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To Save LGBT Spaces, Preservationists Turn To Collective Ownership Model

Could what worked for The Stud resurrect the Gangway?

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Kevin Y./Yelp

In the wake of the recent sale and closure of SF’s oldest gay bar, The Gangway, activist and LGBT history preservationist Nate Allbee wants to chart a course forward by forming a collective ownership group to recreate the Gangway at a new location. His first goal is to gather the nautically-themed bar’s treasured decor and recruit ownership stakeholders, as he and others were able to do in the case of The Stud, a longstanding gay nightclub.

“We have this model, we did the hard work with The Stud,” Allbee tells Eater SF. “We have a blueprint for this.”

A former legislative aide to Supervisor David Campos, Allbee knows a thing or two about preserving historic businesses. He helped author the city’s successful Legacy Business Registry program, for one thing. But he’s also learned how difficult preservation projects can be.

“The first bar I tried to help preserve was Esta Noche,” he recalls. The historic gay latino bar on 16th Street owed thousands in back taxes and faced imminent closure. “I raised $15,000 for them to pay the back taxes — then they paid the back taxes and sold the bar. That opened my eyes.”

The lesson there, Allbee thinks, is that community buy-in and support are crucial. The Stud effort, undertaken at the end of 2016, had plenty of it: An 18-member nightlife collective including Allbee stepped up to buy the venue, which was facing closure. While the nightclub still has to navigate a move to a new location, the model is working so far, with profits up 60 percent. “The bar’s never been more successful,” Allbee claims.

Kevin Y./Yelp

Could the same collective ownership model work for the Gangway? Allbee hopes so, and is looking for another crew to collectively helm the 1910-founded bar. The Gangway has a long gay past, raided by police in its early days and openly operating as a gay bar since the ‘60s. After so many years in business, longtime patron and former employee Coy Meza described the Gangway as“ full of relics and homages to our struggle... a living museum.”

So far, Allbee has negotiated with the bar’s new owner, who plans to remake the space, in order to retain those treasured relics and pay to keep them in storage. The Gangway is known for its entryway — the bow of a ship protrudes above its door — and its seafaring atmosphere inside.

Kevin Y./Yelp

“Every piece of the bar all is covered in weathered driftwood, it looks like you’re in the bowels of a ship,” explains Allbee. “It’s definitely worth preserving, and Sam [Young, the new owner] is waiting for us to find contractors to take it down and store it.”

From there, Allbee would like to see the Gangway rebuilt in another port. He hasn’t located a space, but hopes that the Tenderloin’s lower-than-average SF rents will make a nearby relocation possible.

On the whole, it’s a lot of effort, but to Allbee and others, spaces like the Gangway are much more than businesses. “For queer people, our crises were solved in bars ... They’re businesses, but they’re also community spaces. Now with an open, recorded history out there, we’re trying to figure out how to save them.”