Legacy Business Registry:
The shuttering of the Lexington and other queer bars — including Esta Noche, a bar that had served San Francisco’s LGBT Latinx community for 33 years until it too closed to make room for gentrification — represented an incalculable loss to the queer community. In many ways, these bars served the same role in the LGBT rights movement as churches did for the African-American civil rights movement, acting as a safe place for queer people to congregate and share political ideas.
They were also vital to the economic health of San Francisco. Tourism has long been a leading industry in the city, and LGBT tourism makes up a significant portion. Esta Noche and the Lexington were economic drivers, part of what drew those tourists from all over the world. So Allbee began to look for ways to bulwark these spaces, integral to queer life, against S.F.’s ever soaring rents. (The city has some of the highest housing costs in the nation.) California state law forbids rent control for commercial properties, and the current structure of historic preservation only allows for the saving of tangible features like crown molding. It doesn’t protect the idea of places or the businesses inside of them.
The first step was to find a way to identify and catalog historic businesses being threatened by gentrification. To that end, Allbee met with Mike Bueller, executive director of San Francisco Heritage, who Allbee calls a “punk rock star of preservation.” Together with Supervisor David Campos they created the Legacy Business Registry — the first registry of its kind in the nation. Businesses that have served the community for at least three decades are nominated by the mayor and city supervisors. Those establishments are asked to go before San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission and Small Business Commission to make a case that they are important to the culture and history of their neighborhood. If both commissions approve them, then the business itself — not the building thay houses it — is officially recognized as a historic and cultural asset of the city of San Francisco. Perhaps most importantly, in addition to formal recognition, businesses added to the directory are also able to access a rent stabilization fund to help them weather the out-of-control S.F. real estate market.
But once you identify what’s historic and worth preserving, how do you then protect these businesses from a real estate market that has little incentive to preserve queer spaces? You have to take them out of that market system. “Not to sound Marxist,” says Allbee, “but if the capital-driven market is going to — by its very nature — close down queer spaces, then we have to operate outside of that market. So I started to look at models that do that.” The very clear and obvious model in San Francisco was co-ops.
San Francisco has a rich history of worker-owned cooperatives: from grocery stores to bakeries to the Lusty Lady (the first worker-owned and unionized strip club in the U.S., pictured above). Allbee started meeting with people from these co-ops to learn everything he could about how co-ops function. “If we had been ready we might have been able to save the Lexington. The next time one of these gay bars was going down, I was going to make sure that we were there to save it.” The opportunity to try was right around the corner.