Can San Francisco’s famed leather district be saved in an era of high property values?

Charlie Wittke, second from left, enjoys a cigar alongside "Pup Too," on a leash, at the SF Eagle in San Francisco's Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

When Dahn Van Laarz, a bearded 59-year-old in Levi’s and a motorcycle jacket, walks the streets of San Francisco’s official leather district, he finds it hard to avoid the ghosts.

The Club Baths, a once-busy gay bath house, has morphed into an even busier homeless shelter. The Bootcamp, a bar whose clientele favored leather, bondage, domination and sadomasochism, is now an acupuncture clinic.

And SF Catalyst, a leather community center and dungeon just outside the district boundaries, must vacate its home by year’s end. The brick dungeon — with ceilings high enough to swing a whip and a calendar filled with “BDSM sampler parties” and Leathermen’s Discussion Group meetings — is scheduled to give way to apartments.

If Catalyst can’t find a new home in this era of high property values and even higher rents, San Francisco will be left with only one commercial dungeon space.

So what’s a big-hearted city to do when its standing as one of the leather capitals of the world is under siege? When its identity is shifting faster than you can demolish a historic building and plan a pricey condo tower in its stead? When its freak flag, once proudly flying, has faded?

Last spring, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District in the South of Market neighborhood once known as the Valley of the Kings, a nod to its hyper-masculine gay clientele. And shortly after Valentine’s Day, Mayor London Breed signed legislation to create what is believed to be the world’s first public plaza celebrating the “strong cultural influence” of the fetish set.

At left, a man makes his way into Powerhouse, a San Francisco bar in the city-sanctioned leather district. Three men, at right, hold an instructional lab for rope bondage at Catalyst, a dungeon on Folsom Street. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The question is whether these and other efforts will be enough to save the subversive soul of the leather neighborhood, which has been under duress since the 1970s.

Van Laarz, founding president of the San Francisco Bay Area Leather Alliance and the cultural district’s head of land use, hopes so.

Because future leathermen and leatherwomen need to know “that this culture has existed,” he said, “to know that they have mentors that they can look up to, to understand that they can feel good about themselves as they come out into their kink.”

When leather life was at its peak, the SoMa neighborhood supported about 30 businesses catering to aficionados of oh-so-not-vanilla sex. In the early 1980s, there were bath houses and bars, sex clubs and leather stores, publishing companies and restaurants.

Today, that number has shrunk to less than a dozen.

Van Laarz recently held forth on leather history and sexuality from a tree stump on the edge of tiny Ringold Alley. Ringold runs from 8th to 9th streets, bisecting the block between Harrison and Folsom streets, leather San Francisco’s main drag.

“The market died because people died.”

— Dahn Van Laarz, founding president of the San Francisco Bay Leather Alliance

Before the huge construction cranes came to roost, changing the San Francisco skyline for good, Ringold was a prime cruising destination, hidden and dark. Men would prowl the alley after the bars closed, Van Laarz said, to “find that partner that they hadn’t found at the bar and have a sexual experience in the great outdoors.”

But the bus yard that bordered the alley’s south side is gone, replaced by gated condominiums. The small houses and businesses on the north have bright porch lights. Today, Van Laarz said, “there is no place to stand, no shadow to hide in to be that mysterious stranger, that mysterious, sexual, attractive stranger.”

At top, a plaque in San Francisco's Ringold Alley pays tribute to gay men. A mural, at left, decorates the exterior of the Stud in the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District, which encompasses (at right) the intersection of Isis and 12th streets. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Although redevelopment has been a constant theme in South of Market’s dramatic evolution, the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s also ravaged the neighborhood. Then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein pushed for the bath houses to close. Van Laarz recalled a “sex panic” that kept healthy gay men away.

“The market died because people died,” he said.

Ringold is now the site of the city’s Leather History Walk, a pint-sized memorial. Brass boot prints are embedded in the sidewalk, inscribed with the names of the leather dead. There are engraved granite plinths made of repurposed curbstones. The pillars remember lost businesses and celebrate operations that have managed to last 20 years or more, such as Mr. S Leather — a purveyor of fine fetish gear, still going strong after 39 years.

Perhaps most striking are the bulb-outs, sidewalk extensions designed to calm traffic along the narrow lane. They are painted to resemble the leather pride flag: black and blue stripes bisected by a white stripe and a big red heart.

The black stripes represent BDSM, Van Laarz said. Blue stands for Levi’s, a leatherman’s wardrobe staple. The heart symbolizes “the heart and soul of leather people around the world.”

And the white? He wracks his brain. In “hankie code,” he says, white means a certain solo sex act. It could also mean consent, he said.

Or inclusion.

