Excerpt from Damon Scott's The City Aroused

Read an excerpt from The City Aroused by Damon Scott

Damon Scott’s book The City Aroused is a lively history of urban development and its influence on queer political identity in postwar San Francisco. By reconstructing the planning and queer history of waterfront drinking establishments, Scott shows that urban renewal was a catalyst for community organizing among racially diverse operators and patrons with far-reaching implications for the national gay rights movement.

Read an excerpt from the introduction of the book below! We’re pleased to feature the book during the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in the city of Scott’s study: San Francisco! We’re offering 30% off with free domestic shipping for featured books! Apply the discount code UTXAHA during checkout on our website to get your copy of The City Aroused, which officially publishes on January 2, 2024!

Praise for The City Aroused

Damon Scott tells a brilliant, fresh story about the origins of queer community organizing. When the post-war maritime economy and 1950s Lavender Scare transformed San Francisco’s waterfront, a racially diverse network of gay, transgender, and leather entrepreneurs built a queer nightlife district. That emergent geography became the target of the city’s redevelopment authority evictions. Scott’s original research and lively account reveal how the 1960s toolkit of urban renewal real estate strategies galvanized the queer political organizing that redefined San Francisco and the nation.

Alison Isenberg, Princeton University, author of Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay

In The City Aroused, Damon Scott skillfully documents the experiences of those who lived through state-backed efforts to contain and then erase gay social life in mid-twentieth century San Francisco. Against the backdrop of national trends—in which ambitious redevelopment projects decimated the spaces occupied by marginalized communities in the name of modernization—Scott’s story provides a sharp-eyed spatial analysis of both queer community formation and normative power structures and policy at work in urban America. While the gay spaces of the San Francisco waterfront ultimately fell prey to the wrecking balls of urban renewal in the 1960s, Scott shows that the experience galvanized a newly politicalized queer community that became an important player in subsequent decades.

Georgina Hickey, University of Michigan–Dearborn, author of Breaking the Gender Code: Women and Urban Public Space in the Twentieth-Century United States

Edited excerpt from The City Aroused

Exodus on the Eve of Destruction

On the evening of April 18, 1962, George Bauman, a gay bar operator evicted to make way for construction on the Embarcadero Freeway, proclaimed: “Jack’s Waterfront will close its doors at midnight at 111 Embarcadero and will open its doors at 12:01 [A.M.] at 226 Embarcadero.” Determined not to leave behind any half-empty bottles as they prepared to vacate the premises, the bartenders poured stiff drinks to the large crowd of regulars and well-wishers. Half an hour before midnight, patrons began stripping the interior furnishings from the bar, removing the wall décor, the bamboo drapes, the ashtrays, and a sign above the door that read, “If you are molested here, tell the management.” Taller patrons pulled the star decals off the ceiling. Then at midnight, they all left the original Jack’s and walked the quarter-mile distance along the Embarcadero to the bar’s new, larger waterfront quarters in the former Seaboard Hotel—which they renamed the “Edgewater Hotel.” In the new location, Bauman reopened Jack’s in a space just off the ground-floor lobby and soon began renting out the refurbished hotel rooms upstairs to both permanent and transient guests.

FIGURE 0.1 Jack’s Waterfront Hangout (ca. 1958), located across from the Ferry Building, became a popular gay nightclub when George Bauman took over management in the fall of 1957. (San Francisco Redevelopment Agency Records, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.)

