The Power of Broken Hearts
The Origin and Evolution of the Folsom Street Fair By Kathleen Connell & Paul Gabriel
Heart of The City
It seems that from its incipience, San Francisco has been a patchwork of distinct and colorful neighborhoods, some coming and going, some remaining – Italian and bohemian North Beach, the rowdy Barbary Coast and waterfront, Chinatown, the upscale elegance of Nob Hill and Pacific Heights, the Haight’s finger on the pulse of counter-cultural trends, the after-hours jazz of the Western Addition and the Fillmore.
But what of South of Market, “South of the Slot,” fondly referred to as SOMA? San Francisco has always also been a tourist destination, and while its more famous neighborhoods have attracted the guided bus tours and casual strollers, SOMA has in many respects remained all along the quintessentially San Francisco neighborhood, the area that was filled with the people who were the heart of the city but who lay curiously out of sight and out of mind. The ones who never made it into the official travel books.
Early SOMA: Roaring, Raucous, Rebellious…and Home
Masked by today’s banking and service industry high-rise office towers and dot-com storefronts is a hundred-and-fifty-year legacy of San Francisco as a working-person’s town, a bustling, blue-collar industrial center and major port. South of Market was the humming hub of this commerce, where cargo was shipped in from destinations all over the globe and then shipped out by rail and truck and sea; where, since the Spanish-American war, working immigrant Filipino men and later their families inhabited the small side streets and alleyways between the light-industry shops and warehouses that spread out in a huge area with blocks twice the area of those just North of Market; where block after block of single-room-only residential hotels housed the army of longshoremen and merchant marine workers who provided the grit and muscle that turned San Francisco for decades into the major port on the West Coast; where these same workers, under the leadership of Harry Bridges, unleashed the single largest labor resistance action in the U.S. in the Great Depression, the great strike of 1934 that shut down the port and eventually the whole city, and which won landmark concessions for the dock workers; where rail lines connected the naval yard at Hunter’s Point with the Embarcadero at 3rd Street and disgorged thousands of servicemen on temporary leave onto the streets of SOMA and the Tenderloin, to prowl honky-tonk parlors, whorehouses, gambling dens and “resorts for sexual perverts;” where the Greyhound bus station at 7th and Mission was the site of first arrival to the Golden Gate for generations of less well-heeled émigré families; where residential hotels sheltered, the desolate bumming from 3rd through 6th streets; where the city’s earliest swankest enclave, South Park (and today the ground zero of MultiMedia Gulch) had become its most deprived African American ghetto, a marker of how African Americans had been held by a color line from owning or renting spaces north of Folsom Street; where artists and bohemians found large lofts and ateliers at cheap rents, enabling them to devote their days to creative experiment and not wage-earning; and, where, starting in the ’60s, the city’s burgeoning queer population began to find landlords willing to sell or rent office space to its emerging activist civil rights organizations, and other spaces to what was to become, within a decade, one of the world’s highest concentrations of leather bars and sex clubs and late-night alley trysting spots—most of which lay on or near the fabled “Miracle Mile” of Folsom Street.
“City Beautiful” Seeks To Cleanse SOMA
This disjuncture between the “City Beautiful” intended to be seen and the “Working City” hidden from view came more and more into acute focus in the decades after World War II. In the late ’40s, due to an act of Congress, redevelopment agencies were established in most major urban centers in the U.S. with the explicit goal of banishing “urban blight.” The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA) was chartered in September 1948, just at a time that container mechanization and development of efficient jumbo jet transport were about to revolutionize the dockyards—and reduce the reliance on muscle. San Francisco was at the outset of a major transition away from blue-collar industry and toward white-collar businesses.
But how exactly does one define “blight”? “Who” and “what” are to be replaced by “whom” and “how”? A city is a complex, living organism and in its interstices and byways, in areas that bustle by day but are abandoned by night, opportunities present themselves and alternative homes and subcultures establish themselves, ones that could not take root in more expensive or tightly monitored and zoned soil.
In the late ’40s and into the ’50s, the SFRA and the city Board of Supervisors mapped out a series of areas that were to be extensively redeveloped—thus “improving” the city of San Francisco. The Western Addition was designated as Area A in 1948, and was followed in 1950 by Diamond Heights (Area B) and McLaren Park-Candlestick (Area C, de-designated in 1956). The South of Market (Area D) came on line in 1953, and then finally the Embarcadero-Lower Market (Area E) in1955. This last project was envisioned as the “Golden Gateway Project” and called for tearing out the produce market near the Embarcadero and replacing the warehouses in that area with high-rise residential complexes. Along with the Western Addition and parts of the South of Market redevelopment areas, it was also to be part of a master plan to ring San Francisco with highways and plow a highway through the center of the City and under Golden Gate Park, to connect the Golden Gate Bridge with Highway 1 in the south. It was an era of autos and suburbs and urban planning based on fixed grids.
The first salvo in this more general war against “blighted” neighborhoods with high density of poor or working-class individuals was the Western Addition, an African American and immigrant Japanese neighborhood. The Geary Expressway (part of the new highway plan) was made room for by bulldozing whole blocks of vintage Victorians and the subsequent “relocation” of large portions of the dislocated African American populations into public housing projects. The Japanese American community was left with the present “Japantown”—a sterile, concrete-paved mall and parking garage.
