Does a New Building Project Threaten LGBT History?

Opponents of a Market Street development project believe it would destroy underground tunnels once used during police.

The real estate development firm Group i won approval on Nov. 17 to erect a 12-story, mixed-use monolith of apartments and hotels, ground-floor retail shops, a theater, and a few hundred bicycle parking spaces. The high-end high-rise would be one of the biggest buildings on Market Street. The planned construction at 950-974 Market St. has caused an uproar among some members of the LGBT community because the remains of two post-Prohibition gay bars near the site of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot — one of the first known uprisings by transgender people — would be destroyed.

The normally humdrum weekly meeting of the San Francisco Planning Commission turned into a marathon debate between LGBT advocates and the low-income housing community, creating an overflow crowd that required a second audience room to seat both sides. Adding to the tension was a last-minute request to delay the decision because some advocates believe there is a network of historically significant underground tunnels used by early bar patrons to escape police raids.

San Francisco residents may recognize the area as the triangular block of dilapidated, vacant storefronts next to the Crazy Horse strip club, and as a parking lot at Turk and Taylor streets.

That made it something of a surprise that SRO and low-income tenants turned out by the dozens in support of 950-974 Market and its related $18 million below-market-rate project at 180 Jones St. that Group i is using to meet affordable housing requirements — with SROs that would contain kitchens and bathrooms.

LGBT activists tried to stall the development with a continuance that would have delayed the project’s approval.

“We’re not against the project, and we’re not anti-development,” says Nate Allbee, who authored the legacy business historic preservation measure that passed last year. “We just want to make sure that the project is going to be a good neighbor and a good fit for the Compton’s Historic District.”

Compton’s Historic District is a proposed historical designation to the National Register of Historic Places that would establish a four-block area in the Tenderloin as an important part of LGBT history. The region features Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, the site of Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, and the renamed Vicki Mar Lane. If approved, it would establish the first trans historic district in the nation.

The former Gene Compton’s Cafeteria site is uniquely significant because it is the location of a 1966 uprising of trans women that is considered the birth of the trans rights movement. Two other buildings that housed the Old Crow and the Silver Rail, two post-Prohibition gay bars, are also in the district, and both would be demolished by the 950 Market St. development.

“There were more gay bars here than the Castro has ever had,” Allbee says. “It was the hub of gay culture in America at the time.”

It could be a similar hub for the trans community if the historical designation wins federal approval. Most notably, local drag queen Juanita MORE! has plans to reboot a new Compton’s Cafeteria restaurant in the district with an emphasis on hiring trans staff and serving the trans community.

Aria Sa’id, a trans woman who currently serves as programs director at St. James Infirmary and once worked in the building slated for destruction, also spoke in favor of delaying the development’s approval.

“Trans women have been living in those areas ever since Compton’s,” she tells SF Weekly. “There’s a huge legacy that’s here that has not been acknowledged by the Planning Commission or San Francisco in any way.”

Allbee says he’s found evidence of a series of underground tunnels that created sanctuaries and secret connections between the bars that provided escape routes for patrons during an era of frequent police raids. He argues that these tunnels, and a treasury of significant historical artifacts, would be lost if the bars’ former homes were destroyed.

“The developers are trying to really minimize the history,” Allbee says. “They’re saying nothing important happened there, the tunnels are just basements. But in the tunnels there are actually safes that have the names of 1930s-era bars on them. There’s alcohol still left there. It’s just another example of how queer history and minority history is considered unimportant.”

A spokesperson for the development group insists that the claim of underground tunnels is fictional and inaccurate.

“Rumors of tunnels underneath the 950-974 Market project are just that — rumors,” Group i spokesperson Jessica Berg tells SF Weekly. “It’s very clear based on the evidence and the testimony of the previous landlord, dating back to 1937, tunnels have never existed beneath this property.”

A local television reporter toured the alleged tunnels shortly after the Planning Commission meeting and found nothing but shelves and bottles.

“Tales about a tunnel system appear to be unfounded,” KPIX-TV reporter Joe Vazquez concluded.

Preservationists argue that a five-minute walkthrough is not a proper study, and Vazquez explored only a portion of what what may be much larger. Furthermore, they cite oral histories from bartenders who worked at speakeasies in the area, and the tunnels were referred to in the 1996 book Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, by Jim Van Buskirk and Susan Stryker.

“Reporters and spokespeople and PR representatives or developers should not be making decisions on what is historic and what isn’t,” Allbee says. “LGBT historians should be.”

Yet the developers insist that the site’s LGBT importance will be stressed when the new building opens. “We are working with Shayne Watson, who is an LGBTQ historic expert, to do interpretive programming,” spokesperson Jessica Berg tells SF Weekly. “She’ll be leading a community process around that effort to honor the history of the LGBTQ community at that location.”

Group i promises significant seed funding for local LGBT business to operate within the development, and it has worked with numerous housing nonprofits to prioritize low-income residents for food service, housecleaning, reception, and construction assistant jobs that would be created by the hotel and retail development. It’s also providing a new home to the 50-year-old San Francisco institution known as the Magic Theater.

The Magic Theater is currently housed in Fort Mason, and this new location right in the theater district would host performances, after-school programming, and tuition-free classes.

“We are a hotbed for new and creative works, we give playwrights a safe space to write, to tell the story they want to tell,” Kelli Crump, the Magic Theater’s patron services manager, tells SF Weekly. “We tell the Nigerian story of an immigrant family, we tell the Filipino story, we tell transitioning transgender stories. We’re not afraid of that.”

While much of the debate at Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting centered on LGBT history and opportunities for low-income residents, there was some discussion of this construction project’s aesthetic impact on the storied Market Street area.

“Market Street, as we know it, would be completely altered by a project of this size,” Planning Department Commissioner Kathrin Moore said at the meeting. “It’s a maze of corridors on the inside that reminds me a little bit of a suburban shopping mall.”

Regardless, the gigantic development was approved, with Commission President Rodney Fong urging the developers to find ways to making the site’s hotel guests aware of its profound history.

“I hope you take that very seriously and allow this building to be the centerpoint of the district,” he said prior to the vote.

Preservationists were not comforted by that sentiment.

“We will be appealing it to the Board of Supervisors,” Allbee says, “and they’ll be able to make that decision on whether or not our gay history is worth preserving.”

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