San Francisco is an archaeological site–though a young city, there are layers of history. As Rebecca Solnit demonstrated in her Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, sometimes circles overlap–ripples in the pond of history. She chose to combine in one map natural butterfly habitat and the locations of vanished queer public spaces–implying a pun on mariposa, a Spanish term for queers.
What remnants exist of what once was? As sites that were once gay hotspots have been abandoned in favor of some new nexus, what detritus has been left behind?
Composer and filmmaker Jack Curtis Dubowsky explores that question in his film Submerged Queer Spaces. The staring point was materials from the GLBT Historical Society, such as lists of once-active businesses, as well as historical images of the sites. Cinematographer Wilfred Galila lensed what remained of those now-vanished businesses: some distinctive tiles, the remnants of signage, a painted-over façade.
The film incorporates historical photographs of gay business establishments from the Henri Leleu collection at the GLBT Historial Society. In the 60s and 70s, Leleu had photographed bars, restaurants, bathhouses, and other spaces for guidebooks. These images document what were once thriving sites of gay life, spaces that now function differently.
The first incarnation of Submerged Queer Spaces was as a projected film with live music accompaniment by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble, presented as part of the Queer Arts Festival in June of 2010. The film was projected onscreen at the Buriel Clay Theater at the African American Art and Culture Complex as Dubowsky on bass and keyboards, and two other musicians, percussionist Fred Morgan and trombonist Hall Goff, performed a live music score. But even after this performance, Dubowsky continued to work on the project.
The next step was to incorporate living memories people had of these now-vanished queer spaces. Dubowsky recorded interviews with people who remembered a time when these spaces were active, before gentrification, redevelopment, and other forces caused changes. The film is much-reworked from its earlier incarnation, now with eight interview subjects and new footage of architectural remains. It’s more of a documentary, but still with connections to its experimental film roots, including some music from the earlier live performance screening.
Even in the 20 years that I’ve lived in San Francisco, queer spaces have come and gone. I think of Red Dora’s Bearded Lady, Queers Together in Punkness shows at Epicenter Zone, Klubstitute events at various now-disappeared bars like the Crystal Pistol and Brave New World, even places that seemed like they would last forever like the Eagle, now closed. Those were places where my friends and I first met, hung out, performed, suffered through drama, and mourned when they closed.
In San Francisco, money wants to rub elbows with culture at the same time it wants to evict it. To some extent or other, these vanished venues (with the occasional cooperative exception) were, besides being public spaces, also commercial ventures. But perhaps the ones that failed were those where people’s passion was not as strong as their business sense, and those are the ones that we miss the most.
Dubowsky and Galila will be discussing Submerged Queer Spaces and the process of researching and creating it in a talk at the GLBT History Museum at 4127 18th St. near Castro on Wednesday, June 13 at 7pm. The film will be screening as part of the Frameline Film Festival on Saturday, June 16 at 1:45pm at the Roxie Theatre. The following day, Sunday, June 17 at 11am there will be a Submerged Queer Spaces walking tour, starting at the GLBT History Museum.