Wrecking Balls Aimed at Yerba Buena Area Target Unattached Single Males and Poor Families
The next swing of the wrecking ball was to be in the area of South of Market from 3rd to 6th Streets and between Mission and Folsom. First publicly marketed as the “Prosperity Plan” by Ben Swig and his realtor backers, it hoped to build a downtown stadium in the area, and bring in the highway access, parking lots and super shopping malls to complement this kind of auto-directed urban playground. Interestingly, under existing federal and state guidelines of “blight,” the area did not qualify, despite Swig’s efforts to alter boundaries and manipulate definitions to bring reality into line with his vision. Tellingly for what would occur later, this initial attempt was foiled by a spontaneous coalition of small business owners who successfully resisted this effort to devalue their property and ruin their livelihoods by ignoring the residential/small commercial mix that had typified the neighborhood from its beginnings. The area was de-designated in 1958.
Nonetheless, moneyed interests do not surrender easily. With 1961 plans calling for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to be extended downtown, a new wave of redevelopment pressure hit. The South of Market corridor running just south of the envisioned BART stations was re-designated in 1961. By 1966 changes in state law had made official definitions of “blight” more amenable to the developers’ intentions, and the redevelopment plans were publicly packaged in 1966 as “The Yerba Buena Project.” Originating in 1964, the Yerba Buena Plan was meant intentionally to remove the area with highest concentration of housing for the longshoremen who had dedicated decades of service to the building of San Francisco’s economy, and who were to be ignobly and summarily displaced now that the port was in decline. Many residents of South of Market were now “unattached single males”—a moniker of dishonor in the postwar conformity of the cold war 1950s.
Homophile Activists in 1960s SOMA/Central City Do Battle with the War on Poverty…
Interestingly, just at this time, under the guiding hand of President Lyndon Johnson, the U.S. Congress established the Federal Poverty Program, which was in intention an alternative mechanism for resolving problems occurring in urban areas filled with lower-class and poor individuals and families.
The idea was not to relocate and replace through redevelopment, but to work with existing populations to assist them in uplifting themselves while preserving their sense of identity and neighborhood. By the end of 1964, four Anti-Poverty Target Areas had been established in San Francisco, under the aegis of the Economic Opportunity Council, all aligning along an assumption that peoples of color necessarily correlate with poverty—Western Addition, Hunter’s Point, Chinatown and the Mission.
A powerful, subversive potential to use the Poverty Program to combat the Redevelopment Agency in San Francisco, and to free the Poverty Program from its latent racist underpinnings, was realized in June 1966, when a fifth Anti-Poverty Target Area was established, called Central City and covering the areas north and south of Market Street, known as the Tenderloin and SOMA. The movement to launch this fifth target area designation originated in 1964, when a new generation of homophile activists who founded the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) [the largest queer organization in the U.S. in the ’60s] came into contact with a group of progressive Protestant ministers doing social outreach and alternative urban missionary work.
…And Launch San Francisco’s Stonewall at California Hall
Their alliance, the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, led to the famed California Hall incident of January 1, 1965, which was in effect San Francisco’s Stonewall. It also led to a unique and energy-charged coalition of activists who were empowered by the larger Civil Rights Movement, the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, and by the writings of Saul Alinsky, a theorist-practitioner who created a model for social action based on organizing populations around where they live and work and helping them to petition and advocate for themselves based on the needs that come out of these everyday situations.
Enter Eclectic, Inclusive Organizing –
The Hallmark of LGBT Organizers in SOMA Central City
Building what today could only be called a post-modern coalition of immigrant Filipinos, impoverished African American families in South Park, aging radical leftist longshoremen, indigent elderly, transsexuals and gays and lesbians, runaway queer youth (many of whom were hustlers) and Protestant service agencies advocating for the homeless, elderly and addicted, a neighborhood advocacy group—the Central City Citizen’s Council—forced the city to accept the notion of a “white ghetto,” or what it also termed the poverty of “unattached individuals.”
The coalition also forced the federal government to allow convicted felons and persons of “dubious” moral character to be hired by the Central City Multi-Service Center – a national first. This paved the way from November 1967 through May 1969 for the chief administrator of the Central City Anti-Poverty Target Area to be a gay man, Don Lucas. Lucas had been openly active in gay civil rights work since 1953. His two personal aides were also gay men before there was such a moniker: Jean-Paul Marat, an underage gay male hustler, who helped found the first queer youth organization in the U.S. in 1966 Vanguard; and Mark Forrester, a gay man living in the Tenderloin, who was heavily involved with gay civil rights work and advocating for queer youth and the abandoned elderly.
Other key employees were Genie Bowie and Peggy Galvez, two concerned housewives (African American and Filipino, respectively) determined to make a difference in their neighborhoods. Lucas also went on in 1967 to hire Herb Donaldson to be the first head of the newly formed Central City Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation (Donaldson had been arrested at California Hall and went on in 1978 to be named the first openly gay male judge in California).
