Podcast: No Small Stories
The Compton's Transgender Cultural District
Felicia Elizondo: Gene Compton's Cafeteria … it was [the] center of the universe for us.
Honey Mahogany: If you were someone who was queer or trans, you couldn't dress in the clothing that you preferred or that you felt represented yourself at the time, except for within the Tenderloin.
[Street sounds from Compton’s Transgender Cultural District walking tour]
Honey: It was insane how many different LGBT businesses were concentrated in that small area and how much of it, you know, had over time sort of been whittled away. We realized that if nothing was done that all of that could just completely disappear.
Dan, bartender at BIIG: Almost everything's gone other than Aunt Charlie's ...
Felicia: Still there.
Aria Sa’id: The Compton’s Transgender Cultural District — we didn't know that we'd be the first legally recognized district in the world.
Shelley Caltagirone: This was definitely the community taking a lead on identifying what's significant and unique and worth protecting.
Lindsay Nieman: From the American Planning Association, I'm Lindsay Nieman, and this is No Small Stories. We visit places large and small to find the planners and nonplanners changing the game — and their neighborhoods — with creative, community-driven planning.
For our first episode, we visit San Francisco to learn about the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District. It’s the only legally recognized district of its kind in the world.
Felicia: And Sixty Six. I don't think, I think I have the address, but I think that used to be Chukker's, where the Counter Pulse is. It's where — it was a coffee shop in the '60s, where you would walk in at your own risk or it could be raided at any time. It just like — it was just a coffee shop for the queens and the hustlers and all that to [unintelligible] …
Yes, right there, it used to be gay bars here. It used to be called — it was the Peter Pan, and then it turned out to another, another, ah, gay bar. This was the Dalt Club right here. It used to be another gay bar.
Lindsay: That’s longtime San Francisco resident Felicia Elizondo. To give us a better understanding of how the history of the Tenderloin interacts with the cultural district’s present day space, she gave us a tour, pointing out the LGBTQ businesses that made up the neighborhood in the '60s and '70s. I’ll let Felicia introduce herself.
Felicia: Hi, my name is Felicia Elizondo. I'm also known as Felicia Flames. I am a — I was born July 23rd, 1946. I am a transsexual woman, had my surgery in 1974. I am an activist, [an] entertainer, a trailblazer, a Tenderloin queen, a pioneer, a legend, an icon, a diva, a 32-year survivor of AIDS, and I am a Vietnam War veteran.
Lindsay: Felicia walked me and coproducer Kelly Wilson from Turk and Taylor Streets over to Market, at the edge of the District. Along the way, she pointed out a pretty substantial parcel of land. Like so much of the city, it’s been cleared of old buildings to make way for the new. The construction fencing was covered in colorful murals, and written in all caps, the message “Tenderloin Stay Rooted” could be read from across the street.
Felicia: This one was the Old Crow. The Old Crow was a, a gay bar where the ope— the, the opening was in the, on Market Street and the, and the exit was on Turk Street. The gay men used to come from the back because they didn't want to be known that they were gay, so they would come from the back.
Lindsay: That spot will become an important player in the story later on. But now, we’ll follow Felicia up Mason Street and over to Eddy on our way back over to Taylor.
Felicia: This was the 181 Club, where Vicki Marlane, Pat Montclair, Ronnie Lynn, and a whole bunch of the queens used to perform here.
Lindsay: So Market Street down there, it has a lot of shopping on it. There's like a Nordstrom Rack, Saks Off Fifth. What was over there at the time?
Felicia: There was the, under, near the Embarcadero was Headhunters, was a coffee shop. And there was another bar called … it was, uh, um, Woolworth's. On the corner of Powell and Market, where the trolley car turns. I think it's now an Old Navy or something like that. This Woolworth's was the place to go to get makeup, hair, all that stuff. The queens used to get all their feminine stuff there.
Lindsay: So how do you feel walking around and seeing how much has changed?
Felicia: Sad, but that's life. You know, I mean, I can't do nothing about it because it's already done. But to, to, to walk around and to tell my story and to educate people is really good for me because it's, it's part of me. You know, we were innocent kids looking for something that we didn't know nothing about. All we know is that we were feeling a certain way, and we were feeling feminine and sissy and joto and whatever they call us. But ... it was —
Kelly Wilson: What does joto translate to?
Felicia: “Queer.” [laughs]
Lindsay: Do you, do you know a lot of your friends, a lot of people that were forced out because they couldn't afford to stay in this area?
Felicia: No, this was the cheapest place we could get.
Lindsay: It's starting to get a little bit more expensive, right?
Felicia: Oh, now it is, now it is. Now it is.