In an essay, anthropologist Gayle S. Rubin pegs the beginning of modern leather to the late 1940s, when “butch gay men interested, sexually and socially, in other butch gay men” donned motorcycle gear and started bike clubs.

Today “leather” is a complicated umbrella covering straight and gay practitioners of kinky sex, people who are into motorcycles and hyper-masculine gay men.

Leather-themed businesses, musicians and artists were drawn to industrial, working-class South of Market by low rents and the fact that it largely emptied out at night. But it also drew the attention of city planners and developers. Large swaths were razed to build the original Moscone Convention Center, which opened in 1981, office towers and high-rise hotels.

Development has only increased in recent years.

“Each time a new wave of this happens, people who aren’t familiar with the history think it’s the first time,” said Rubin, an associate professor of anthropology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan who worked on the Ringold Alley memorial.

But the pace of change here has jumped dramatically, said Gerard Koskovich of the GLBT Historical Society, which runs a museum in the Castro with a small corner devoted to local leather history.

Current-day San Francisco is like Paris in the mid-19th century, Koskovich said, recalling a line from Charles Baudelaire’s poem “The Swan” that memorialized the gutting of a working-class medieval quarter of that great capital: “The form of a city changes faster, alas! than the human heart.”

“I think of that constantly,” Koskovich said, “as I walk around the streets of San Francisco.”

At top, Scott Hulsey walks his dogs, Velouria, left, and Duma, on 9th Street. Aeby Perez, at left, looks at items for sale, including leather masks, at Leather Etc. Goods on display at the Folsom Street store include a red leather harness. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

At a San Francisco Board of Supervisors land use and transportation committee hearing last spring, urban planning took a back seat to discrimination, poverty and the sense that the city seemed to have turned its back on some of those who made it special.

Item 2 on the agenda was, “Establishment of the LGBTQ and Leather Cultural District,” about two square miles in the heart of formerly industrial South of Market.

There were declarations of caution, like then-Supervisor Jane Kim’s: “We don’t want San Francisco to be a city of just the rich and the very rich and to look monolithic.”

Declarations of pride, like David Hyman’s: “Many of us believe that our exposure to leather culture has made us better, stronger, safer and more ethical and more interconnected.”

And of hurt, like Rand Hunt’s: “I went to high school in west Texas. …Everyone in my town was a Southern Baptist and I feared for my life every day. …I wanted to come to San Francisco because I knew I would be safe there and it was our capital city. … And my [leather] culture is vanishing quickly.”

Two speakers later, it was Jonathan Schroder’s turn. He stated his name. And occupation, general manager of Mr. S Leather. And started to thank Kim for her remarks.

But she interrupted him: “I shop at your store.”

Eight days later, the supervisors voted to create the leather district.

At top left, "Mech," left, and Brandon "Ruffy" Skiles share a kiss in SF Eagle. Lex Montiel, top right, is co-owner of the bar, which sits at 12th and Harrison streets. At bottom left, Luis Guillen lights a cigar alongside Warren Longmire. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

During happy hour on a quiet Friday at SF Eagle, a historic queer leather bar in the heart of the district, the lights were very, very low. There were no men in harnesses or dog collars, no chaps, no full-face leather hoods.

Bartender Troy Dwaine said he grew up in Sacramento and drove to SoMa on weekends. Today, he rues the rising number of condos and the shrinking presence of gay bars.

“It’s a different culture,” Dwaine said. “People don’t go out as much as they used to. ... People can just dial up a man on the phone.”

“There needs to be something,” he said, “not only to remember [leather culture] but to keep up awareness.”

SF Eagle co-owner Lex Montiel believes that “something” could be Eagle Plaza, touted as the world’s first public, municipally sanctioned gathering spot celebrating leather life and the contributions of kink to the soul of San Francisco.

The plaza was born when Montiel sat down with the principals of a local development company called Build, which is constructing three seven-story apartment towers directly across 12th Street from the Eagle.

Renderings of the project show a vibrant and tasteful pedestrian plaza with a multistory flagpole at its center flying an enormous leather pride flag. Crosswalks are striped in leather colors — black, blue and white.

The pavement is dotted with “Studs 4 Studs,” oval plaques engraved with donors’ names, surrounded by metal studs that mimic accents on leather garb. Friends of Eagle Plaza want to raise $150,000 to complete the project.

Groundbreaking is expected in spring, and Eagle Plaza should be finished in time for the Folsom Street Fair, which every September draws hundreds of thousands of fetish aficionados from around the world.

One big question all along was how to design a G-rated public celebration of a multi-X-rated lifestyle.

The challenge did not trouble developer Lou Vasquez: “It’s San Francisco. Every block is like this. People know where they live.”