Gay community, restaurateurs tussle over vacant bar space

The now vacant Eagle Tavern located at the corner of 12th and Harrison streets awaits new ownership and the possibility of becoming a historic landmark via a petition originated by the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club. Photo taken on Sept. 11, 2012. Photo by Leslie Calderon/The Guardsman.

 

By Marilyn Fernando

The Guardsman
The eerie and shuttered Eagle Tavern, once a hotbed of activity for some of San Francisco’s more alternative bar patrons, has established itself as an irreplaceable gay landmark and will soon reopen following months of protests and complaints.

Gay owners Alex Montiel and Mike Leon renewed their liquor license in late August,  and expect to officially reopen the bar under a new name, The SF Eagle, sometime around Halloween.

“I know the new owners and have seen them at community organization meetings. I’ve been in touch with them during the whole upheaval. They’re great and open to having different events,” said Glendon Hyde, a City College student and member of the Entertainment Commission.

Hyde is well known for his drag persona, Anna Conda, and is also president of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, which was a major player in the protests organized against the proposed purchase of the building by restaurateur Steve Englebrecht, who also owns Skylark Bar, and wanted to replace the bar with an upscale eatery.

Following a meeting in early April 2011, around 30 Eagle patrons protested outside the Skylark Bar on 16th Street.

When it was announced the Eagle would close later that month, a group of the Eagle’s patrons—including Castro denizens, district leaders and Hyde—began attending a series of meetings with The Historical Preservation Committee.

At a Feb. 14 Board of Supervisors meeting, Jane Kim, whose district includes SoMA, the Tenderloin and Treasure Island, commented on the debacle.

“Small businesses are a core part of what makes San Francisco the city we all have come to love,” Kim said, “They define our city and our neighborhoods. In the recent past we have lost businesses like the Eagle Tavern… How can the City protect our existing small businesses from rising rent cost while maintaining neighborhood character and protecting jobs?” Kim said.

Hyde and around a half dozen members of the Historic Preservation Commission  attended a Board of Supervisors meeting in February to defend the Eagle.

During public comment, Hyde proudly explained its historical significance and emphasized its status during the early 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Hyde used to perform at the Eagle as Anna Conda, his drag persona, which is best described as a bold, blonde, rock and roll Bride of Frankenstein creation adorned with vividly patterned costumes.

“We started a Change.org petition, wrote a letter to Supervisor Jane Kim, organized protests and came in full force to keep the Eagle on everyone’s mind,” Hyde said.

The reason for the Eagle’s impending closure was originally believed to be low attendance.

Others speculated foul pay and back rent. Hyde believes the building’s previous owners, John Gardner and Joseph Banks, could have prevented the declining attendance.

“They were resistant to change,” Hyde said. “There’s always been a loyal following on Sundays and Thursdays, but I’ve never seen a lot of new people or new events.”

Gardner and Banks own another bar on Folsom Street, Hole in the Wall Saloon. Hyde speculates their interests were invested primarily in Hole in the Wall and left very little funding for the Eagle.

Landlord John Nikitopoulos served Gardner and Banks an unlawful detainer complaint and accused them of owing him $18,000 in back rent. Nikitopoulos did not respond to The Guardsman for comment.

Since the early 1980s, the Eagle has been a popular meeting place for members of San Francisco’s leather community. The bar created a welcome space and an edgy alternative for those looking for a stiff drink and friendly conversation.

“I’ve noticed the leather community has a tighter knit sense of community,” City College Anthropology Instructor Matthew Kennedy said. “In general, bars and gay culture have been essential to one another.”

The Eagle’s exterior was once a contrast of maroon with a black roof, with one gay pride flag and one leather pride flag. An old school biker bar vibe complemented the leather clad patrons.

Old motorcycle parts hung from the walls and ceiling. Posters of past events decorated the walls.

In its 30-year history, the Eagle raised an estimated $3 million for various HIV-related non-profit organizations. The GLBT Historical Society, the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, Homobiles and St. James Infirmary are among the beneficiaries of their Sunday beer busts.

El Rio, another popular Mission District bar, has extended a helping hand to their temporarily displaced neighbors and will be hosting monthly beer busts until the Eagle gets grounded.

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