[music, street noise]
Lindsay: Felicia’s walking tour covered most of the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District, which now accounts for six of the Tenderloin’s 33 city blocks. According to a 2018 report from the San Francisco Planning Department, the Tenderloin is home to 28,220 people. That’s a little more than 3 percent of the city’s population. So, geographically, it’s small, but it’s densely populated. And 30 percent of its current residents are at or below the poverty line, which is more than double the figure for the rest of San Francisco.
In a city where gentrification has impacted every single neighborhood, the Tenderloin makes for a more complicated case. As Felicia pointed out, much of the neighborhood has changed. And while luxury condos aren’t popping up on every corner just yet, they’re coming. According to the San Francisco Business Times, more market rate housing projects have been approved in the Tenderloin since 2015 than in the 30 years preceding combined.
That was the impetus for Compton’s. Its founders were looking to preserve the area’s LGBTQ identity and prevent its current residents from being pushed out.
Aria: So my name is Aria Sa’id, and I am a co-founder of the Compton's Transgender Cultural District and I serve as the district executive director. I got involved in the very, very beginning. I was actually the first trans person involved in creating the district.
Lindsay: Along with Aria, Honey Mahogany was one of the cofounders of Compton’s. She currently works as a legislative aide to Supervisor Matt Haney and also serves as a sitting member of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee.
Honey: We're seeing how much businesses were being impacted by this gentrification and also seeing how many people who were cultural leaders and artists were being displaced.
Lindsay: I'll be honest, I was a little starstruck talking to Honey. She was on Season 5 of RuPaul's Drag Race, and she performs drag all around San Francisco. That means she has an intimate understanding of why saving LGBTQ businesses, especially nightlife, is so important.
Honey: Queer bars are important because of this institution of chosen families, but they're also credibly important as creators of culture, purveyors of culture, specifically when you think about the LGBT community, you think of things like drag shows. And, you know, drag queens I think are the storytellers of the LGBT community and help to pass on traditions, whether it be, you know, from drag mother to drag daughter or from queen to audience member. And also those performances oftentimes help to tell the relevant stories of the era. And, you know, I think especially in San Francisco, bars have really helped to form and shape the culture of the queer community.
Lindsay: One of the bars Honey has performed at is the Stud, a historic LGBTQ bar that was at risk of closing when its rent tripled in 2016. In response, Honey and a group of activists formed a cooperative, called the Stud Collective, and bought the business. They were investing not just in a name and a liquor license, but in a cultural touchstone of San Francisco’s LGBTQ scene, one that had been operating since 1966.
Honey: This issue of gentrification and loss of space was much bigger than just, you know, LGBT businesses, but also really, really, truly, like, if we were going to effect real change, we had to prevent the communities who support these businesses from being displaced, and also, you know, it's not all just about business, it's also about saving people's lives, right, so. And, and keeping the cultural integrity of neighborhoods.
Lindsay: The San Francisco Planning Department was also concerned about the integrity of its neighborhoods, specifically within an LGBTQ context. Earlier in 2016, the department had published its Citywide Historic Context Statement for LGBTQ History in San Francisco.
Honey: Which was this really in-depth document that talked about all the historical assets related to the LGBT community in San Francisco. And the amount of assets that were located specifically in the Tenderloin were just, you know, it was astronomical.
Lindsay: The document outlines how the Tenderloin became an important site for the transgender community. On page 204, Donna J. Graves & Shayne E. Watson write, quote, “For decades, drag queens and transgender men and women were highly discriminated against, even within the larger queer communities. ... [They] had very little support from homophile organizations, which often drew a hard line between themselves and anyone who fell outside of the gay/lesbian binary. In San Francisco, transgender men were largely invisible, and transgender women were welcome only to a limited degree in the Tenderloin, where many of them lived in cheap SRO hotels and made a living as sex workers on the streets,” end quote. By the 1960s, the Tenderloin had cemented its status as a vice district, but also one that was inextricably linked with the LGBT community.
[Gay San Francisco soundbite]: “Every great city of the world seems to have an area given over to the fleshly needs of men. In San Francisco this area is called the Tenderloin. It is a marketplace of vice, degradation, and human misery …
“The city’s downtown Tenderloin district is the homeground of the always visible segment of the city’s homosexuals and transvestites. The drag queens are here at Turk and Taylor. So frequent were the fights between screaming queens in the 2 to 3 a.m. period that police, even in permissive San Francisco, had had enough, and asked an all-night cafeteria to close by midnight.”
Lindsay: Those strongly worded excerpts come from a 1970 film called Gay San Francisco, by Jonathan Price and Ed Muckerman. Portions of it are available online, but we first learned about it after watching the 2005 documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, by Susan Stryker and Victor I. Silverman. The filmmakers talked with local transgender women about what the climate of the Tenderloin was like during the 1960s. Here’s Suzan Cooke:
[Screaming Queens soundbite] Suzan Cooke: “Police would give the people who were of indeterminate gender the message that they belonged pretty much in the Tenderloin, which at the time was kind of a gay ghetto, a very slummy gay ghetto.”