Method Actors on SOMA Stage: Students of the Alinsky Organizing Method
Attempting to put Alinsky’s model of social action into play, the Central City Multi-Service Center hired people representing all constituencies in the North and South of Market areas and developed an elaborate census, conducted in 1968, to determine the exact population and its needs.
From it came the first mobile urban health van in the U.S., the pocket parks that now dot the intensely urban parts of the city, the first National Transsexual Counseling Unit in the U.S., a community center in South Park, the first police liaison officer to a gay community, and a landmark study of street youth and drug addiction that produced a Peabody-winning PBS documentary “Drugs in the Tenderloin” (1967).
Ground Zero: Yerba Buena Saga Rages On
Most pertinent, through the Central City Legal Assistance Foundation, a coalition of small business owners who had successfully resisted the wrecking ball in the late 50s and old labor organizers living in residential hotels in the Yerba Buena Project area filed the first successful injunction filed against the SFRA and HUD, once again bringing the wrecking ball to a standstill. This ad-hoc community group dubbed itself TOOR, Tenants and Owners Opposed to Redevelopment. Specifically, their hard-won injunction asked the disturbing question of why the Redevelopment and Relocation Agencies were one and the same in San Francisco, and insisted that the issues of relocation—economic and residential displacement—needed to be fully resolved before any kind of redevelopment could occur.
Next Wave: Founders of Folsom Fair Pick Up the Community Preservation Baton
This resistance of late 1969 and early 1970 was carried on into the ’70s and gave birth to various neighborhood-based organizations. Prominent among these groups was TODCO, a non-profit community housing developer located at 4th and Howard streets. TODCO was born directly out of TOOR’s activism, being incorporated in 1971 as an arm of TOOR dedicated to building new affordable senior housing—or remodeling existing units. TOOR’s lawsuit against the SFRA was eventually settled in 1974, with the city guaranteeing 1,500 low-cost relocation rooms, plus allocating four lots in the Yerba Buena project area on which TODCO was to build housing. (That vision has been realized today, with TODCO now moving out into other areas of South of Market to provide and/or build affordable housing to the existing residents). After a round of further, unsuccessful lawsuits filed by environmental groups, a revised Yerba Buena Plan, incorporating the new TODCO units, was issued in 1978 and was the blueprint for the park and convention and museum complex that exists today. It broke ground in 1980.
It was in this environment in 1980 that Kathleen Connell and Michael Valerio came to work under the umbrella of the activist organizations in place, and began their collaborative community-organization work that was to lead to “Megahood,” the first Folsom Street Fair in 1984.
While unaware of their queer predecessors in the Central City Anti-Poverty Target Area, Connell and Valerio were acutely aware of the same issues that had been taken up by that earlier generation, and of the potentials and pitfalls involved in attempting to bring together such diverse communities into a forceful and self-empowering coalition. In many respects, their work carried on, even if unknown to them at the time, the spirit of activists who had roughly 10 years earlier broken ground.
In 1979, Michael Valerio was hired by TODCO to develop low-income senior housing. Of Philipino/ Spanish heritage and raised in Pacifica, Michael was an out and active young gay man of the Castro, with an enormous creative drive and a freshly minted career in real estate.
One month prior, Kathleen Connell, an out gay woman from the San Francisco Bay Area, had established a special project of then Governor Jerry Brown’s at TODCO, with a focus on food delivery and community business development. Connell had extensive organizing and communications experience prior to TODCO in human rights, women’s issues and the political economics of development, and had done stints with the United Farmworkers office in the fields of California, Mexico and Arizona. She had done her undergraduate work at Berkeley a few years before meeting Michael.
Connell and Valerio came into contact with each other through the South of Market Alliance, a SOMA neighborhood-based advocacy group contesting SFRA and city Board of Supervisors decisions for the area. Connell and Valerio cemented their friendship, their shared gay perspectives and their working partnership in their interaction with the SOMA Alliance in 1980-81. Each offered the other a complementary view of the world, and personally came to see that they both longed to interject their “gay selves” into their work. The turmoil of South of Market would soon give them impetus to take an action, and express the joy of gay liberation that they lived in, in San Francisco, after the work day was done. What they did not know at that time was that the dark tsunami of AIDS was lurking just offshore, at the cusp of their lives, and was about to come crashing down upon the entire community.
Diverse LGBT “Entertainment” Zone
The South of Market gay scene was never more robust than in these salad days before AIDS. The long-established leather haunts were hives of parties, fetes, steamy back rooms and sexual freedom. The women’s community was migrating South of Market to 1190 Folsom to frequent the newly opened and posh Baybrick Inn—a women’s dance club, live performance venue, hotel and restaurant complex run by Lauren Hewitt, a former actress who brought flare and taste to the women’s scene. The Baybrick was a magnet for thousands of bay area women; lines formed around the block every weekend as “women and their friends” waited to get in the very popular bar. Dick Collier’s Trocadero, one of the first huge discos, was just down the street, featuring Sylvester to droves of ecstatic partiers on the weekends. Several bath houses inhaled many a man on the prowl on Friday night, not disgorging that individual until Sunday night or Monday at dawn. Whatever their preference or gender, the Stonewall generation was coming into its own not only in the Castro, but migrating to South of Market, as the so-called Golden Age of the Gay Mecca raved on—culturally, politically and personally for the eager refugees from homophobic America.
