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Our Heritage


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.

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