Lindsay: In the 90s, during a search of the GLBT Historical Society’s archives in San Francisco, Susan Stryker discovered an article from a local paper describing an unprecendented event: transgender people rising up against police harassment. It happened at a Tenderloin diner called Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, or Compton’s.
Honey: It was a place where people were pretty tolerant of trans or gender nonconforming folk. And, you know, you would go there to check in with your girlfriend to see how she was doing, to hear about, you know, what was going on in her life. So in many ways it became sort of the living room of the Tenderloin, especially for this community. And there was, I guess, a fateful night in 1966 when a police officer came in to Compton's Cafeteria and decided to rough up some of the patrons. And one of the queens who was there decided that she wasn't going to take it anymore and she decided to throw her coffee in his face. And that started a huge brawl, which turned into a riot that lasted for three days. And it was actually the first-ever documented collective uprising of LGBT folks in the country. Three years before Stonewall.
Lindsay: Two commemorative sidewalk plaques at Turk and Taylor Streets mark the spot where the riot occurred. Felicia read one of them during our walk around the district.
Felicia: "One August evening in 1966, transgender [women] and gay men banded together to fight back against oppression after a police officer harassed one of them at Gene Compton's Cafeteria. This confrontation was the first known full-scale riot for ... transgender ... and gay rights in ... U.S. history. It galvanized the community, prompting new public policies and social services that improve the lives of local transgender people."
Lindsay: The San Francisco Planning Department recognized the riot’s significance in the LGBTQ Historic Context Statement. A lot of the bars and businesses Felicia showed us during our walk were identified in the document too — but as we heard earlier, most of them aren’t there anymore.
Speaking of which, remember that plot of land that Felicia walked us past earlier? Here’s where it re-enters the story.
Honey: Very specifically there was this development on the 900 block of Market. The developer was Group i. And they, their projected site actually contained [four] different historical landmarks referred to in the [Historic] Context Statement.
Shelley: The department was responsible for reviewing the project, for compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA]. As part of that, we reviewed whether or not there is a cultural resource here. And, and if so, how it was going to be impacted by the project.
Lindsay: That’s Shelley Caltagirone, a senior planner at the San Francisco Planning Department who specializes in historic preservation. She’s talking about a proposed development called 950-974 Market Street, which is less than a block from where the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot happened. Group i was proposing a 12-story, mixed-use building with 242 dwelling units, a 232-room hotel, underground parking, and ground-floor retail space.
Shelley: Because we had the LGBT Historic Context Statement almost complete at that point, we were able to rely on a lot of rich information about the neighborhood, and we determined that because of the relative density of historic businesses and events and people associated with the LGBT community and specifically with the transgender community in San Francisco, that this location could potentially qualify as an eligible historic district.
Lindsay: The team’s research specifically highlighted the Old Crow, a bar that operated from about 1935 till 1980 at 962 Market Street. On July 6, 2016, the San Francisco Planning Department published a document concluding that the development would not have a significant impact on the environment and could move forward without a full environmental review. While the site’s historic worth was recognized, the city determined that the building had not retained enough of its original structure to qualify as a historic post-Prohibition LGBTQ bar. That meant it wouldn’t receive protection under the California Register of Historic Resources.
Shelley: So we, we did find there was a historic resource present and then made a finding that the project would not cause a significant adverse impact to the district. The project would propose demolition of the site and these four buildings. However the district that we had identified was quite large, and therefore we found that even without these buildings, the district still retained enough integrity to tell its historical significance. And therefore per our CEQA regulations, it would not constitute a significant adverse impact.
Lindsay: But the community saw things differently.
Honey: We really saw that as sort of our galvanizing moment. It was a moment that really allowed us to say, hey, if someone needs to speak on behalf of the community, you know, queer people are here. Trans people are here. And our history is important and needs to be acknowledged.
Lindsay: Led by Brian Basinger of the Q Foundation, the group filed an appeal, and on November 17, 2016, a Planning Commission hearing was held that lasted almost nine hours, according to news organization Hoodline. The activists made their case for why the buildings on that storied stretch of Market Street needed to be recognized and sustained.
Aria: LGBT history is hard to find and hard to document but that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. And I think typically developers are not looking for that history especially. And so that was what we were pushing for, is that not just the acknowledgment from the developer and the city about the presence of transgender people in the neighborhood, but also encouraging the city planning department, the federal government, and real estate developers and what have you to look at specific areas of the city, or cities, that they're in and say, "How, what, what history exists in this neighborhood for transgender people? What history exists for gay people? What history exists for Native American people or for black people in this particular neighborhood?" And finding the historical value from each lens.