By day, a quick walk down Castro might result in an invitation to join a mass rally against Anita Bryant, the Florida orange juice right-wing spokesmodel, and by night anything could happen, and often did, all over town.
Downtown Development Pushes for More Territory in SOMA
The Olympia and York firm had been hired by SFRA to begin breaking ground on the Yerba Buena project area, and if that was not enough gentrification pressure, the Planning Department opened another front South of Market, in what was being called the “Down- town Plan.” It called for allowing the building of high rise towers south of Market Street and down to Harrison. In the city’s eyes, SOMA was seen as being so diverse as to be unorganizable and thus more amenable to this kind of redevelopment.
To combat this perception, Valerio and Connell became the SOMA Alliance advocates at the Mayor’s office, Board of Supervisors meetings and with SFRA and Olympia representatives, at Planning Commission meetings and in the media. They produced a series of negotiating points around affordable housing and community-controlled economic development, putting in place a viable infrastructure for small businesses, and securing renovation monies for the only primary school in the SOMA area, Bessie Carmichael.
In essence, they were placing on the table an alternative vision of development (as opposed to re-development) of the SOMA area, one based on balanced, mitigated and sustainable change and growth. Their initial foray as a team proved a relative success. They secured from then-mayor Dianne Feinstein $5 million for low-cost housing and backing down on the high-rise corridor plan, as well as open space commitments, the creation of Clementina Gardens, continued funding for social services and the South of Market Clinic, and a host of other real and symbolic victories.
These victories were cautionary, however. Both Valerio and Connell were made acutely aware that some of the militant anti-growth leadership in San Francisco did not have a warm spot in their plans for gay and lesbian retention in South of Market. The rise of gays into political power in San Francisco was not welcomed by all heterosexual activists in town, and the rumor of a new gay cancer was buzzing around the city. Connell and Valerio observed the more cynical politicos whipping out their political calculators as the “cancers” resulted in rapid decline and death in the gay community. Coldly and calmly, before the horrified Connell and Valerio, these so-called progressive leaders chattered away, and calculated various future political equations should the gay male community be wiped out by the new disease.
Taking A Page From Harvey Milk’s Book
Needing, therefore, a massive leapfrog strategy to defend the ailing LGBT community south of market, they searched for a model, looking to the newly politically galvanized Castro district. In the air was the militancy that had erupted in 1978 around the election of Supervisor Harvey Milk and then his tragic assassination, with the accompanying White Night Riots. There had also been in 1978 the No-on-6 campaign, where the gay community had effectively mobilized itself and general public support throughout California to defeat a religious-right sponsored ballot initiative that would have made it illegal for known homosexuals to be hired as public school teachers.
The one political event that most caught the eye of Connell and Valerio was how Harvey Milk had used the Castro Street Fair as a platform to mobilize, organize and inspire gays and lesbians into a sense of united community with political power. In a classic “aha moment,” Connell and Valerio sought a meeting with Harry Britt, who had been appointed to the Board of Supervisors following Harvey Milk’s death and who had acted as a mentor to both in navigating the shoals of city politics. He urged them to “do what Harvey did,” to create a presence in SOMA with a street fair, and use it as a political organizing tool. In a leap of inspiration, they transformed this spontaneous moment into an intentional strategic intervention that was to be populist and activist. It was to strike a very San Francisco balance between fun and fundraising, pleasure and politics. It was the first Folsom Street Fair. Later, the founders were to purchase all of their street decor at a SOMA business reputed to be the best place for struggling non-profits—Mark Leno’s Budget Signs.
In 1983, the pair devoted themselves to quickly, quietly and systematically researching every other large neighborhood event, and then set about creating a carefully crafted plan of their own.
1984. Orwell’s Nightmare Year Yields “Megahood: The Folsom Street Fair”
Entitled “Megahood” and taking place in 1984 on the autumnal equinox (when the weather is seasonally at its warmest and fairest in foggy SF), the Folsom Street Fair was a complex beast, created to accomplish many ambitious goals at once: supporting local SOMA businesses; bringing together the diverse, eclectic populations South of Market and attempting to unite them; and placing SOMA on the city map and in the public’s eye as not a “blighted zone” awaiting redevelopment, but as a vital, energetic part of the city desiring further development of its existing potentials. It also had one other crucial overarching purpose—helping to fight for the survival of the LGBT communities South of Market—including leather—as the full realization of the onset of AIDS and its harrowing and devastating implications was reverberating throughout the city. The fair was to be a healing, celebratory response,
The fair was to be not just reactive to all of the external pressures, but proactive and resilient. The term megahood was selected to redifine the South of Market as “the city’s neighboorhood—a turnabout retort to 30 years of being labeled as a ‘blighted’ area.”
