Last-minute talks could save SF queer institution
An important community institution never truly dies. It remains in the hearts and minds of everyone it has touched — a fact that that patrons who have lived and loved (sometimes literally) in the Eagle Tavern understand. But that doesn't mean they're ready to loosen their talons and let go.
With the help of San Francisco's supervisors, some seriously committed community energy — and maybe even a Dallas cowboy who likes his leather — they may not have to.
For the past week, patrons of one of San Francisco's oldest and boldest gay leather bars have been rallying to save their stomping ground from uncertain fate. It started when they found that rumors swirling since early in the year were true: the Eagle was slated to close at the end of April and faced a May 1 eviction.
Since then, defenders of the 12th Street space have scraped together emergency meetings and impromptu marches, a surprise leather night at the Skylark Bar (owned by a believed-to-be buyer), and a demonstration on the steps of City Hall. Letters were sent to the Board of Supervisors, petitions signed, and pink tent campouts planned as vigils.
Through it all, the message carrying most clearly was that the Eagle Tavern is far more than a swingin' hot spot. "It's our history and it's our culture," said organizer Kyle DeVries at a rally on the steps of City Hall last Tuesday. "And we're proud of what we've given to this city."
That "what" includes more than $1 million raised through the years at popular Sunday beer busts supporting everything from breast cancer research to AIDS awareness. But it also includes providing a safe haven and sense of belonging for San Francisco's queer community for more than three decades.
And now, patrons have learned they will eek out another month. Thanks to the huge outpouring of support from Eagle denizens, and political pressure from three San Francisco supervisors, the end-of-April plan to fly the coop has been delayed at least until the end of May, Eagle manager Ron Hennis said.
But since the issue first exploded April 11, efforts to save the sacred space haven't slowed down. At press time, supporters were planning an April 19 "Tuesday roost" at the Eagle in hopes of pumping energy and cash back into the tavern on a night known to be quiet.
Sup. Scott Wiener, along with Sups. David Campos and Jane Kim, sent a letter to the San Francisco Police Department that reviews liquor license sales in connection with the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. The letter reviewed the Eagle's importance in SF's queer community and stated that its authors are "adamantly opposed to any sale that would result in the Eagle's destruction."
The supervisors urged the SFPD to "closely scrutinize, consistent with applicable legal standards, any requested liquor license transfer relating to the Eagle to ensure that any such transfer will not harm the LGBT community by putting an end to the Eagle."
So far, these efforts have been promising for Eagle patrons. In a phone interview, Wiener told us that Skylark owner Steve Englebrecht has pulled out of negotiations to buy the place. But the situation remains complex.
Eagle manager Ron Hennis explained that current owners John Gardiner and Joe Banks decided to sell the Eagle a year ago to focus on their other SoMa leather bar, Hole in the Wall Saloon, which has been plagued with high-cost property battles of its own.
Gardiner and Banks didn't respond to our e-mails. But Hennis said they intended to sell the business — which includes the Eagle name, equipment, and liquor license — to people they felt would maintain the existing spirit of the bar: Hennis, Eagle entertainment coordinator Doug Hilsinger, and Lila Thirkield, owner of the Lexington Club.
Hennis and Hilsinger told us a contract was signed and the deal had progressed through an initial set of inspections and into escrow when the property's owner, John Nikitopoulos, refused to negotiate a new lease with the prospective owners.
Despite successful conversations up to that point, Gardiner and Banks "turned off and didn't say why," Hennis said.
Further complicating the matter, Gardiner and Banks' lease ran out and Nikitopoulos hasn't renewed it. He's been renting the property month-to-month and is reportedly raising the monthly price tag, which has remained the same for the past 10 years.
Hennis said the owners were still paying rent when they were threatened with eviction — which would mean a death sentence for the Eagle unless they could sell the business to a party Nikitopoulos would be willing to negotiate a lease with.