Lindsay: Ultimately the Planning Commission voted to deny the group’s appeal and approve the project. But by that point, the group was deep in negotiations with the developer themselves. Eventually, the two sides were able to reach a consensus over what they envisioned for that area of the Tenderloin. Honey recalls the mindset the group had during the negotiations.
Honey: If you are going to, you know, create a development that is going to not only displace people who actually live in this neighborhood but also erase the history of that neighborhood, then you need to provide some sort of mitigation to help us combat that displacement.
Lindsay: In fact, the negotiations concluded with the developer promising the group $300,000 to start a stabilization fund establishing the cultural district. Jane Kim, the [District 6] Supervisor at the time, introduced the legislation required to establish the district on January 31, 2017. It passed less than five months later on June 13. The Compton’s Transgender Cultural District had become a reality.
Lindsay: So how did you make this work, how did you get them in the room?
Aria: We were sort of a tight knit coalition of advocates, with me having lived in the Tenderloin and having that lived experience and with others being in solidarity with the lives and experiences and the history of trans people living in the area, I think, is what really carried us and gave us the momentum that we needed, that even when we heard no, which we did. And sort of constant negotiation with Supervisor Jane Kim's office and the real estate developer at the time, we still persisted because we had multiple goals, I think, to achieve, and we weren't — we were inflexible in that something needed to be, something needed to be given to the trans community in some way. I think, in addition to that, we also had some history on our side. And so we had access to the federal recognition from President Obama for Stonewall [that] had been released simultaneously while we were working on this. And I think that boosted the legitimacy of our claim, that if the federal government was acknowledging an event that transformed American history for gay, lesbian, and transgender people, that the city should also be acknowledging the historical event that we had which predated the Stonewall Riot, which is the Compton's Cafeteria Riot in August of 1966.
Lindsay: According to Shelley, this sort of activism was unprecedented.
Shelley: This was definitely the community taking a lead on identifying what's significant and unique and worth protecting in their neighborhood and, and really leading the conversation with their elected officials and with the city's decision makers around this project. And I think the — by naming their district and bringing visibility to their history and the historical significance of this place, they were really able to, I think, effect quite a bit of change in the way that the city saw the, their place, their home, and I think they were able to set an expectation that the community would be involved in future decisions about, about their neighborhood.
Lindsay: We’ll be right back.
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Honey: So once the, once the resolution was passed and Compton's was created, our next effort was really to, well, we, we also continued negotiating with other developers, but really creating a, an ordinance so that the resolutions actually had teeth so that this status as a cultural district actually meant something. And the creation of the cultural district ordinance by Supervisor Hillary Ronen really helped codify how the city supports cultural districts, because before, again, it was just sort of like a, a nominal thing. It was something that was a piece of paper that said yes, this, this thing exists, but it was really ambiguous as to what that thing was and what the city's role in supporting that thing was. And the cultural district ordinance actually very clearly outlined how the city would support cultural districts and why it was so important to create them and preserve these neighborhoods and these communities.
Lindsay: The legislation was created by Supervisor Hillary Ronen of District 9, and introduced with seven other supervisors, including Jane Kim, on October 24, 2017. It argues that the city as a whole benefits from the diversity of its neighborhoods, but when the people who make those neighborhoods what they are get forced out due to systemic inequality, the city suffers. Along with Compton’s, four other existing cultural districts were mentioned in the legislation: Japantown; Calle 24 (veinticuatro); SoMa Pilipinas; and the Leather and LGBTQ District.
Honey: I think Calle 24 and SoMa Pilipinas were relatively new and Compton's was just really up and coming. We were sort of like energized to think like, hey, like, this is actually our chance to sort of like make some real change and also save our communities, right.
Lindsay: To get an insider's perspective on the cultural district program, we visited City Hall, which isn’t far from the Compton’s.
Carolina: So I'm Carolina Morales and I'm the legislative director for Supervisor Hilary Ronen here in San Francisco. She represents District 9, which is one of the 11 San Francisco supervisorial districts. We oversee the Mission neighborhood, Bernal Heights, and the Portola.
Lindsay: According to Carolina, the city’s formalization of the cultural district program is vital to its success.
Carolina: We wanted to make sure that regardless of political changes that it was an institutionalized concept and that we really were codifying it as part of the city's investments, that cultural districts are a key community stabilization tool, you know, to fight displacement and to fight exclusion.
Lindsay: The cultural districts are a powerful form of community engagement, Carolina says.