Playing with and extending the megahood concept at the second fair, Valerio and Connell wrote in promo literature in July 1985, “MEGAHOOD was discovered during the first Folsom Street Fair in 1984. During the course of the day, noise from the event seems to have awakened the beast from its sleep, on schedule. It came to the surface and ended summer. The MEGAHOOD has made it quite clear the SUMMER ENDS here, in SAN FRANCISCO. On the Equinox of each year, it rises to the surface to partake of its annual meal, the summer season. Aside from its great size and unity, the MEGAHOOD is scaled, clawed, fanged, and quite colorful. These are the results of its living in the underground waterways located throughout the industrialized South of Market.”
Objective:Spectacular Reclaimation of The Streets of SOMA
In its birth, the Folsom Street Fair contained all the elements of its later incarnations. “Megahood” spanned the area that to this day marks the boundaries of the fair: from 12th Street to 7th Street between Howard and Harrison, with Folsom at the center. Intended to showcase the SOMA community, whose leather “miracle mile” lay at the heart of the fair, it also included the wide diversity of the SOMA neighborhoods, perhaps most aptly caught by the early morning street art painting done by pupils of the Bessie Carmichael school while watched over by nuns.
Connell and Valerio intended to go spectacular and not incremental, to include a dance stage (run by the emerging DJ Page Hodel), and a constant menu of upcoming live local bands and performers presented on the 12th Street stage. The Folsom Fair was also a venue for local crafts persons and entrepreneurs to sell their wares, and a large public site for the leather community to celebrate and revel in itself.
Professionally run by paid subcontractors and a volunteer staff of 400 individuals and 50 supporting organizations and businesses, the fair managed to do at the outset what most street fairs are unable to do after years of operation—turn a profit that was all returned to charity. A surpisingly large turnout of 30,000 persons at the first fair helped return roughly $20,000 to community coffers. The word of the first fair’s success spread, and the attendence in 1985 and beyond—like a living cell—continued to double each year for many years, expanding the fair to Division Street and the side streets.
In every way, the first fair had been a success. Quickly, within two years, word spread about the event and the attendance and charitable monies raised spiked. It also rapidly became more than just a local event, drawing people from across the U.S. and eventually from all over the world, so that today the fair routinely sells out all hotels in San Francisco, as over 300,000 people gather in the 4th largest single-day event in the U.S. and the largest leather event in the world—one that last year returned $250,000 to local charities. Over its 17 year history, a conservative calculation is that “Folsom” has returned just short of a billion dollars in earned revenue to local business, and millions to charity.
In 1986 Connell “retired” as co-producer due to a job shift to Silicon Valley, and asked Jayne Salinger, a lesbian and theater major from New York State, to take her place.
All around Valerio, Connell and Salinger, friends and supervolunteers began to sicken and die. First one, then another, then a lover, then the lover’s lover, then 10, and soon hundreds fell in the city and a deep gloom and atmosphere of loss, fear and grieving settled on San Francisco.
Salinger willingly began to work on fair production with Valerio, forming a new duo that continued to produce the next several fairs and community organizing projects in SOMA.
The Leather Family At Risk: Folsom Street Community Responds
Mergers and Acquisitions: Hunkering Down For The Long Haul
By the time of the third fair, Valerio and Salinger had assumed full leadership of the event, and attempted to follow through on its origins as a tool for organizing the whole of SOMA; they formed SCAN (South of Market Community Association), which by 1988 along with the fair also was working on Friends of South of Market Health Center, South of Market Police Community Relations, and, on September 1 that year, they launched a quarterly neighborhood newspaper, “The Southern Oracle.” Under the Valerio/Salinger leadership, the fair continued to grow, soon becoming the largest leather event in the world. Interestingly, almost simultaneously, another group of individuals was independently helping the leather community launch other key events as further resilient, in-your-face reactions to AIDS.
In 1985, the late Patrick Toner was awarded the title of International Mr. Leather in Chicago. Michael Polansky remembers him as an incredibly charismatic, magnetic person to whom no one could say “no.” Working with Jerry Vallaire and others, Toner became involved with Rita Rockett, who under the aegis of the Godfather Fund, was organizing meals for the patients in Ward 5-B (later 5-A), SF General Hospital’s first AIDS ward. (Rockett had come into contact with the gay community working at the Balcony, a club on Market Street).
Toner and Vallaire realized that they needed to have a party both to raise money for this and other AIDS-related work and to keep up the spirits of a community coming under siege. SOMA was dotted with favorite public sex sites, but one of particular fond infamy was Ringold Alley, across the street from a popular bathhouse. Vallaire recalls, “All of us, being regular patrons of Ringold Alley, had our own little running jokes about our experiences there. Mine was that I was going to open up an after-hours bar right in the middle of the block and call it “Up Your Alley.” So Patrick said, “Why not ‘Up Your Alley’? Perfect.” From this came the first Up Your Alley Fair. Nocturnal bliss was transformed into a daytime celebration—a community coming out fully into the open and taking over a public space to demonstrate not only its erotic pleasures but also its united strength (and sense of humor) in helping each other in face of a crisis. Held in the first week of August, the fair’s success inspired the group to carry on, so that the next year, 1986, they incorporated the event as Up Your Alley, Inc., but became the victims of their own success. Ringold is a residential alley, and the neighbors while tolerating dead-in-the-night activity did not take kindly to this sudden explosion of leather and fetish men and women on their street. They successfully petitioned the city and the SFPD to rescind the granting of a license for a third year.