In the midst of the stalemate, Nikitopoulos offered to buy the business (and most important, the liquor license) from Gardiner and Banks, who refused saying they'd already agreed to sell to Hennis and his partners. Nikitopoulos then approached Hennis, suggesting Hennis purchase the business as planned and then sell him the liquor license. When Hennis also turned down the landlord's offer — without the liquor license, Hennis wouldn't actually own the bar — he disappeared from the conversations.
At the April 12 demonstration, mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty called for the stakeholders involved to recognize that in a city that "values history — indeed, is defined by history," 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.
But Nikitopoulos, a resident of Santa Rosa who inherited the property from his father, hasn't responded to Hennis, reporters, or even to calls from Sup. Wiener. He was, however, reportedly in communication with Englebrecht when the Skylark owner swept in to purchase the space and liquor license — but not the name or the leather culture.
Though Englebrecht withdrew, supporters worry Nikitopoulos could potentially negotiate a lease with a different tenant — leaving the bar a casualty of SoMa's continued gentrification.
Longtime Eagle patron Mike Talley, who has lived in SoMa for more than two decades, fears the Eagle would fit perfectly into a familiar story of luxury lofts, astronomical rent increases, and — inevitably — mass evictions. He explained that what the Chronicle's late columnist Herb Caen called the Miracle Mile — a strip of SoMa gay and leather bars that once numbered in the dozens — now consists of just a few properties "hanging in there."
Mark Kliem, a.k.a Sister Zsa Zsa Glamour of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, echoed Talley's concern, saying, "The rest of the entire world is family-friendly. Why can't we have this one little half-mile area to call queer space?"
It's worth noting that the Eagle is by no means exclusively gay. It is famous for its Thursday-night rock shows where, according to an Eagle DJ, "a melting pot of hipsters, stoners, and rockers mixed with the leather crowd."
"Everyone was cool," he said. "Everyone was welcome."
Still, the bar has become an icon of San Francisco's queer community.
Kim, who represents the district, presented the Eagle with a letter of commendation recognizing its 30 outstanding years as a "venue, cultural institution, safe haven, and home for the LGBT community" at the April 12 meeting.
"You can't threaten something as important as this institution," Campos added.
Wiener, Kim, and California Sen. Mark Leno also praised the Eagle at Sunday's regularly scheduled beer bust. Leno lauded the efforts of local drag queen/community organizer Anna Conda, and referred to the week's events as "Stonewall West."
If anything, the week of demonstrations has drawn San Francisco's queer community closer. And there is hope that the crowd can stay together in the spot they claimed for themselves. One white-horse possibility is Mark Frazier, owner of a Dallas bar also named the Eagle — and also home to a leather crowd.
Seth Munter of Herth Realty in San Francisco said Frazier has been eyeing the SF Eagle for more than a year, and that he is "interested and able to participate in continuing the Eagle as it has been, either with partners or on his own."
Reached by phone in Dallas, Frazier told us he's dreamt of the business since before his own Eagle took flight in 1995. "I think the San Francisco Eagle has a lot of history and a core base of support," he said. "Any time you go into a business with so much support, it's going to be successful."
Frazier stressed that like the SF original, his Eagle has raised substantial sums for charity. Though he acknowledged that the bottom line of all businesses is to make money, "the successful ones continue to give back to the community — and not only monetarily."
So far, Frazier said he has "exchanged e-mails with the powers that be" and that he is confident the Eagle's troubles stem from a "communication gap" he could help fix.
Hennis expressed hope about the possibility of working with Frazier in addition to pursuing other options like historical preservation.
Demonstrators have penned more than 100 hand-written letters to the Historic Preservation Commission urging it to assign the Eagle landmark status. Commissioner Alan Martinez said such a process could cost thousands of dollars and would not "grant the right to dictate businesses or tenants."
Still, he announced publicly that giving the building historic status is not "about turning the city into a museum — it's about our history."
Though landmark status protects the physical property, it would also provide legitimacy, an instantaneous way to tell the building's story and bind the community together. And no matter what happens with the sale of the Eagle, that's one possibility that flies.