Carolina: It feels so large, right, when you are in your neighborhood where you grew up and yet, you know, you know, there [are] all these houses being flipped, your neighbors are leaving, your — the businesses where you used to shop are not there anymore. How do you even respond to this? What do you start to do, right, if you're just an average resident in your neighborhood? And having the Cultural District really gets people excited about, "I can get a voice, I can go to meetings and know what's going on, know that everything's going to get broken down, and I can have my voice added to the table."
Lindsay: She says it demystifies the process of city government for many residents. The cultural district ordinance requires a handful of city departments to support the administrative process, which Shelley calls an “interagency effort.” The departments include Public Works, the Arts Commission, and of course the Planning Department.
Carolina: The Office of Workforce Development, many people are like, "What is that? How does that have anything to do with me?" Right? And I think cultural districts are a good entry point for all of these departments to, to have more interaction with community members and residents and small business owners so that they can translate their, their work into reality.
Lindsay: All of this work has spurred the planning department to change its approach — and for the better. Before Compton’s, state and local regulatory frameworks weren’t really built to identify, support, and maintain this kind of living heritage. But now?
Shelley: We're in the process of developing a methodology that would result in better information gathering so that we, we have, we have more data to analyze and about the social history of a place. And we're also looking at how we engage with living communities about their history and realizing that that has been really a missing piece of the research that traditionally goes into historic resource survey work. Especially when we're doing work in communities have been marginalized or discriminated against by society, we know that we're dealing with histories that are less likely to be in the written record. And so we, we need to learn ways to access the, an oral history in a way that is not currently being done. We really think that it's important work and that by developing a targeted methodology to go after this, what we often call the intangible side of history, that will result in more representative collection of landmarks and protected places.
Lindsay: The cultural district ordinance went into effect on May 30, 2018. It lays out a regimented process for establishing a new district; it also identifies how funds should be handled within the city’s coffers, with the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development taking the lead on managing those assets. The districts got a boost when Prop. E passed in December of 2018. San Francisco residents overwhelmingly voted for the ballot measure, which reallocated 1.5% of the base hotel tax to arts and culture. A projected $3 million per year would be split between the cultural districts. According to Carolina and Shelley, the creation of a cultural district starts with the community. The city wants it to be an equitable, community-driven program — but how is that working out so far?
Aria: Initially no, it definitely was not an equitable process. And I feel like if you didn't know sort of the legislation and the systems at play, especially with the community benefit process ... Yeah, I think it's important to be explicit about what exactly equity is. Because I think it keeps being redefined as is convenient for whatever institution is saying it. And so in order to create an equitable space, the baseline knowledge is that the room should not even look like you. And if it does just look like you, you need to keep going back and doing recruitment. And that is something that I definitely am hoping to hold San Francisco, the city itself, accountable. Because there's still a lot of work that needs to be done and ensuring that, that the community is actually represented in all efforts, with city planning in particular.
Lindsay: According to Shelley, the Planning Department is really putting the focus on equity, both before a district is officially recognized and after, when the work of the district ramps up.
Shelley: The program is set up so that the city agencies start getting involved once an ordinance has already been passed. But we understand that working up to creating an ordinance to recognize your district and getting the political support and the community support to do that is a, is a very big lift.
Lindsay: The run-up to the passing of the legislation may, to a degree, serve as a testing ground for how strong the organizers are as leaders, Shelley says.
Shelley: That's not to say that we don't want to be helpful to communities and we understand that there are some communities that, that have more political power and are more capable of achieving that initial step and that others are under more duress or more marginalized for various reasons, and, and the equitable approach may be to provide more support to those more marginalized communities. How we do that I think is something we still need to think carefully about. We don't — this program was never intended to be a top-down program where we go out looking for districts to designate. The, the thought was that cultural groups would come to us and, and seek recognition, and then we would work with them to improve their communities.
Lindsay: So, the short answer to the big equity question? It’s complicated. But, as the program’s legislation makes clear, the Planning Department isn’t the only department responsible for facilitating all the work of a district, which Shelley says is actually a huge strength of the program. All the city agencies bring their skills and assets together, and the result is more effective, robust offerings that district leaders can take advantage of. Shelley also says that, when it comes to the work of serving existing districts in the most equitable way possible, the city is actively reviewing its approach and involvement.
Shelley: We're in a yearlong process now of developing an action plan to, once we've analyzed our current systems, to, to start making changes to create a more equitable system. But it's, it's very much at the top of our minds right now about how we, how do we share information and how we ensure that we're hearing from all parts of the community, not just the folks that have access to land-use lawyers and, or access to the leisure time to come to public hearings in the middle of the day.