This did not daunt the spirits of Up Your Alley, Inc. They simply moved over to another favorite trysting spot, Dore Alley, between Folsom and Howard and 9th and 10th streets. In many respects, this alley made for a better fair location. It fed directly onto the heart of Folsom and it contained in its middle a large parking lot, which could be used for vendor booths and food courts. In its first year at this site, 1987, Up Your Alley took on most of its present character, occupying all of the alley between Folsom and Howard and having an attendance of roughly 10,000 that has remained stable to this day. Over time the fair grounds have grown to include the stretch of Folsom between 9th and 10th.
Titles, Trystes, Runs…and Raising Funds
This fair was just one part of a thriving leather/Imperial Court community that congregated, recreated, tricked and fundraised up and down the “Miracle Mile” and the streets and alleyways around it. To mention a few names of bars and sex clubs from the 70s and 80s is like calling off the honor guard of a heroic, almost mythic past—The Arena, The Stud, the Ambush, the Powerhouse, the Black and Blue, the Ramrod, Febe’s, The Folsom Prison, the Boot Camp, the Red Star Saloon, the Folsom Barracks, the Club Baths, and the Eagle. Through the 70s and into the mid-80s, these sites were packed seven nights a week. The streets throbbed and hummed from the sexual excitement and the camaraderie that comes from having a place one can truly call “home.” The roots of Folsom’s establishment as the black and blue heart of San Francisco can be traced back to 1964, when the Toolbox opened, the first leather bar South of Market. In 1966, a leather community that had been highly structured for two decades through motorcycle clubs and was regularly taking well-organized excursions outside the city in club “runs,” established the first in-city “fair” to celebrate their lifestyle—the CMC (California Motor Club) Carnival. Held each year the first Sunday after Halloween in the Maritime Hall, it soon became a site not only for booths and food vendors but for open orgies. It also became a vehicle for community fundraising.
This high-charged marriage of erotic free-for-all and building of community carried through to the 70s when the bar-based contests (such as Mr. Powerhouse, Mr. Eagle, etc.) were begun. These fed in the late 70s that fed into the Mr. SF Leather contest, which in turn fed into the International Mr. Leather competition. The title holders were expected to not only revel in the prestige of their win, but were expected to use that title to further charitable and political work needed on behalf of their community. These titles sat at the apex of a pyramid of smaller events constantly being held, often weekly. Generating excitement and rivalry, these contests channeled competitive urges into an effort to outdo—to go over the top, in combining congenial fun and raunchy eroticism with building a sense of community.
A central fixture and bete noire abettor of this scene was Mr. Marcus, the internationally known leather figure. A part of the leather world in San Francisco from its beginnings in SOMA, Mr. Marcus also has authored one of the two longest-running columns in the city’s oldest continuously published gay newspaper, the Bay Area Reporter (B.A.R.). Since 1971, his leather column has promoted events, dished happily (and at times bitingly) about individuals and contests, and has remained a must-read. Mr. Marcus was also elected the first Emperor of San Francisco in 1973, part of a group of gay men who wanted to inject a more masculinist role model into community leadership positions.
Dr. Gayle Rubin has noted in her famous article about the SOMA leather world entitled “Valley of the Kings,” that this name came from Mr. Marcus, who used it to distinguish the strong male image of the Miracle Mile from the “Valley of the Queens” (the drag-infused Tenderloin) and the “Valley of the Dolls” (the young hippie-infused Castro).
An equally important contribution of Mr. Marcus has been his tireless promotion for decades of the use of bar-based contests to “stir up the pot” before passing the hat. He often has played direct roles as M.C. or in assisting in selection of panels of judges, or acting as a judge himself. Michael Polansky remembers in the late 70s the anticipation of turning out to the Boot Camp to watch Mr. Marcus go to town on the contestants for the “Fun Buns” competition.
Drumming Up Laughter, Tears and Dollars
This tradition of mixing just the right social cocktail of humor and gravity, of fun and fundraising, stood the leather community in good stead again and again as the AIDS epidemic detonated and then spread out with such lethal rapidity throughout the 80s and early 90s. The Up Your Alley Fair was cut whole from this cloth, and the Folsom Street Fair became increasingly woven into its fabric as the 80s progressed and the leather community began to claim the event more and more as its own. By 1986, the AIDS Emergency Fund, Project Open Hand and Coming Home and Shanti hospices had all been established. They were vigorously supported by constant fundraising in the leather community, by events large and small. All of this is evidence of a community laboring to take care of itself in the face of a president of the United States who refused to even publicly use the word AIDS until 1986. Given this strong resistance to official apathy, it is no surprise, and an indicator of much, that it was a leather person, Mr. Drummer 1988, Tony DeBlase, who designed the Gay Pride Flag.
