But even within a queer context, leather folk and other alternative types were banished even further to the margins, a sort of underground within the underground. In the shadow of state repression and the many lives snuffed out by HIV/AIDS, the Ringold Alley Art Walk aims to undo decades of erasure.

And it’s been a decade in the making, funded by LSeven’s impact fees. Noting that some 85 percent of San Franciscans cannot afford to rent housing at prices the market commands, State Senator Mark Leno extolled the fact that LSeven includes 15 percent below-market-rate units, emphasizing that “a great project like this doesn’t just happen” without a strong alliance between the developer and local organizations.

Sunny Angulo, a legislative aide to Sup. Aaron Peskin (and former aide to Sup. Jane Kim) observed how the area had been working-class for nearly 150 years, later becoming home to “lesbian-owned motorcycle bars alongside Filipino families,” and that LSeven’s zoning helps anchor the city’s disappearing light-industrial base as well.

Cooperation between the Planning Department and the Western SoMa Community Task Force yielded a visually striking artwork that contextualizes long-vanished bars like the Tool Box (which opened in 1962 as the first leather bar in SoMa) and The Ramrod, and organizations like the Society of Janus, the Bay Area Leather Alliance, the 15 Association, and the women-owned store Stormy Leather. And while the Up Your Alley fair has since migrated a few blocks northwest to Dore Street, the very first fair was held on Ringold in 1985. While acknowledging history, others at the ceremony — where the ribbon was black leather, produced by nearby Mr. S Leather — looked to the future.

Jonathan Schroder, Mr. S’s general manager, said, “I have faith that our business will be able to stay in this neighborhood for the foreseeable future, with things like this being a wonderful anchor for the leather community.”

Others focused on the value of the physical work. There is a relationship between an edifice and the idea of edifying, in the sense of instruction.

“Its extremely important to document marginalized communities of any sort,” said Race Bannon, who writes the “Leather” column for the Bay Area Reporter. “And kinky folk — especially LGBT kinky folk, but kinky folk of any kind — don’t have many monuments anywhere on Earth.”

LGBT historian Gayle Rubin situated the art walk in a rigorous historical framework. Having just returned from a trip to the South, she spoke about how the politics of memory can be slippery.

“Heirs to the Confederacy mobilized massive resources to romanticize a conflict” in which the defense of slavery was heroic, Rubin said, and this is only being questioned more than a century later. Quoting the writer Rebecca Solnit, who urges humility in the creation of monuments, she observed that cultures live on and that what was said that day will not be the final word on the matter. But she concluded on an uplifting note.

“Our visible presence is still controversial, even on this alley,” Rubin said. “And, as far as I know, this monument is unique.”

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