Lindsay: The cultural districts share a couple common goals: to stop displacement and celebrate their history. We wondered, how are those goals taking shape in Compton's? After all the tireless work Honey, Aria, Felicia, and many others have done to honor transgender history in the Tenderloin, what’s happening now, and what’s on the horizon for the district and the people who live there?
Aria: The cultural district is really trying to be strategic about finding ways to gain affordable housing opportunities that fit the unique needs of the transgender community, and in particular our most marginalized and disenfranchised, uh, members of the trans community, which tend to be black transgender women. And so with that reality, black trans woman in San Francisco are living in extreme and abject poverty, with multiple barriers towards income enhancement, self-sufficiency, stable income, and stable housing.
Lindsay: Transgender people face discrimination in all aspects of life. And the statistics on violence against the trans community are particularly disturbing. According to a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, in 2017, 52 people were targets of LGBTQ violence and died as a result. More than half of those people were transgender or gender nonconforming, and 71% were people of color. This marks a steady five-year increase in recorded murders of transgender women of color.
When it comes to issues of housing and homelessness, 29% of the transgender population in the U.S. was living in poverty in 2015, and one in five experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. As APA’s Planning magazine recently reported, no federal laws explicitly make discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity illegal. While 21 states, including California, do outlaw housing discrimination based on gender identity, it still happens. People just find ways around the law.
Aria: What I am definitely concerned with is, how is it for trans people when they're actually applying for an apartment, because trans people still get denied. And the defense of a landlord will be, “Oh, we found someone that made more money and fit the financial requirements for the housing,” or you know, what have you. Especially for independent landlords is when we see that happen the most. And then now in San Francisco, housing is even trickier because most people are living in nontraditional housing, so they're living in roommate situations in a house. And that is all determined that the person that lives there and who they want to live there.
Lindsay: Well, so, how does the district plan to address those issues?
Aria: My dream and the dream of the cofounders is definitely to find as many housing resources as possible for trans people. So there is housing that is going to be built, and we're working with that developer now to see how we might be able to create like a lifetime master lease of a specific set of units — I think they're going to be studio units — and then be able to regularly sort of lease them to [the] trans community in a way that's more affordable and appropriate for the economic sort of status of trans people in the Tenderloin.
Lindsay: According to Aria and Honey, Compton's is also dedicated to supporting LGBTQ-owned businesses and providing opportunities and job training for transgender workers.
Honey: I think an important part of Compton's is the workforce development aspect or the economic development aspect. We want to make sure that the LGBT businesses that are there, you know, continue to thrive. And also what I would really like to see and what many of our community members would like to see is the opportunity for small business development and for trans folks to engage in entrepreneurial activities. You know, starting their own businesses, taking ownership of spaces. You know, we don't have that in San Francisco. Oftentimes trans folks just aren't given the resources, aren't given the benefit of the doubt, are discriminated against at banks. I mean, there's so many ways in which trans people are sort of like discriminated against or oftentimes have to face hurdles that other people don't have to face. And so we want to make sure that, that the Compton's District removes as many of those hurdles as possible and fosters the economic empowerment of the community.
Lindsay: In order to do that, the district has a few plans in the works. Here’s Aria.
Aria: One thing that I'm excited about and I am currently pitching to sort of corporate-giving programs is an idea of cultivating as much transgender business ownership in the neighborhood as possible. And we have some ideas that we're working out now where one priority that I have and that members of the community really would like to see is a transgender people-of-color owned cannabis club. Especially with cannabis being sort of legalized in the state of California, what we're seeing now is that more cannabis clubs are being opened by white people and yet the history of incarceration and sort of the creation of what we know as the War on Drugs intentionally targeted black people who were selling and distributing cannabis as part of street economy and survival work. So we really want to sort of work towards making sure that the cannabis industry is equitable toward people of color and in particular trans people of color, being able to own and operate a cannabis business in the district. You know it would be radical for many, many reasons.
Another dream that we are trying to build out is providing a way to support aspiring transgender entrepreneurs. And I say that with a footnote of, the reality is that transgender people across the country experience, as many people know, the highest rates of unemployment and economic marginalization than any other community in the United States. And so something that we'd like to do is really create pipelines of business ownership and interest-free loan programs and whatnot to support people who are interested in piloting businesses or creating their own.
Of course in real time something that we're working on is building a peer-led job-training program for trans people. And in January we'll be opening our community center within the district. And in the community center we'll also have a coffee kiosk. And so we're really excited to create an on-the-job training program for trans people with multiple barriers to traditional employment so that they can sort of be streamlined into being able to earn income as soon as possible while also learning transferable job skills and sort of starting working within the cultural district and then being able to place them in partnership with local tech companies and retail businesses for longer-term job and income stability.
