Will SF destroy a stunning piece of LGBT history?

There were secret tunnels below Tenderloin gay bars. Should they be preserved as part of an LGBT historic district? The vote is Thursday

The Planning Commission will consider Thursday/17 a large hotel and housing project in the Tenderloin that would create 242 new market-rate housing units and 232 hotel rooms – on the edge of where LGBT activists want to create a historic district recognizing the role of trans people in the neighborhood.

Among the buildings that would be impacted include the site of Compton’s Cafeteria, often known as the Stonewall of the West, where drag queens rioted against police harassment three years before the Stonewall uprising that is now considered a pivotal moment in LGBT history.That’s across the street from the massive project.

Stairs leading to a network of tunnels used by gay men to move from bar to bar to avoid police raids
Stairs leading to a network of tunnels used by gay men to move from bar to bar to avoid police raids

The Obama administration has designated the area around the Stonewall Inn as a national historic monument.

Community activists want a similar four-block region in the Tenderloin designated a historic district, and have begun the process of filing paperwork for federal recognition.

In the meantime, the project is moving forward. The commission will consider several measures that would allow it to proceed – and LGBT preservationists are asking for a 60-to-90-day continuance to evaluate the historic quality of the buildings that are going to be torn down.

There are Prohibition-era bottles still in the tunnels, which are not open to the public
There are Prohibition-era bottles still in the tunnels, which are not open to the public

Among the stunning information that has just come to light: The bars, opened in the 1930s and ’40s in that strip – including the Old Crow, the Silver Rail, the Pirates Den, and the College Inn – were connected by a series of tunnels to help patrons escape police raids.

And those tunnels are still intact. They would be destroyed by the new project.

“We aren’t against the project, we just want a little bit of time to evaluate these historic resources,” Nate Allbee, who is working with the community groups asking for a continuance, told me.

Is this not an historic element?
Is this not an historic element?

The project would take up 25 percent of the area that the LGBT activists are trying to designate as an historic district. “It is critical that LGBTQ voices, especially those of us living in the Tenderloin, are leading the discussions on what happens in this culturally sensitive district,” a letter to the Planning Commission signed by six current or former elected officials and a long list of community groups and activists, notes.

“The entire intersection of Market, Mason, and Turk was an important hustling and cruising site where gay men went to socialize in an era when our existence was illegal,” the letter states. “These sites are connected by an intact underground tunnel system that patrons used to escape police raids and to avoid the loss of employment, family, and housing that were risked in those days by homosexual association.”

Part of the tunnel network
Part of the tunnel network

The tunnels: This is a huge find, and I can’t believe anyone is seriously talking about demolishing them. There is so much history there – including bottles of liquor left over from the Prohibition Era, and a safe that belonged to one of the clubs – and this whole amazing infrastructure that allowed gay men to slip from bar to bar and avoid arrest.

Until I heard about this at the Milk Club meeting Tuesday night, I had no idea the tunnels existed.

Nobody has access to the tunnels, which is crazy.

So the Planning Commission has to decide: Is this a historic resource that deserves protection? Is it at least worth waiting a couple of months so we can all figure that out. The meeting starts at noon, in Room 400 City Hall.