Jack’s had the unenviable honor of being the first of a network of waterfront gay bars to be razed as a part of San Francisco’s ambitious urban redevelopment program (see figure 0.1). As part of a national wave of downtown expansion projects designed to replace blighted districts with urban freeways, modern housing, and gleaming office towers, city authorities opted to fast-track a plan devised by corporate leaders to secure federal urban renewal funds to redevelop much of the Embarcadero waterfront and the adjacent wholesaling district. Jack’s demolition would make way for a set of new highway ramps that linked the Embarcadero Freeway to a massive new parking garage topped by a new office tower on the site of the city’s former produce market. In less than a decade, these ramps and the new urban spaces taking shape adjacent to them transformed the historic core of the city’s port operations into a modern, automobile-oriented “Golden Gateway” composed of office blocks, luxury apartment buildings, and parks. Placing blame for the bar’s destruction on the mayor, gay-newspaper publisher Guy Strait equated the decision to tear down Jack’s with paving over relics from classical antiquity (figure 0.2).1

Local law enforcement and patrons alike were aware of the relocation of Jack’s well in advance. The moving party had been advertised for weeks in a bar rag published by and for gay patrons. Strait, publisher of the Citizen’s News, San Francisco’s first newspaper “of particular interest” to gay bar patrons, characterized the closure of Jack’s as a cataclysmic loss for the city by making a series of historical parallels. He referred to the day of the move as “D-Day,” which coincided with the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed much of the city. He speculated that if the survivors of that calamity who laid a commemorative wreath that morning could have seen the parade of men clad in black leather motorcycle jackets leaving Jack’s at the end of the day, they would have died of shock.2 He called the procession of patrons laden with furnishings from the bar an “Exodus.”3 The crowd, however, did not protest the eviction, nor did the police enforce it. Instead, the bar patrons threw a party to mark the occasion. These hijinks played out not behind closed doors but publicly on the streets of San Francisco, with the police nowhere in sight.

FIGURE 0.2 The city’s first gay newspaper, the LCE News, criticized Greek American mayor George Christopher’s disregard for Jack’s Waterfront Hangout by equating the gay bar with the cultural and civic landmarks of ancient Athens. The text below the cartoon proclaims, “But this is the way that Christopher did it in San Francisco.” (LCE News, April 30, 1962, 3, microfilm, San Francisco Public Library.)

Jack’s moving party in 1962 marked the end of a relatively permissive period of queer nightlife on the waterfront. State and city officials had been directly involved in the continuing operation of Jack’s Waterfront, as a gay bar, for nearly five years. Bauman, a popular gay bartender from north of the city, took over Jack’s in the fall of 1957. At the time, the building was owned by state officials responsible for managing the port. They, along with local law enforcement and state liquor agents, were on board with the new operation. Over several years, police officers extorted $2,900 in protection money from Bauman.4 One sergeant brought his wife in for a drink and showed her the paintings of unclothed men hanging on the wall. When rumors circulated about an imminent crackdown, a local patrolman reassured Bauman that Jack’s would be spared. In 1959, the port officials sold the building to the State Division of Highways.5 In the transaction, one state agency transferred Bauman’s lease to another, which continued collecting commercial rent from the gay bar.6 By the time highway officials evicted the Jack’s crowd from a building to prepare the site for two new freeway ramps, the state agency had been the bar’s landlord for several years. Remarkably, Bauman was able to take over Jack’s, turn it into a gay bar, and keep it open for years with the support of state and local officials.

The tacit support Jack’s received grew out of shifting policing tactics and urban redevelopment objectives of local leaders during the 1950s. In the early 1950s, San Francisco’s seamen’s haunts on the waterfront became a vibrant gay cruising strip as an unintended consequence of the systematic expulsion of homosexuals from the merchant marines and naval forces up and down the West Coast. Business leaders and city officials responded by cracking down on those bars frequented by merchant marines that had growing crowds of homosexuals. After bar raids, street sweeps, and liquor license suspensions proved ineffective, local law enforcement and state liquor agents treated the waterfront as a queer containment zone, a place set aside to isolate the homosexual threat within the heteronormative metropolis.7 Turning the waterfront into a marginal vice district reserved for queer nightlife primed the area for redevelopment. Exposés of so-called hangouts for homosexuals helped make a case for declaring the waterfront blighted while also driving down the cost of a federally backed urban redevelopment proposal to raze and rebuild much of the area.