Lindsay: That all sounds incredible, right? Well, it hasn’t been easy. Since the ordinance passed two years ago, Aria and the founders have been busy behind the scenes building partnerships and negotiating with developers. But that kind of work isn't always visible, at least not right away. Until recently, you couldn't always tell that you were in a cultural district when you were walking around Compton's. Placemaking efforts have been slow to come. What's the roadblock there? Aria can sum it up in one word.
Aria: Bureaucracy, I can talk about real time. I really wanted to have all the crosswalks painted in the trans flag colors. And we had been working on it tirelessly for months with the city. And then we found out that all of those crosswalk requests were denied because of pending construction happening in the area. And something that's important to note is that the city has largely ignored the Tenderloin for the last 25 years. And I think to hear the city be like, "Oh no, there's going to be sewer replacement in 2022." Or, "Oh, we can't do crosswalks there because of construction that'll be happening to do this in 2021." And all these sort of longer-term projects is really frustrating because part of me is like, well, there's always going to be something.
Lindsay: The crosswalks haven’t been painted just yet, but at the beginning of the summer, the district scored a different kind of win. More than 50 streetlights around the six-block district were painted with the trans flag colors, in a way that looks like it’s wrapping around the middle of each pole. Eight signs reading “Compton’s Transgender Cultural District” were also put up at the entry points into the district. The effort happened just in time for Pride Month and the city’s Trans March, which happened on June 28th.
The signs and banners joined two signs marking honorary streets that were already in place: one says “Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Way,” and the other, “Vicki Mar Lane,” is a play on the name of the late transgender pioneer and drag performer Vicki Marlane, also known as the Lady with the Liquid Spine. Felicia was instrumental in making both of those happen.
Felicia: My, my, my best friend, Vicki Marlane, she died July 15th, no, July 4th of 2011. And I was telling her, you’re going to be remembered. So I got a committee going and Supervisor Jane Kim, who was the supervisor at the time, helped me add “Vicki Mar Lane” to the 100 block of Turk Street.
Lindsay: In 2014, the Board of Supervisors approved the designation. Then, in 2016, the 100 block of Taylor Street was renamed.
Felicia: A couple years later, I decided that I want Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Way, which was the original Compton’s Cafeteria address, to be well known. So they put a plaque there, two plaques there. And I made sure that Vicki Marlane’s name would be forever known, and Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Way was going to, always going to be a remembrance of all the people that walked through those doors, to make sure that they would never be forgotten. That they were beaten, raped, thrown in jail, murdered for who we were.
Lindsay: In creating this district, Aria, Honey, and the other cofounders are encouraging pride of place in a neighborhood where so many people for so many years tried to take that away.
Aria: As a black trans woman who has lived in the Tenderloin — and I was formerly homeless, I was homeless in the Tenderloin — there's a lot of stigma in being transgender first of all, just living your life authentically. But there's also an intense stigma in living in the Tenderloin, both as a trans person and as a poor person. So part of our work is not just creating pride for trans people and celebrating the presence of trans people in the Tenderloin but also creating pride for overall Tenderloin residents in loving and living in the neighborhood that they do live in and have roots in. And really doing efforts that support and are created for the people that live here currently. And I think oftentimes when we think of urban planning and we start doing things like expanding sidewalks and putting in trees, a lot of that is designed — I mean, for me, I guess I can use my own story, but like coming from the 'hood, whenever you see that happen, it's because white people are moving in. It's not designed for the people that currently live there. And so what does it look like for us as a group to ensure that we're creating placemaking and urban beautification projects in the future that support the people that actually live here and not doing it as a way to sort of displace the people that live here, with hopes of new crops of residents coming in, but rather saying, you know, you deserve to live in a nice neighborhood just like anyone else, and you've lived here and we're just beautifying it for the folks that already are here.
Aria: Being executive director of this effort and this mission just feels so much bigger than me. And it's, I think the first time in my life and in my career that I feel so aligned to the purpose. And I'm just driven every day to really create a space that I wish would have existed when I lived in the Tenderloin and when I was homeless in San Francisco.
Honey: You know, I think that being a black, gender-nonconforming person in the Tenderloin, I actually feel at home. People say hello and good morning, and you know, use she/her pronouns with me without even questioning or thinking about it, and refer to me as "sister" and things like that, where I don't really find that anywhere else in San Francisco.
Honey: For black trans folks, because they're oftentimes negotiating multiple levels of oppression and intersectionality, having spaces that specifically celebrate them, or where that they can feel safe and accepted and celebrated is really important. And I think that the Compton's transgender cultural district provides that opportunity and is something really unique.
Lindsay: It is the only transgender cultural district in the world — at least right now. Its creators and the city of San Francisco are hoping other places and planners will be inspired to replicate their model.