Into the second half of the 80s, refusing to allow AIDS to cripple the community’s desire to celebrate itself, Jerry Vallaire and the other organizers were involved in establishing and carrying on key banner events: founding the Military Ball (January 31, 1986) and assuming production of the Mr. SF Leather contest (1987) and the Mr. Drummer and Mr. Northern California Drummer contests (as of 1988). This group was further responsible for innovating the idea of putting on the Mr. Drummer contest in the week prior to the Folsom Street Fair, folding in other leather activities to build up excitement and anticipation, and dubbing this fetish suite “Leather Week.” It had its debut in 1988.
Terry Thompson, owner of the Eagle Tavern, was another key innovator and organizer. In the late 80s, he attempted to launch a third street fair in the SOMA area. Event ’87 and ’88 took place in August on the street near the Eagle (Harrison and 11th). While this venture did not take hold as Up Your Alley and Folsom had, another baby of Thompson is with us today—The Bare Chest Calendar. Begun as a bar promotion in 1984 by the owner of the Arena (where Thompson was the manager), the first calendar appeared in 1985 and quickly in 1986 it became a fundraising vehicle for the AIDS Emergency Fund, which it still supports today. Thompson continued direction of production of the calendar throughout the late 80s, doing this from 1986 on at the Eagle, where he became manager after leaving the Arena. Mr. Marcus contributed his MC’ing skills at the contests that selected each month’s man, and continued the tradition of questioning candidates in a way that was provocative, fun, outrageous and revealing. The calendar was sold primarily at the Eagle until 1990, when Jerry Roberts hit on the idea of using the men in the calendar to sell the calendar at the corner of 18th and Castro streets. Roberts has since taken over primary stewardship for the promotion of the calendar, building and expanding on his idea by having the calendar men travel to all kinds of community events and fairs. All of the enhanced proceeds in turn have gone back to the AIDS Emergency Fund. In the late 90s, South of Market Merchants’ and Individuals’ Lifestyle Events (SMMILE), in continuing cooperation with Jerry Roberts, took on the responsibility of producing the Bare Chest Calendar.
All of this energy and accomplishment must be set against the reality of AIDS relentlessly claiming lives, overwhelming the energy of survivors, (both men and women) to care for the sick and dying, and leading to volunteer burnout and exhaustion. By the mid to late 80s, the thriving seven-day-a-week packed house bar scene in SOMA began to dry up. A sharp and sobering indicator of this is the 1985 Bare Chest Calendar. Three of the earlier winners had passed away from AIDS complications by the time the photographer was ready to shoot for the year in November. The Up Your Alley fairs, despite best intentions, began to consistently lose more and more money with each successive year, until in 1989 there was serious thought of giving up on the event. The Folsom Street Fair also was undergoing in the late 80s the same attrition of fatigue.
Resilient While Vulnerable
The tenacity and resiliency of the leather community came to its own rescue. Vallaire and Valerio headed up a group of individuals who realized the importance of the fairs and the events that had come into connection with them and how critical it was to carry them on through the burnout and deaths. They realized this could only occur if energies were conserved and used as efficiently as possible. These events and the two fairs needed not only to give people a reason to celebrate and feel good collectively as a community, but they also needed to raise—and not lose—critical monies. As Vallaire noted at the time, “Since production costs, like everything else, keep going up, it is important to have sponsors from the corporate level down to the individual. There are so many charities in need and the need for the charities is getting greater every day. Individuals, as much as they want to help, get tapped out financially very quickly… By merging the Up Your Alley and Folsom Street fairs to form SMMILE…our strength is in our numbers and in our unity and in everyone pitching in and helping us by volunteering to offer whatever money or services that they can…This has been my commitment for the last six years and for however long it takes to wipe out AIDS and homophobia. I hope there are many others out there that feel the same way…don’t tell me about burnout or how busy you are with your personal life, go to a hospital and tell it to an AIDS patient…After all the 90s are for coming together and caring for your fellow man and planet. The I/Me decade is over, so move into the 90s. Get involved.”
So, in March 1990, SCAN and Up Your Alley, Inc., formally dissolved and reunited as a newly merged SMMILE, South of Market Merchants’ and Individuals’ Lifestyles Events, the nonprofit that to this day produces both the Up Your Alley and Folsom Street fairs. Valerio was its first president and Vallaire its first vice-president. (In the early 90s the nonprofit also produced the Castro Christmas Tree, a pet project of Vallaire). The name “SMMILE” says much about the complex origins and purpose that lie behind its formation—the power of humor and feeling good about oneself in the face of AIDS; the celebration of SM/leather/fetish lifestyles; and the idea of community economic empowerment that came from the South of Market Alliance years. Peter Austin wrote the founding mission statement:
“SMMILE (South of Market Merchants’ and Individuals’ Lifestyle Events) is a non-profit, public benefit corporation founded to develop ties between the South of Market community and the institutions which affect social welfare and quality of life by producing and facilitating fund-raising events that enhance the community in the areas of health services, social services, housing services, education and recreation in this community’s tradition of tolerance of lifestyles and acceptance of the individual.”
Within a year of its formation, Vallaire needed to step down, being too ill from AIDS-related complications to continue. He died in 1993, the same year that Patrick Toner passed away from AIDS-related illnesses. Salinger retired after an uninterrupted stint of many years working with Valerio. Very ill, Michael Valerio joined Connell in Washington, D.C. for the March On Washington. This was to be his last big trip away from his home on Langton Street. He continued his involvement a while longer until he too was claimed by AIDS in 1995.
