SOMA Alley Leather Walk Takes Shape

by Matthew S. Bajko

Bay Area Reporter

Saturday June 17, 2017

The bronze bootprints lining the sidewalks on a block of Ringold Alley honor men and women who left a lasting imprint on San Francisco's leather community during their lifetimes.

Made from the left and right soles of a pair of Dehners boots owned by Mike McNamee, the founder and former owner of Stompers, the 28 commemorative markers feature the names and short bios of 30 individuals. Among them are Marcus Hernandez, the Bay Area Reporter's former leather columnist known simply as "Mr. Marcus," and Alexis Muir, a transwoman and owner of early South of Market bars and baths.

Also included are former Brig bar owner Hank Diethelm, who at 14 fled the Nazi Youth to immigrate to the city in 1949 and was murdered by a sexual partner in 1983, and Robert Opel, who owned Fey-Way Studios and streaked the 1974 Oscars ceremony then was assassinated in SOMA in 1979.

Planted in several bulb-outs newly added to the street are stone plinths - recycled curbstones that once lined city streets - that bear the names of iconic leather businesses, many of which long ago closed their doors. Among them are Stormy Leather, a woman-owned leather store, and Fe-Be's, the first leather bar on Folsom Street, once known as the "Miracle Mile" for the myriad leather bars and gay bathhouses that had operated on or near it starting in the 1950s. Today, only a handful remain.

At the entrance to the one-way alley on Eighth Street is a bulb-out decked out in the black, blue, and white colors of the leather flag, including a reproduction of its red heart. Round bike racks have been installed there, across from where an under-construction parklet is set to soon open.

Where the block ends at Ninth Street, in the sidewalk on the right, is a marker stone with text explaining the history of SOMA's leather scene. Ringold Alley played a starring role, as five decades ago it was the go-to place for gay and bisexual men to engage in late-night sex once the leather bars scattered about SOMA had closed. It is also where the annual outdoor fetish festival known as the Up Your Alley Fair began in 1985, then called the Ringold Alley Fair.

Included on the marker stone is a rendering of a mural by Chuck Arnett once found on the wall of the Toolbox and shown in a photo in the June 1964 issue of Life magazine that accompanied the now infamous article "Homosexuality in America." The "Leather David," a rendering of the famous biblical character decked out in a leather outfit, also adorns the marker.

"It is very beautiful," said landscape architect Jeffrey Miller, who worked with SOMA leather leaders on the redesign of the alleyway. "With the cultural history here, it is really important for people to understand what this is all about."

The $2 million alleyway project, officially known as the San Francisco South of Market Leather History Alley, has been nearly a decade in the making. The initial concept for it came from Jim Meko, who, prior to his death in 2015, had long pushed for a rezoning of Western SOMA that would honor the area's leather history. A bootprint honoring Meko can be found near the marker stone.

"It's amazing, so well done," said Race Bannon, the B.A.R.'s current leather columnist. "I think it's one of the most important community projects that the San Francisco leather scene has undertaken. It preserves a slice of San Francisco leather history that might not be known to a wide audience otherwise."

Developer 4Terra Investments, which built the LSeven mixed-use housing project that fronts Ringold Alley, paid for the leather historical elements as part of the capital improvements it was required to fund. Thursday the Friends of the Urban Forest will be planting 19 street trees along the block: 11 Acer rubrum Armstrong, a Columnar Red Maple, three Arbutus Marina, a strawberry tree, and five Tristania laurina, a water gum native to Australia.

One of the people Miller worked closely with to design the project was Gayle Rubin, an associate professor of anthropology and women's studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who lives in San Francisco and has been documenting the city's leather community since the 1970s.

"I've been going over to see it as often as possible, and I am thrilled at how it's looking," Rubin told the B.A.R. in an emailed reply. "Jeff Miller, the landscape architect for the whole L7 development, has done a terrific job of translating the vision into a functional design and a beautiful set of material elements."

The inclusion of the word "sex" on the stone plinth honoring the Caldron Sex Club prompted a verbal complaint with the city's public works department, which held a hearing last week about the alley project. No one in attendance spoke against the leather installation, and the agency's director should sign off on the project's major encroachment permit in the next few weeks. (The department's spokesperson could not be reached for comment by press time.)

"Fortunately, the neighbor who had initially raised hell about the Caldron stone did not file a formal complaint, and the only people at the hearing were in support of the installation," wrote Rubin. "As I said, we'll need to monitor the progress of the paperwork and be ready to mobilize if it seems warranted. As I also said, I'm optimistic that the process will sail smoothly from here."

Once the permit is issued, the Board of Supervisors will formally approve the project. District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim is expected to introduce the resolution to do so; her office did not respond to a request for comment by press time Wednesday.

A formal dedication ceremony for the alleyway project is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, July 25, the week prior to this year's Up Your Alley Fair, which will be held Sunday, July 30.

Names in Ringold Alley Leather Walk

The following people have been honored with bootprints lining the sidewalks on a block of Ringold Alley.

1. Jim Kane, community leader and biker

2. Ron Johnson, poet and co-founder of the Rainbow Motorcycle Club

3. Steve McEachern, owner of the Catacombs, a gay and lesbian S/M fisting club

4. Cynthia Slater, founder of the Society of Janus

5. Tony Tavarossi, manager of the Why Not

6. Chuck Arnett, iconic leather activist, Toolbox muralist

7. Jack Haines, Fe-Be's and The Slot owner

8. Alexis Muir, a transwoman who owned SOMA bars and baths

9. Sam Steward, author and tattooist

10. Terry Thompson, SF Eagle manager

11. Philip M. Turner, founder of Daddy's Bar

12. Hank Diethelm, The Brig owner

13. Ambush co-owners Kerry Brown, Ken Ferguson, David Delay

14. Alan Selby, founder of the store Mr. S Leather and known as the "Mayor of Folsom Street"

15. Peter Hartman, owner of 544 Natoma art gallery and theater

16. Robert Opel, Fey-Way Studios owner

17. Anthony F. (Tony) DeBlase, creator of the leather flag

18. Marcus Hernandez, Bay Area Reporter leather columnist

19. John Embry, founder and publisher of Drummer magazine

20. Geoff Mains, author of "Urban Aboriginals"

21. Mark Thompson, author of "Leatherfolk" and founder of Black Leather Wings

22. Thom Gunn, poet

23. Paul Mariah, poet, printer and activist

24. Robert Davolt, author and organizer of SF Pride leather contingent

25. Jim Meko, printer and SOMA activist

26. Alexis Sorel, founder The Is and Black Leather Wings member

27. Bert Herman, author and publisher, leader of handball community

28. T. Michael "Lurch" Sutton, biker and founder of the Bears of SF

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