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Fetish’s New Safe Word: Open Space

Developers turn once-clandestine hangouts into sanitized public promenades.


Eagle Plaza will be the world’s first leather public plaza. (But don’t worry—you won’t have to flog anyone to hang out.)

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With bronze boot prints and paving inspired by the leather pride flag, Ringold Alley will tip a peaked cap to SoMa’s place in fetish history.

Rendering: Courtesy of Miller Company Landscape Architects

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Ringold Alley.

Rendering: Courtesy of Miller Company Landscape Architects

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Editor's note: This is one of many stories about LGBTQ life in the Bay Area that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the June 2016 Pride Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

The Ramrod: closed in 1986.
The Sutro Bath House: shuttered in 1984. The Tool Box: demolished in 1971 and later redeveloped as a Whole Foods. Sometimes it seems SoMa has more defunct gay businesses than it has live ones. But what the brutal San Francisco development cycle taketh away, it also giveth back: Over the past few years, two developers building in SoMa decided to direct their projects’ city-mandated fees into what will be the world’s first public spaces that pay tribute to the leather and fetish community. So what does it mean for a public space to call itself leather? And what in Hunky Jesus’s name should it look like?

Ringold Alley
What’s there now: A quiet, block-long lane with row houses and light industry—a far cry from the 1970s and ’80s, when it was a hotspot for late-night cruising.
What’s coming: The utility poles will likely be replaced with underground wiring. Artworks will dot the street, and, near the Eighth Street entrance, a café, a restaurant, and a park will go in as part of L Seven, a forthcoming mixed-use development.
Designer: Jeffrey Miller of Miller Company Landscape Architects incorporated design ideas from neighbors Gayle Rubin, a leather historian; Demetri Moshoyannis, executive director of Folsom Street Events; and the late Jim Meko, former chair of the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force.
Developer: 4Terra Investments; AERC 8th and Harrison
Cost: $2 million
Opening date: Early 2017

Ringold Alley won’t be a destination in itself so much as a series of pedestrian features, akin to the plaques embedded in the Embarcadero sidewalk that nod to port history. A black stone near the Ninth Street entrance will likely feature a reproduction of the Tool Box’s long-gone mural—famously captured in a 1964 Life magazine spread about gay life in America. Short granite curbstone pillars will honor leather institutions like miniature monoliths, says Rubin, a University of Michigan associate professor of anthropology and women’s studies. In a rugged twist on the commemorative plaque, bronze boot prints will conjure the footsteps of the men who once frequented Ringold in its heyday as a cruising alley. “We’re trying to preserve a memory of a neighborhood that is changing dramatically,” says Rubin.

Eagle Plaza
What’s there now: 12th Street where it dead-ends into Harrison, abutting the leather bar the SF Eagle.
What’s coming: In tandem with Build Inc.’s forthcoming apartments at 12th and Harrison, part of the street will be turned into a green plaza, with a lane for cars to move through. There will be plant beds, mobile wood seating, a movable stage, and infrastructure for events.
Designer: Bionic with Gehl Studio
Developer: Build Inc. and its nonprofit arm, Build Public
Cost: About $2.1 million, plus funding for at least 50 years of maintenance
Opening date: mid-2018

The world’s first leather plaza will not contain any actual leather—or whips or nipple clamps. After all, a leatherman’s taste in public space is like anyone else’s: some nice planters, seating, and a plug-and-play event setup that can support screenings, the Eagle’s regular beer busts, or, come Folsom Street Fair time, a good old-fashioned flogging. The plaza will telegraph its identity with a grand gesture (a giant leather pride flag will fly) and a coded wink (think “leather-like” dark paving and stainless steel details, which may take the form of studs embedded in the pavement). Plus, no one wants a theme park: “This shouldn’t be leather Disney” was the refrain at a recent community design workshop convened by Build Public.


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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