Economic Power to Political Power
Text by Joey Plaster. Copyright (©) by C. Joey Plaster, 2009. All rights reserved.
In developing a vibrant gay commercial district, an emerging gay political center was also flexing its political muscle. Through parades, fairs, and fundraising events, they nurtured a cooperative relationship with the City and police. Through the development of a vibrant, clean, well-lit entertainment and commercial district, gay merchants also encouraged middle-class non-gays to rub elbows with gay men through the leveling activity of commerce.
San Francisco’s first pride parades began on Polk Street. The drag personality Cristal, owner of Polk Street’s Left Bank art shop and Empress of the Imperial Court, was a main organizer of the first parade in 1970, according to Randall Wallace, owner of the Gramaphone. The Advocate reported “twenty to 30 persons marched up Polk Street from Aquatic Park to Civic Center” that year. Early the next year, Cristal took the court on a tour of the Tavern Guild member bars, including Totie’s on Larkin and the Early Bird on Polk, as part of the Tavern Guild’s “all out campaign to bolster and promote business in member bars.”
By 1972, the organizer of the Los Angeles parade came to San Francisco to organize what he promised would be a larger parade “because Gay bars and businesses will support the parade to a much larger extent,” he said. While Los Angeles bars were “closety,” “the situation is entirely different” in San Francisco. “Local bar owners have been quite open about the fact that they operate Gay bars. They have nothing to lose and quite a bit to gain in the form of free advertising and good will.
“There were a lot of businesses on Polk Street,” John DeLeon, an organizer of the 1972 parade, recalled. “So therefore, it was worked out that the parade will take that part of the route.” Polk Street businesses were given prime real estate in the parade program. Listed in the centerfold were Empress Cristal’s “Palace of Fine Arts,” the Gramaphone record store, and several Polk Street gay bars, along with the directive: “When parading on Polk Street, Visit these Businesses.”
The merchant’s association organized their first Polk Street Gala in 1971, which, according to one Bay Area Reporter article, proved that “people, when given a chance, tend to be tolerant, and when a lot of fun is happening will also join in.” The Town Squire sponsored a chamber music ensemble, the Cockettes performed on a bandstand, and the Gramaphone had go-go boys, which “many straight people haven’t [seen].” The Board of Supervisors voted – “believe it or not” – to close the entire mid-section of Polk Street to vehicular traffic, and police “maintained discreet distances.”
By 1973, gay merchants had transformed Polk Street from a “mom and pop” neighborhood shopping street to a destination for “hip” and knowing people of all sexual persuasions. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “the city’s new ‘in’ street.” Here, “call girls (or boys) in those $100 high platform shoes from The Boot Hook and hippie insomniacs with a taste for Haven specialties such as asparagus tip sandwiches…[join] the hip, the hep, the gay, the mod, and carriage trade from Pacific Heights and Russian Hill.”
Their economic power translated to political power in the 1970s, just as throngs of gay men moved to the city, supporting a citywide boom in bars and other liquor establishments. From 1970 to 1980 the number of establishments with on-sale beer and wine licenses more than doubled. Similarly, the Tavern Guild grew to claim at least 184 individuals and 86 businesses around the city (mostly gay and lesbian bars) as members by June 1980.
Bar owner and Tavern Guild member Rikki Streicher recalled that the Tavern Guild achieved political success because “a buck is the bottom line at all times. And the bars had commanded an enormous amount of money in terms of the city. So when they began to invite politicians to their meetings, the politicians realized that here's an organized group and that, number one, they have money and, number two, they have votes.”
Wayne Friday bartended at Polk Street’s New Bell Saloon starting in 1975, soon becoming president of the Tavern Guild. “It was total freedom” by the 1970s, he said. “Everything was out. The police had gotten over their inhibitions about gays. And they understood that the gays were becoming a political power in San Francisco.”
The New Bell became a political hub, Ron Huberman, later an employee of the District Attorney’s office, recalls. “Straight politicians would come into that bar, and that was their first overture to the gay community,” he said. “They would have a drink with Wayne and meet people in the gay community, and it was kind of like a white politician in New York, going into Harlem for the first time.”
The late 1970s saw the gay commercial bloc on Polk Street at its economic and political peak. But the citywide forces that had helped create the opportunities for this bloc to emerge – including redevelopment activities, workforce shifts, and political gains – would also undermine the street’s economy and make way for a new economic bloc.
- The Advocate, July 22-Aug 4 1970.
- “An Evening Out,” Bay Area Reporter, April 1971.
- Vector Magazine, March 1 1972.
- Interview with John DeLeon, GLBTHS collection.
- “Polk Street ‘Gayla,’” Bay Area Reporter, May 15, 1971.
- “Nothing Square About Polk,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 18, 1973.
- Tavern Guild of San Francisco (TGSF) Collection, San Francisco Alcohol Fact Book, Nov. 1983, 23.
- Interview with Wayne Friday by Joey Plaster, 2008.
- Interview with Ron Huberman by Joey Plaster, 2008.