Rooted in the dialectics of society and space, The City Aroused argues that significant change in the understanding and valorization of categories of sexual difference emerged in the early 1960s in San Francisco as a response to critical changes in the urban built environment. State actors had a hand in the creation and destruction of a circuit of gay bars on the San Francisco waterfront from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. The drinking publics within these bars mounted one of the most historically significant, sustained, collective responses to multiple forms of antigay discrimination in the twentieth century. Queer waterfront hangouts, which supported a racially diverse public of gay patrons, leather men, drag performers, and transgender people, became an explicit target of urban renewal when San Francisco’s pro-growth coalition sought to replace queer land uses with heteronormative, desexualized land uses that served larger postwar urban development objectives. Urban redevelopment, however, not only physically reshaped the social and sexual terrain of the city, it brought queer San Franciscans into a collective struggle to act as a community, first to defend and then reconstitute their gathering places ahead of the bulldozer.

In looking at the historical roots of these transformations, The City Aroused interrogates how the former hangouts of working-class men in the maritime trades on the San Francisco waterfront became sites where queer drinking publics coalesced and challenged the heteronormative state in the postwar era. In the early 1950s, the transformation of these seamen’s hangouts into a circuit of gay bars was an unintended consequence of an intensive federal initiative to identify and isolate homosexuals from Pacific ports, shipping lanes, and naval facilities up and down the West Coast. By the decade’s end, these hangouts no longer functioned as informal social hubs for the city’s maritime labor force but had become a strip of gay bars and nightclubs controlled by local law enforcement and state liquor agents. To clean up other areas and put a lid on the city’s growing gay population, government officials attempted to contain queer nightlife to a margin of the city slated for urban renewal. By the early 1960s, a new network of patrons, staff, and operators of these gathering places organized collectively to challenge an onslaught of liquor licensing revocations, police crackdowns, and commercial evictions as physical destruction loomed large. Despite collective actions against persecution, the wrecking ball and bulldozer ultimately razed five gay bars to clear the ground for the Golden Gateway project and Embarcadero Freeway. Other urban rehabilitation and rebuilding projects in the immediate vicinity shuttered or destroyed related land uses, including residential hotels, bars, and restaurants, that were also part of the queer world of the waterfront.

Planning and State Power

The City Aroused argues that gay community-organizing developed on the San Francisco waterfront in the early 1960s as a collective response to urban redevelopment. The following chapters trace how the waterfront became a national epicenter of queer containment during the Lavender Scare and how gay bar operators and patrons responded when city leaders acted on plans to raze and rebuild the area. Following the expulsion of suspected homosexuals from the maritime labor force, state and local officials treated the San Francisco waterfront as a vice containment area reserved for the city’s growing queer nightlife crowds. By deploying targeted bar raids and vagrancy arrests, local law enforcement and state liquor control agents prioritized driving gay men out of the parks and established nightlife strips adjacent to the downtown shopping and business districts, namely Union Square, the Tenderloin, and North Beach.8 At the same time, seamen’s haunts on the waterfront grew increasingly queer in their patronage under a payola system involving police, state liquor agents, and bar operators. In the mid-1960s, queer containment on the waterfront unraveled when urban renewal officials dismantled property relations and demolished buildings in the area. During the planning phase of urban renewal, queer containment to the blocks slated for redevelopment both depressed property values and created an opening for queer drinking crowds to grow. Once land acquisition began, queer displacements became a catalyst for organized, collective resistance among members of a new queer counterpublic of bar operators, staff, and patrons.

Building on critiques of heteronormative government policies and programs, The City Aroused locates the workings of state-led heterosexism at the municipal level in anxieties about San Francisco’s economic future during the 1950s.9 Federal bureaucracies took aggressive steps during and after World War II to build what Margot Canady calls the “straight state” by codifying a homosexual/heterosexual binary in immigration, military, and social welfare policy.10 In the late 1940s and early 1950s, anti-communist ideologues rationalized the systematic identification and exclusion of homosexuals from positions of public trust as a national defense measure. During the Lavender Scare, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations purged thousands of so-called sexual perverts from naval forces and the maritime trades on the West Coast, declaring them national security risks vulnerable to communist influence and blackmail.11 The incorporation of homosexuals as an explicitly stigmatized category in administrative codes, statutes, and legal findings was a means of both marginalizing sex and gender “deviates” and privileging heteronormative social reproduction. By the 1950s, a heteronormative ideology of “domestic containment” framed the suburban home as a privileged sphere of sexual citizenship insulated from a perceived internal threat from racialized, queer subversives.12

