Memories of Leather: Public art sets in stone San Francisco’s leather history

The leather flag, created by San Francisco author and publisher Tony DeBlase in 1989, is now a permanent feature of the sidewalks of Ringold Alley. Photo/Jeffrey Miller

Everywhere in the world, cities and towns build memorials to those who have made a mark on their history. Residents take pride in them. Tourists learn from them. But do these monuments tell the whole story of what has transpired there? Or are there notable gaps?

“Marginal groups and those who are disrespected for various reasons tend to not have their accomplishments recognized in public landmarks,” says Gayle Rubin, a scholar of San Francisco LGBTQ history and professor of anthropology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan.

You would think that LGBTQ-pioneering San Francisco would be different in that respect. But while there are many landmarks included in gay history tours, there are few permanent monuments. There’s Pink Triangle Park, but that is a memorial to LGBTQ victims of the Nazi regime in World War II. During Pride Week 2017, 24 new sidewalk plaques were added to the original 20 along the Rainbow Honor Walk; the honorees, however, were LGBTQ heroes and heroines but not necessarily members of the Bay Area community itself.

That’s changing with the deliberate acknowledgement of local figures in a collaboration between builders, city planners, community members, historians, and public artist/landscape architect Jeffrey Miller, opening in late July 2017 near Folsom Street, a neighborhood of particular significance to LGBTQ history.

The project involves a large multi-use housing development that will literally “set in stone” an aspect of the city’s legacy that might otherwise fade from public memory: specifically, the “leather culture” that thrived for over two decades and still survives in this south-of-Market neighborhood.

The marker stone commemorating Ringold Alley’s significance to the leather community. Photo/ Jeffrey Miller

The project, titled ‘Leather Memoir’, invites pedestrians to view four new works of commemorative art along Ringold Alley in the SOMA-district block between 8th and 9th streets, parallel to Folsom and Harrison. Designed and fabricated by the company of San Francisco-based landscape architect Jeffrey Miller, the art is integral to a revitalized live-work area; hundreds of new residents and businesses will be among the first to appreciate it well before it is added to the City’s “alternative culture” tours.

It’s a big step toward broader inclusion of ‘hidden’ San Francisco history. Ringold Alley was known from the 1960s through 1980s as a meeting place for people interested in “alternative” sexual practices. The LSeven redevelopment project selected Miller Company, which has designed and built many other innovative Bay Area parks, playgrounds, and other sites, for both the landscaping and art aspects. It allowed Miller to combine his professional skills to create a lasting visual statement.

“I have a long-standing interest in creating projects that reveal varied cultural histories, social alignments, industrial and workplace activities, and political movements,” Miller said. “I was excited to engage in this opportunity to create a revelatory installation focused on the history of Ringold Alley, an important epicenter of San Francisco’s leather community.”

As a social or demographic term, “leather has many meanings,” Rubin says. Initially associated with a particular group of gay men who wore black leather biker jackets and gear to emphasize gay masculinity and the practice of SM or fetishism, the term broadened over time to include straight people who partake in alternative sexual practices known as “kink.”

Rubin was a key member of the community advisory group with which Miller consulted to develop his designs. The inclusion of the leather community in the plan of a very visible downtown project, she says, is significant.

“In recent decades, a lot of energy has been put into finding ways to include installations that celebrate the legacies of laborers, of women, of ethnic and racial minorities, and more recently, of LGBTQ populations, and to make these parts of the physical landscape,” she notes.

“As far as I know, Ringold Alley is the only monument to leather history, anywhere, on a public street or sidewalk.”

The advisory group included Jim Meko, a dedicated neighborhood activist; Demetri Moshoyannis, then the Executive Director of Folsom Street Events; Paul Lord from the City Planning Department; Amir Massih from the L-7 development team; and Gayle Rubin. This core group was joined by Graylin Thornton, Mike McNamee, Bob Goldfarb, Erik Gibb and other community consultants to finalize the plan.

In addition to the landscape aspects of the development for which he was commissioned, Miller’s treatment of the Ringold Alley public art comprises four elements:

● A black granite Marker Stone mounted at Ninth and Ringold etched with a narrative written by Gayle Rubin, reproductions of a statue by Mike Caffee known as “The Leather David,” and with Chuck Arnett’s historic mural, which graced the walls of the Toolbox, a former Harrison Street bar. This mural was featured in a Life magazine article in the late 1980s as a symbol of San Francisco’s gay lifestyle.

● Twenty granite Standing Stones recycled from San Francisco curbs are polished and engraved to honor relevant community institutions, such as Taste of Leather (the first leather shop in San Francisco); Fe-Be’s (the first Leather Bar on Folsom Street); and of course, the Folsom Street Fair.

● The Standing Stones emerge through ‘Leather Flag’ markings in the pavement of new bulb-out areas along the new street alignment. San Francisco author and publisher Tony DeBlase designed the original Leather Pride flag in 1989 to represent all people of leather.

● In a rugged twist on the commemorative plaque, bronze boot prints embedded along the street’s curb honor 28 individuals who helped to create and build the leather communities of San Francisco. The design was chosen because of the significance of boots to the leather community, where they are iconic.

Unique sidewalk plaques in the form of boot prints memorialize 28 people important to San Francisco’s leather history.

The focus of this project is unique in that it brings to light the significance of the leather community, acknowledging its history and existence in the context of this diverse San Francisco neighborhood.

“I wanted the character of the installation to be a memoir in its physical form,” Miller said.

Rubin said that this is key to what this project represents.

“It is a concretization of leather pride,” she said. “And ‘leather pride’ is akin to the similar articulations of other marginal groups that are considered disreputable by the larger society but which know their own worth and are willing to assert it: hence leather pride draws on a long line of associations, which would include black pride and gay pride.”

Those who have been following the evolution of the Ringold Alley project, from the San Francisco Arts Commission to Rubin and other community consultants, have expressed approval and are anticipating the grand opening later this summer.

“I’ve been so impressed by Miller’s care to get the details right, and his ability to bring all this to fruition,” Rubin said. “This installation is part of an ongoing process toward more inclusive forms of historical accuracy and public memory.”

In the words of San Francisco writer and cultural critic Rebecca Solnit, writing in Harper’s magazine on landscape and memory, “Statues stand still; the culture moves past them.”