In 1992, David Dysart took over as president of SMMILE and the vision of Valerio and Vallaire held true. While the both the fairs did not experience real growth in terms of attendance or money raised in the early ’90s, they both continued on and managed consistently to return approximately $30–$40,000 each year to local AIDS-related charities.
Protease Reprieve: SMMILE Regroups
In 1995, Paul Lester joined the board of SMMILE. He remembers an organization marked by infighting, occasional spats at board meetings, and a general feeling of volunteer burnout. He took it upon himself to assume leadership in this vacuum and return the management of the fairs to the level of professionalization and community spirit in which they had begun. One clear marker for him of the disorganization was that all the gay “high holidays” at that time had dates that fluctuated from year to year. The SF Pride Parade bobbed and weaved in June of each year with LA Pride to avoid scheduling the events on the same weekend. The Up Your Alley Fair in Dore Alley could occur any time, as early as late July and as late as the weekend prior to Folsom. Folsom moved with the autumnal equinox. Lester remembers that one year in particular drove home to him and others on the board the impossibility of the situation. They had first to fight with the Castro Street Fair to not have it and Folsom Street Fair on the same Sunday. The Up Your Alley Fair that year fell only two weeks prior to Folsom. Getting through both the fairs became a logistical nightmare and left the clear message, “Never Again!”
Lester took it upon himself to get into communication with the organizers of SF Pride and the Castro Street Fair and to establish set dates that remain today: SF Pride is the last Sunday in June, Up Your Alley the last Sunday in July, Folsom the last Sunday in September and Castro Street Fair the first Sunday in October. Lester recalls that this was not only in the interest of the event organizers, almost all of whom were volunteers doing this work in their spare time. It was also appreciated by the travel agency and hotel industries who could now rely on regular annual bookings.
Lester became the center of a new, energized board of directors of SMMILE, one which not coincidentally arose at the same time as the appearance of the cocktail of protease inhibitors to treat HIV and AIDS. Taking advantage of this second license on life, the board of SMMILE aggressively refined and expanded the model of doing both fairs. They innovated the idea of setting up gates into the fair and asking for donations upon entry. These donations were rewarded with a sticker that earned a dollar discount on all beverages purchased during the day from charity-run beer and alcohol and water booths. The board then collaborated with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to staff the gates with the right kind of volunteers able to solicit as many donations as possible from entering fairgoers. This model has since been copied by other events, most notably the Castro Street Fair, the Pride Parade Celebration site and the Halloween celebration both at Civic Center and in the Castro.
SMMILE under the guiding hand of Lester has also been able to court additional corporate sponsors and to increase the numbers of for-profit and nonprofit booths, bringing in that much more money. From 1995–1997, the amount of money raised each year began to double (1995, $63,000; 1996, $95,000; 1997, $150,000). The amounts raised in 1998 and 1999 went up less dramatically but still increased, moving toward $175,00. But in 2000, the fundraising capability spiked again, producing the incredible sum of $250,000 from the two one-day street fairs and the sale of the Bare Chest Calendar. During this time, SMMILE had been able to expand its tradition of supporting two to three beneficiaries to the present eight, increased the number of beverage booths run by nonprofits who receive a profit share for their work at either Up Your Alley or Folsom, disbursed further monies to charities through money given to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, gave money to designated charities for the SFPD and SFFD, provided money for the Bessie Carmichael elementary school, used funds raised through the Bare Chest Calendar to fund the AIDS Emergency Fund and the Positive Resource Center, and routinely hired individuals from the Positive Resource Center and Episcopal Community Services and St. Joseph’s (the latter two SOMA homeless shelters and rehab clinics) to help with fair set-up and clean-up.
While Lester stepped off the board at the end of 2000, having met his personal goal of raising a quarter of a million dollars, Bob Goldfarb, the new president, has been carrying on with the dynamic model created over the last few years, and the fairs look to increase into the future the revenue raised from and returned to the community.
The Millennial Fair: Afterword
Existing as it does, in the ever-shifting fabric of San Francisco and South of Market, The Folsom Street Fair will undoubtedly continue to change, as the next generation steps up to its stewardship of “all things fair,” South of Market and beyond. The Founders wrote in an opening invitation to the first Megahood event:
“As a neighborhood or place of work, South of Market magnetically attracts the pioneers, the changelings, the cutting edge of industry, arts, entertainment, human and social relationships. Not too far behind the concrete facades, a pulsating, living mosaic-like community is alive and well. On September 23, Folsom will close to traffic and open its heart to the world.”
Folsom and SOMA are the birthplace of many private and public worlds. Those organizers that play through the history of San Francisco, and the LGBT Community South of Market, created and loved these emergent worlds and the people in them, and fought for the enduring community values that underpin these extraordinary efforts in extraordinary times. This is “The Folsom Way.”
This article is provided with the permission of authors Kathleen Connell and Paul Gabriel for the LGBT Historical Society. All rights reserved. No part may be reprinted without the permission of the authors. For more information, contact the LGBT Historical Society at (415) 777-5455.