During the 1950s and 1960s, urban renewal and freeway building became powerful tools championed by pro-growth coalitions in many cities to reverse declines in central city land values and tax revenues. They pushed through aggressive programs to redevelop the least desirable sections of cities across the country with large-scale land clearance and rebuilding initiatives.13 Federal urban renewal assistance enabled localities to acquire, raze, and dispose of large swaths of “blighted” urban land by underwriting the expense of land assembly and empowering local authorities to compel property owners to sell their holdings.14 To qualify for federal aid under the 1954 Housing Act, cities adopted comprehensive plans that specified the interdependence and location of proposed urban renewal projects and new urban freeway networks. Siting redevelopment schemes to facilitate direct freeway access to the central city became a common, blunt instrument for land use planning. From the perspective of pro-growth advocates, freeways helped clear blighted blocks, partition the city into community areas, segregate different land uses, and incentivize redevelopment in adjacent properties.

In delineating and prioritizing urban renewal and freeway projects, progrowth proponents in government and the private sector often slated communities of color and residential hotel districts for destruction.15 They did this by explicitly using race as an index for tagging blocks for land clearance and rebuilding.16 As a result, postwar urban renewal and highway-building projects, along with racially discriminatory real estate practices, zoning codes, deed restrictions, homeowner associations, and education policies, systematically advantaged suburbanizing white families at the expense of urban communities of color.17

Heterosexism also shaped the postwar vision and planning interventions for modernizing and revitalizing cities.18 As the Cold War came to dominate every aspect of American culture and society, suburban housing policies and built environments reinforced white, heteronormative cultural values.19 From coast to coast, city planners often deployed discourses of social order/disorder, instituted prescriptive assumptions about family and household relations, and imposed legal geographies of private and public rights over land uses, all to the detriment of queer people.20 In the case of Northern California, for instance, historian Clayton Howard shows how federal housing policies and programs fueled an exodus of heterosexual families to the suburbs. Anxious about the growing queer segment of the population, redevelopment officials and police responded by trying to clean up or demolish residential hotels and nightlife districts in an effort to lure families back to the city.21 This fits a broader pattern of sexualand gendertransgressive people and places serving as evidence of urban decline and a pretext for redevelopment.22

As these and other scholars have shown, declension narratives about sex in the city were powerful in formulating and advancing urban renewal proposals during the 1950s.23 City leaders used discourses of social disorder, physical dilapidation, functional obsolescence, economic decline, poor sanitation, negligent care, and “tax-eating” economic dependency to designate particular areas as “blighted,” a legal classification that could unlock urban renewal assistance.24 In San Francisco, pro-growth advocates drew on tropes of sexual danger near the foot of Market Street to focus public attention on their proposals to turn this area into a “beauty spot attractive to private investment” that would become the “birthplace of modern San Francisco.”25 Public exposure of queer happenings on the waterfront often coincided with drives by project boosters to secure funds or approval for urban renewal or freeway construction in the area.

What more do queer nightspots on the waterfront have to tell us about this intense period of demolition and disruption? Only recently has samesex desire—and the transactions and exchanges it arouses—been credited as a factor in shaping trajectories of postwar urban development.26 Urban redevelopment has had a particularly devastating impact by replacing queer, multiracial leisure spaces with heteronormative or desexualized land uses.27 This book adds a circuit of emergent gay bars on the San Francisco waterfront in the 1950s and 1960s to the roster of places and people displaced by postwar urban renewal.

Damon Scott is an assistant professor of geography and American studies at Miami University of Ohio.