Honey: What I think is really notable and is the way in which it's really empowered the local community and made them feel like finally they're being recognized, that they have a seat at the table, and that there is a reason for them to participate, because I feel like, time and time again, people come to the table thinking that they have a voice and oftentimes they are let known very clearly that their voice doesn't matter. And Compton's Transgender Cultural District actually has finally provided them a space where they can where their opinions are taken seriously and where their, their, their knowledge is actually utilized in the creation of, you know, city policy and also in, when, when thinking about the planning of an area, right?
I think also just in terms of sort of a national and even global perspective, I think that this is a historic moment. And it's also inspired people to sort of really rethink how they look at cultural preservation or historic preservation. And also again sort of reaffirmed the value of trans and gender nonconforming people. In the past, I think that LGBT has always been sort of like seen as very cis gendered, very — mostly male, and very white. And so this kind of spins all of that on its head in that, like, it's put trans women of color at the forefront and at the center. And I think that that you know hopefully will continue to inspire people all across the globe to do the same.
Lindsay: Before Felicia showed us around the district, we met her at the building where Gene Compton’s Cafeteria once was. It’s now the Taylor Street Center, a transitional housing facility. Together we checked in at the front desk and Felicia led us through the administration area to a room with a few long tables and chairs. If we had been here more than half a century ago, we would have been settling into a booth with a cup of coffee, maybe ordering a slice of pie.
Lindsay: What kind of memories do you have when you walk in this room?
Felicia: Walking, walking in here, where we used to walk in that thing, and we used to [Felicia strutting] parade. [laughs] Because we know that we — 24 hours a day there was somebody here that we knew, somebody needed to be a friend, because a lot of the kids that came from all over San Francisco, it wasn't in the news. It wasn't on TV. It wasn't in the radio. It was word of mouth that people came. And it was people, kids that were thrown out because they were queer, that they were sissies, and they would just beat up and so worn out that their families didn't want them, so, word of mouth. It wasn't on any television or thing. It was word of mouth that people came here and congregated here at Compton's, there was — and it was the only place that would allow us to rent rooms for one night or two nights or for how long we had money. But you know something you always knew when you came in that there was something, somebody that you knew, somebody that that would, you were, give you a ... lending hand. Just in case you didn't have any money for rent, they would put you up for one night, you go out that night, get your rent money, and go on with your life.
Lindsay: So this was a place of family for you.
Felicia: Yeah, oh, it was a, because we knew everybody here. You know? It wasn't a, a big crowd because it was revolving doors. People came in and out. It was just, they came, they left, they came. They didn't — if they liked it they stayed. If they didn't, they went on their own way.
Lindsay: If you were sitting at Compton's Cafeteria right now, what would you order, what would you be talking about, what would it be like?
Felicia: In the morning or in the afternoon?
Lindsay: When did you most often go in?
Felicia: 2:00 in the morning after the bars close.
Felicia: Then [there'd be] ham and eggs and eggs and toast and coffee.
Lindsay: And you're sitting with your friends, what are you talking about, how do you feel?
Felicia: Happy, that I found a community that would accept me without no questions. Happy that, although we had to suffer to make a living, but we were all in the same boat. Nobody was any better than anybody else. We were all equal.
Lindsay: No Small Stories is a collaboration between the APA Podcast and Planning magazine, the flagship publication of APA. It was created by Kelly Wilson and me, Lindsay Nieman. Audio mix by Kelly Wilson. Special thanks to Susan Stryker and Victor I. Silverman for the use of audio from their 2005 documentary, Screaming Queens. Find out more about the film at screamingqueensmovie.com.
To learn more about Compton’s Transgender Cultural District, visit transgenderdistrictsf.com.
We also recommend checking out the LGBTQ Historic Context Statement by the San Francisco Planning Department. Yeah, it’s more than 400 pages long, but it’s fascinating to dip into.
If you have an idea for an episode of No Small Stories, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can email email@example.com to let us know how we’re doing, too. To listen to other episodes from APA’s podcast, visit planning.org/podcast, or find us on your favorite podcast app.
In 2017, San Francisco designated six blocks of the Tenderloin neighborhood as the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District. In the first episode of APA’s podcast series No Small Stories, host Lindsay Nieman and producer Kelly Wilson visit the area to learn about how it’s fighting gentrification and displacement, encouraging the city to rethink its approach to historical preservation, and creating a safe, economically productive home for the city’s transgender community.
In their own words, district cofounders Aria Sa’id and Honey Mahogany describe the challenges and successes in launching the world’s first ever transgender cultural district. Listeners also hear from transgender activist Felicia Elizondo, San Francisco Planning Department senior planner Shelley Caltagirone, and Carolina Morales, legislative director to Supervisor Hillary Ronen. Each person's perspective adds critical context and depth to a fascinating planning story.