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LGBTQ Legacy Business Spotlight: Crusin’ the Castro Walking Tours, SF Eagle Bar, El Rio

Rainbow flag above Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro, courtesy of Kathy Amendola of Crusin’ the Castro Walking Tours.

Since the start of San Francisco’s Legacy Business program, several LGBTQ-owned businesses and nonprofits focused on the LGBTQ community have won legacy business status. The program, overseen by the city’s Office of Small Business, is meant to benefit businesses and nonprofits that have operated for at least 30 years in the city and have significantly contributed to the history or identity of a particular San Francisco neighborhood or community. Businesses and nonprofits at least 20 years old that are facing a significant risk of displacement can also apply. Today, we’d like to highlight the history of three LGBTQ businesses on the Registry, all of whom are working to stay afloat during current the COVID-19 crisis.

Kathy Amendola leading a tour group in front of Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in the Castro. Photo courtesy of Kathy Amendola.
400 Castro Street

In June 2019, the San Francisco Small Business Commission unanimously approved Cruisin’ the Castro Walking Tours as the city’s first and only Legacy Business tour company. Founded in 1989 by historian Trevor Hailey (1941–2007) and now owned and operated by travel industry veteran Kathy Amendola, the company was recognized “for providing 30 consecutive years as a longstanding, community-servicing business and a valuable cultural asset to the city and county of San Francisco.”

Kathy continues Hailey’s work by offering cultural tours around the Castro, visiting historical sites that entail the past, present and future of LGBTQ civil rights in America. In addition to this, Kathy is actively involved with her community through various organizations and is an Emeritus Board Member of the Rainbow Honor Walk. Crusin’ The Castro Walking Tours is a rare and exceptional San Francisco business created and run by two passionate women across 30 years, and continues to share the many stories, cultural knowledge, and political activism across LGBTQ history in the city and beyond.

For more about the tour’s history, please see this wonderful piece in the San Francisco Bay Times. Like most businesses in the city, Kathy has struggled since the start of the COVID-19 crisis and citywide shutdown. In corresponding with her, she said that she has “had to refund and/or credit $10,000 of existing business already booked and paid. This in addition to large charters or private groups that had cancelled for the remainder of 2020 as well as independent travelers.”

To help support Kathy and Crusin’ the Castro Tours at this time, you can purchase gift certificates from their website for tours at a future date.

SF Eagle Bar, at the corner of 12th Street and Harrison St. The bar flies Leather Pride Flags out in front, a symbol of the leather subculture associated with the bar and the South of Market district where the bar is located.

398 12th Street
Date placed on Registry: April 24, 2017

San Francisco Eagle Bar, “The Eagle,” is a local bar and community gathering space in the South of Market (SOMA) neighborhood with significant ties to San Francisco’s LGBTQ community and history and the AIDS epidemic. Founded in 1981 shortly before the AIDS crisis began in San Francisco, The Eagle quickly became a cornerstone of the SOMA leather community. Original founders Bob Damron and Jay Levine created a large, open-space, leather-themed bar for those in the surrounding community to gather and socialize that would soon become embedded in San Francisco’s gay culture. It serves a wide spectrum of people, including leather enthusiasts, bikers, drag queens, and the transgender community.

Between 1981 and 1998, during the height of the AIDS crisis, The Eagle lost at least 22 employees and countless family and friends to the disease. This significant loss led bar manager Terry Thompson to raise funds to help the rapidly growing number of AIDS patients. Over an 11 year period, Thompson raised over $5 million for various AIDS charities and named it the AIDS Emergency Fund (AEF). In 1998, the bar was sold to John Gardiner and Joe Banks, owners of the Hole in the Wall Saloon on 8th Street at Folsom. The sale included the condition that the bar continue to have the name “Eagle” in it, and so it was renamed “The Eagle Tavern.” The Eagle was briefly closed between June 2011 and March 2013 because owners John Gardiner and Joe Banks directed their attention to the Hole in the Wall Saloon.

In August 2012, the business was taken over by Alex Montiel and Mike Leon, who were able to rebuild the main bar and upgrade the property entirely to be brought up to code. The Eagle reopened for business in March 2013 and the new owners have kept the spirit of the bar alive and have carried on the community work that has been the legacy of the bar for over 35 years. Some of the events that The Eagle hosts include the Sunday Beer Bust benefitting nonprofits, Thursday Night Live, featuring live local, national and international bands, and various benefits for the SF AIDS Foundation among others that have become classic fundraisers in the SOMA bar scene.

The Eagle has become a fixture in the SOMA community and remains a community-oriented bar. It contributes to the community’s history and identity through its deeply rooted history in the LGBTQ and SOMA communities, as well as through its welcoming and comforting physical space. The 1906 property in which the Eagle is located is within the identified-eligible Western SOMA Light Industrial and Residential Historic District.

The Eagle has started a GoFundMe, the SF Eagle Family Fund, to help staff who are struggling to make ends meet during the COVID crisis. Please help donate to ensure that this LGBTQ institution can reopen after the shelter-in-place.

Wizard of Oz event on El Rio’s back patio space. Courtesy of Lynne Angle at El Rio. 

3158 Mission Street
Date placed on Registry: November 13, 2017
Founded in 1978 as a Brazilian leather gay bar, El Rio is an anchor for the LGBTQ community in the Mission District. Opened by Malcom Thornley and Robert Nett, El Rio was inspired by their leather motorcycle riding lifestyle and their love for Brazil, and they wanted to create a space that combined these interests in the form of a neighborhood bar mixed with a community center. Their intent was to develop a space of inclusivity, and they opened their doors to all in the community to gather, socialize, plan events, and unite.
El Rio partners with local nonprofits and community-based organizations, and offers its space for these organizations to host benefits, fundraisers, and community events. This is in addition to its own events, which include Salsa Sundays, a biweekly event that features dancing and live salsa music from musicians throughout the Bay Area, and Mango, a monthly dance tea party for queer women of color. El Rio hosts many of these events on its outdoor patio and garden space, complete with its large lemon tree and community altar. The business’ mixed space has become an anchor for  LGBTQ communities of color and underserved communities.

Only last year, El Rio’s owner was quietly preparing to sell the building, which could have doomed the dive bar. Thankfully, the city of San Francisco stepped in with an $8.6 million purchase of the site, and then transferred ownership to affordable-housing nonprofit Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA). The $8.6 million is a loan from the SF Housing Accelerator Fund, and the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development will provide MEDA with permanent financing for the building after about $800,000 of upgrades and repairs are complete.
While El Rio has weathered the threat of closing before, they now need help in order to stay in business during the COVID crisis. The bar has started an employee GoFundMe, and is also selling gift cards. Additionally, El Rio launched a monthly subscription service with differing levels of perks, a creative way to enjoy the bar once things re-open.

For a list of legacy businesses that you can support right now, visit this link.

Legacy BusinessesSouth of MarketCastro

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