Editor’s note: This story was published in 2016.
Like a construction stud supports a wall, The Stud bar has supported queer San Francisco for 50 years. But bad news hit the bar just days after the glittering club hosted its golden anniversary bash.
A letter arrived informing bar owner Michael McElhaney of an ownership change and a 300 percent rent increase, from $3,800 to $9,500 a month.
“It’s not exactly the birthday news you want to hear for a 50-year-old business,” McElhaney says.
The building’s new owners City Commercial Investments, LLC from Pacifica, won’t provide much information and implied the bar needs to vacate by November. McElhaney guessed the property sold for about $1.8 million.
In an interview three weeks ago, McElhaney expressed worry about the bar’s changing SoMa neighborhood and rent hikes across the city, but made no mention of plans to leave the location.
Once the news hit, the owner did a 180, like a drag queen spins at the end of a catwalk. He’s done and plans to move back to his home state of Hawaii to teach dance, care for his mother, and help with his brother’s pharmacy business. But McElhaney hopes the community can rally together to extend the life of The Stud.
In just a few days after the announcement, an effort to “Save Our Stud” — led by Mica Sigourney, aka VivvyAnne Forevermore, who hosts Club Some Thing on Friday nights at the bar — sprang up with a Facebook group and community meetings.
Sigourney is starting a co-op with more than 15 others who want to buy The Stud and run it as a democratic group. “People think it’s really wacky and wild, but actually it’s a business model that’s proven and works,” Sigourney says.
Supervisor Jane Kim’s representatives met with The Stud recently to strategize how to help the 50-year-old business qualify for subsidized rent under the Legacy Business Registry — created with the passage of Proposition J in November 2015 — which would shave off some of the monthly price tag, but nowhere near the current rent.
Constructed in 1906, The Stud’s building sits in a historic district, but legacy status would only save the facade while the inside could be gutted. The property is zoned for five stories.
“Our building is iconic, it’s the first thing you see when you get off [Highway 101] at Ninth Street,” McElhaney says. “In a perfect world, we could maintain. It sounds like the developers have other plans.”
McElhaney sees The Stud’s story as part of a trend. “In recent years there’s been a lot of personal and human displacement in the city. I think the second layer of displacement that’s been going on is the commercial displacement of long-term city businesses, based on rent speculation,” he says.
Nearby, a for-sale sign hangs on the building of the Lone Star Saloon, a gay bar half a block from The Stud. The gay dance club Beatbox at 11th and Folsom streets shut down July 3. A few blocks down Folsom into the Mission District, the gay bar Truck closed last summer and transitioned “from a themed gay bar to a neighborhood watering hole,” according to news blog Capp St Crap. (Read: not gay).
For nearly two decades, The Lexington was the only lesbian bar in S.F.’s 49 square miles, but the rent was raised and sales declined when the Valencia Street corridor began to get fancy. The bar closed in April 2015.
Losses abound, but some gay spaces have elbowed their way in. As Supervisor Scott Wiener pointed out in a blog post, The Stud’s Western SoMa neighborhood gained the gay bar/performance venue Oasis in January 2015 and saw the reopening of leather bar The Eagle the year before.
But gaining one (and a reopening counts as half of one) while more gay bars are shuttered, threatened with closure, and scramble for survival is not a stable state for San Francisco’s gay nightlife.
Businesses close down for myriad reasons, from management to money to market forces like low demand and oversupply. But overall, the city’s nightlife is suffering an exorcism of its queerness — mostly due to building sales and rent inflation — as developers exercise their abilities to buy and build.
Is the real estate industry laced with homophobia? Perhaps not blatantly, perhaps not written into the real estate deals. But increasingly higher rents disproportionately squeeze out LGBT people who “are especially susceptible to being placed at a socioeconomic disadvantage,” according to the American Psychological Association. And discrimination is real: A new FBI finding revealed LGBT people suffer a higher incidence of hate crimes than any other group in the U.S.
For now, Save Our Stud is scrambling for a plan and asking for support. Broken Seal Buttons donated “S.O.S.” pins. Fans of the club continue posting countless photos and anecdotes on the group’s Facebook page.
“What I keep saying to people is if you want to save a business from closing, you have to go there and spend your money,” Sigourney says.
McElhaney isn’t bitter about the sale. “I had my night of getting drunk, and now it’s time to get back to work,” he says. “I think the decision to sell it was about taking care of their family and I totally respect their decision to do it. I just wish they could have come to us because there are enough people in our community that we could have raised the funds to do it.”
Until possible relocation, closure, or a co-op takes over this fall, the show will go on at The Stud.