The Eagle flies? -- property disputes, protests, and the uncertain future of an SF institution

Members of the queer community rally outside City Hall.

The commendation presented this afternoon by Supervisor Jane Kim to The Eagle Tavern recognizing its 30 outstanding years as a “venue, cultural institution, safe haven and home for the LGBT community” won’t be enough to pacify everyone who nests there – especially if their aerie is taken away.

Monday night, as many as 300 people gathered for an emergency meeting outside the beloved SoMa institution, trying to figure out how best to prevent that possibility in the face of an April 29 closure and potential eviction. Among them were representatives from the offices of supervisors Scott Weiner and Jane Kim, as well as former supervisor Bevan Dufty.

Members of the group gathered again yesterday on the steps of City Hall - complete with colorful signs – to talk about The Eagle as an icon of SF’s queer culture and to rally support from community members and the Board of Supervisors. Presenters and patrons likened the late-night spot to the Statue of Liberty, saying it represented a sort of Ellis Island for the queer community.

“This is where you come,” one speaker said, “when you’ve been kicked out of Kansas, or Florida, or Ohio, for being gay. You come to San Francisco.”

But the bar has welcomed far more than disenfranchised leather fiends through its doors. For 30 years, the South of Market venue has been a community hub and fundraising hotspot, raising what now amounts to millions for everything from breast cancer to youth charities to AIDS awareness. The club is renowned for its Beer Busts – which can raise over $2,000 in a weekend – and its Thursday night rock shows, which draw in hipsters, stoners, and leathermen alike for some of the strongest local rock bills in town, often tied to record releases.

But now, the queer spot may have to straighten up and fly “right,” if the property’s landlord has his way. When the bar’s current owners, John Gardiner and Joe Banks, decided to focus on their other SF property, Hole in the Wall Saloon, they tried to sell The Eagle to those they felt would continue the legacy: current manager Ron Hennis, owner of The Lexington Lila Thirkield, and Eagle entertainment coordinator Doug Hilsinger. But property owner John Nikitopoulos refused to renew the lease for the bar’s intended new owners.

He has, however, warmed to the possibility of signing the space to the owners of The Skylark at 16th and Valencia: a venue many Eagle patrons feel is a study in gentrification – not to mention, straight as a developer’s ruler. In addition to changing the club’s culture completely, they fear that such a sale may pave the way for an even bigger change down the road – condos, for instance.

Longtime Eagle patron Mike Talley has lived in Soma for over two decades, and has slowly watched the tides of developers roll in and wash away queers (and blue-collar workers and minorities and artists) in order to erect luxury lofts. He explained that what the Chronicle’s Herb Caen referred to as the Miracle Mile – the strip of SoMa gay and leather bars that once numbered in the dozens – has now been reduced to just a couple of properties “hanging in there."

According to Dufty, The Eagle Tavern is one of the only San Francisco leather bars still in its original location. In a city that values history – indeed, is defined by history – Dufty called for the owner of the property to recognize the lease on The Eagle is “more than just a business transaction.”

“The owner of this building needs to come to the table and talk about this,” he urged.

Indeed, securing landmark status may be a way forward for The Eagle, but the process is slow and complex, and does not guarantee the tenants additional rights -- but it does make clear the importance of The Eagle to the city of San Francisco as a whole.

Until then, SF Eagle lovers are determined to preserve their natural habitat. Local drag queen-cum-community organizer Anna Conda has organized two additional events to fight for the right to spread their wings:

Tonight, Wednesday/13, The Eagle will swoop down upon The Skylark in full leather regalia for a “surprise leather night.” Join in at 8 p.m., and wear your ass-less chaps. On Sun/17, camp out in front of The Eagle to show that the community center is much more than a bar. Pink tents encouraged.

Stay up to date by following the Save the Eagle efforts on Facebook.


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