Monday, April 11, 2011

The Endangered Eagle

Word has reached me via Facebook about the threatened closing of the San Francisco Eagle, and over at Joe.My.God there is an unsourced rendering of what is planned for the future. Aesthetically and culturally pleasing it is not. I have written before about what a great institution the beer bust is, and on many a dull Sunday afternoon in Baltimore I have had wistful thoughts of drinkings and doings on the Eagle patio, and looked forward to experiencing it again upon my return. I hope that a plan of action to save it will come out of tonight's meeting, whether through having it designated a historic landmark (one can only imagine the plaque for that), it being purchased, or a a bunch of rowdy queers chaining themselves to the toilets like in the good old days to defy the wrecking ball. However, I think a larger lesson that must be taken from this is that the SF gay community has to learn to adapt to a changing world in order to survive.

Many have bemoaned the passing of the leather bars and bathhouses that lined Folsom some thirty years ago, but what made all that possible was that SoMa was a marginal zone of low property values. As many have pointed out, the new boom and the coming of companies like Twitter and Zynga have brought up property values in SoMa, and for whoever owns the land on which the Eagle sits, I'm sure there are much more lucrative opportunities than leasing to a gay bar. This gentrification, if you will, of SoMa, is a ruthless, uncaring process driven by pure capitalism, and no one will be happy to see what it does to the treasured institutions and watering holes of the past (see, for example, my post about the controversy over the re-location of The Hole in the Wall). By enlisting the aid of the city it might be possible to win some battles, but the overall trend of the war is clear, and if the gay community is going to survive, it must learn how to adapt to the new conditions it faces, rather than mourn its losses.

I've seen many comments on this situation that take a very traditionalist stance; this is what was, this is what must be, and development must be opposed at all costs. As a Southerner, and someone who has lived in many places where the populace has linked arms against any change or development in the name of the past, I can tell you that what this ultimately brings is economic ruin. You cannot keep the San Francisco of the 1970s or 1980s; however golden those years might have been in some ways, they were also very lean years, when San Francisco had serious economic problems. That's what made it cheap to live there, that's what makes it cheap to live in Baltimore, but I don't think many San Franciscans want to live in a city where block after block of downtown is boarded up and abandoned, as SoMa was during this time and as Baltimore is now. The economic boom of the 90s revitalized San Francisco in as many ways as it created new problems, as in the case of The Eagle. I'm coming back to San Francisco because of the energy of the city, the opportunity it presents, and the kind of people who live there, so I want to see it grow and prosper. But I also want to see it keep the character of what makes it San Francisco, and for that to happen, there must be adaptation. So SoMa is not what it was in the 1970s -- find the new marginal space, work with the city to keep gentrification from encroaching upon it, and create the new SoMa. Instead of trying to hold back the tide and crying over what was lost, look ahead and create the new. If the The Eagle is sold, find a new space, because what makes The Eagle isn't the building, it's the people who come and create the space of a community.

UPDATE: Courtesy of SFWeekly, a report on last night's rally at The Eagle, which fills in this unpleasant detail:
But before that deal could go through, the owner of the property decided he wanted to start a bar there himself, and wouldn't allow the current owners to transfer the lease.

"He saw an opportunity to start his own business here," Thirkield said. "He blew up that entire deal."

Now, the Eagle has been given notice to shut down by the owner, reportedly a thirtysomething resident of Santa Rosa who inherited the property from family.
So what truly sucks about this is that someone from outside the city, who seems to have no experience with a bar, and likely has no understanding of the cultural landscape, is going to try and start a straight bar in a spot that has no foot traffic, and is well away from other bars or businesses that will support it. This means that it, like The Eagle, must be a destination bar. But note that the Skylark, which is owned by the person the property owner intends to turn the location over to, which is on the heavily trafficked 16th Street, was empty on a Monday night when the protesters showed up. Put all this together, and I can almost guarantee that whatever they put in there will fail within a year, especially given the certain negative publicity the bar will receive. So, some dunderhead is going to rip out a chunk of the gay cultural landscape of San Francisco for what will likely wind up being a failed business folly - somehow it would be better if The Eagle was going to razed for condos rather than subjected to this indignity.