For three years, Joseph Jurkans and Mark Gilpin have been caught in a bureaucratic runaround in their quest to find a new home for the Motherlode. If Jurkans — who owns the popular bar in the no man's land between Nob Hill, Polk Gulch and the Tenderloin — and manager Gilpin ever reach the finish line, they will have cleared more hurdles than a track star.
The latest stumbling block came March 31 when Mayor Jordan vetoed a unanimous decision by the Board of Supervisors that would have allowed the Motherlode to move 128 feet toward Polk Street from its current site at the corner of Post and Larkin. The mayor cited the Motherlode's history of “public safety problems” in a neighborhood noted for prostitution. Jurkans and Gilpin say the veto betrays thinly veiled prejudice against the transgender crowd the bar serves.
Supervisor Terence Hallinan, who wrote recent legislation protecting transgenders from discrimination, sides with the Motherlode. “There's no justification for what the mayor did,” he says. “His facts are wrong. His only basis is bigotry against a group of people we just protected.”
“That's a low blow,” says Robert Oakes, the mayor's liaison to the board. “It is insulting to the integrity of the residents of the city to turn this into a debate about civil rights when it's about public safety.”
Oakes says the mayor's decision factored in the opinions of several neighbors who “don't want their names used for fear of retaliation,” along with opposition from neighborhood groups such as the Polk Street District Merchants' Association, the Guardian Angels and Save Our Streets, organizations that say the bar attracts prostitutes and drug addicts.
Bill May lives less than half a block from the Motherlode's current location. He says there are “hundreds” of neighbors who wish the bar would move — not up the street, but out of the neighborhood. According to May, neighbors have organized meetings for “three or four years” to protest the Motherlode's presence.
That's news to Jurkans, who says he sent out 2,000 letters, as required by the Alcoholic Beverage Control bureau, to notify every resident within 500 feet of the bar of the Motherlode's intent to transfer their permit. Since then, he says, ABC has received only 20 “mostly homophobic” protests, in contrast to the 100 letters supporting the move. “My record with the ABC is outstanding. I have the police on my side,” says Jurkans. “The problem must be that we welcome transgenders.”
“I'm angry that they are trying to make this into a gay issue,” counters May, who says he has worked for gay rights in San Francisco since 1964. “Name one politician who will vote against a gay issue in San Francisco.”
Supervisor Carole Migden doesn't view the relocation as a gay issue. “It seemed really straightforward to me,” she states. “If you allow an establishment to serve on one side of the street, it shouldn't be an encumbrance to allow them to serve on the other side of the street.”
The move would put the bar closer to Cedar Street, which continues to be a hotbed of crime according to Steven Frith, who patrols the area with the Guardian Angels, a volunteer policing group. Frith says he has seen “lots of” prostitutes go in and out of the Motherlode in the year he has made rounds in the area. “They pick up their men and go to Hemlock [a nearby alley] and sell their bodies,” says Frith.
While Frith admits the Angels, an apolitical organization, have not taken an official stand, he opposes the relocation because he thinks prostitutes would begin turning tricks on Cedar, which is closer to Guardian Angels headquarters.
Gilpin says the Motherlode has already gone on record to ABC with their plans to clean up the alley. The bar promises to install lamps and surveillance cameras, plus provide an on-duty security guard to augment the efforts already taken to clean up the area. These include spending over $50,000 on off-duty cops for security through the 10B program; pressuring the city to close an alleged crack house on Post; and cooperating with the Northern Station in undercover crackdowns on prostitution. “We run a tight ship,” says Bobby Kang, who has tended bar at the Motherlode for two years.
The Motherlode, says Gilpin, is such a clean bar that even the police support the move. “We are probably the strictest and most conservatively run bar in the city,” Gilpin asserts. “We don't even allow kissing. We put up with nothing. When you're in that bar, you're in our house.”
Although Jordan's veto letter says the Police Department opposes the move, some officers agree the bar is doing its part to clean up the area. Captain Richard Cairns, who heads the Northwest Station, wrote a February 15 letter to Alcoholic Beverage Control in support of the transfer permit, saying the new location would be better for the neighborhood.
Cairns also believes that Gilpin and Jurkans “do not contribute” to prostitution problems in the area. “They are doing a good job running their bar and have always been a help to me,” Cairns says.
While some other officers agree with Cairns, Oakes is quick to point out that each cop offers an individual's opinion, not necessarily one sanctioned by the department as a whole.
The Motherlode was just another small neighborhood gay bar when Jurkans bought it in 1989. Soon after the purchase, Gilpin, Jurkans' longtime lover, suggested they stage drag shows. These shows attracted business from the Black Rose, at Eddy and Jones in the Tenderloin, a transgender bar that was having a tough time avoiding prostitution and drugs. The “girls,” as Gilpin calls the trans crowd, flocked to the Motherlode when they discovered the bar welcomed them and provided a safe atmosphere. By the time the Black Rose wilted in 1991, the Motherlode had taken over.
The influx of new patrons coincided with what Gilpin calls Middle America's discovery of drag, and the Motherlode quickly outgrew its 900-square-foot space.
“Now we have to push all the tables to the walls and get rid of the barstools just to get everyone in here on Friday nights,” says bartender Kang. “And then we still have people waiting in line outside.”
“It's the only bar in town that specifically caters to the transgender crowd,” says Christine Beatty, who fronts the trans band Glamazon. “More people in my community would go there if it was larger.”
The Post Street tussle marks the second time Jurkans and Gilpin have battled community groups over the move. In December 1992, they found a potential location only a few blocks away at 1217 Sutter, on the corner of Polk. A (straight) bar had once occupied the 7,000-square-foot space, so neither Gilpin nor Jurkans expected a conflict. But the Apostolic Faith Church and the Polk Street District Merchants' Association opposed the move. According to Gilpin, “All hell broke loose when they found out it was going to be boys in dresses.”
The stated objection was prostitution. “Prostitution is a major problem on Polk Street, one that we have worked very hard to fight,” says M.L. Warren, treasurer of the association and an owner of the QT bar. He insists the conflict was not based on homophobia or transphobia. “A vast majority of our group are gay and there are two trans bars in our association,” Warren explains.
“Let's get real,” says Gilpin. “They thought I was going to bring prostitution to Polk Street? Any international guide book will tell you that Polk is crawling with hustlers.”
Despite opposition from the merchants' group, which will not release a list of its members, the Motherlode secured permits from the Police Department for dancing, entertainment and food service. In the hearing process, the Motherlode gathered supportive testimony from Supervisor Harry Britt, Officer James Monaco and Sergeant Mike Lawson. Jurkans and Gilpin even got far enough along to hang a marquee above their new bar. But ABC would not transfer the alcohol permit because of a rule preventing bars from serving drinks within a 200-foot radius of a church if it raises objections.
Jurkans then haggled with a landlord at 1035 Post, who agreed to retrofit his building. With no church in sight, it looked like the Motherlode was finally going to have a new home.
Which segues into the present. On Monday, the Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 to overturn Jordan's veto. Now Jurkans and Gilpin are back on track to a bigger Motherlode, while the mayor faces a win-win situation: He officially sided with the Motherlode's opponents, but the veto override will still allow the bar to move. Jurkans must now obtain another ABC decision in his favor and then survive another ABC hearing over the transfer.
Whatever the outcome, Jurkans and Gilpin are determined to see the end of the red tape. “It's ridiculous, it's ludicrous and heart-wrenching. We could sit where the Motherlode's at for another 20 years,” says Gilpin. “But we're tired of being a scapegoat for the problems of the Tenderloin. We're not a part of the problem, we're a part of the solution.