Osento, a Japanese bathhouse on Valencia Street in San Francisco, is long gone, closed now for nearly a decade. I could have used a soak, though: It was an uncommonly hot and muggy day in the city, and I’d been walking its streets for hours.
Back in the day, people looking for Osento on a similarly soupy afternoon were probably just as confounded. The women-only communal bathhouse, a frequent haunt for lesbians, didn’t have a sign out front. It was mostly known through word of mouth by its clientele, who say its founder ended a nearly three-decade run when she shuttered it in 2008 and moved north to Lake County, Calif.
Now it is a splendid Victorian dwelling, kaleidoscopic in hues of magenta, turquoise and gold. On its facade are stunning sculptured plaques of sea horses, conchs and starfish. Elaborate cast reliefs of tattooed mermaids by a San Francisco artist named Natasha Dikareva gaze ahead. While the relaxation rooms, saunas and a secluded deck for nude sunbathing are all gone, somehow the bathhouse’s spirit lives on.
When one thinks of gay San Francisco, this isn’t usually what comes to mind. But the National Park Service has started a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history initiative, mapping out dozens of hidden gems like Osento in San Francisco and other places with unacknowledged ties to gay culture. The study includes more than 500 sites nominated by community groups and preservationists.
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I decided to use the National Park Service survey map – and a guide – to go in search of these and other nearly invisible landmarks to get a better understanding of the Bay Area’s unheralded gay sites.
My tour started at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif., on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. Rosie had been everything from a riveter to a welder to a machinist to an electrician to a carpenter to a mechanic. She was, of course, a fictional symbol of the entry of women into manufacturing, allowing them to live away from home in same-sex residences that emboldened some to embrace their sexual orientation. The shift was so formative for the gay community that the museum is seeking to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender stories there.
The next morning, I was joined by Donna Graves, a public historian who, together with her colleague Shayne Watson, has studied the Bay Area’s gay historic sites and has worked with the Park Service since 1999. She offered to guide me around the Tenderloin and peel back the layers, as she put it, of the district’s rich gay history.
Today, the Tenderloin has a smattering of attractively refurbished buildings but mostly is not easy on the eyes. Yet when we reached the corner of Eddy and Mason streets, home of the Ambassador Hotel, I was struck by its grandeur. Built around 1911 and listed today on the National Register of Historic Places, the Ambassador was managed by Henry Wilson, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activist, from 1978 until 1996, when he left to care for his dying parents. He and his staff, without any public financing, cared for hotel residents, about half of whom had AIDS. He eventually helped found the Tenderloin AIDS Network.
We continued our stroll to the corner of Taylor and Turk streets, to a four-story blue building with fire escapes and seemingly new stucco trim. The first floor was boarded up, but two plaques, one metal, one stone, were embedded in the sidewalk before it.
Between the 1940s and the 1970s, it read, Compton’s Cafeteria had been a meeting place for transgender people. Graves pointed out that the diner was particularly welcoming to transgender women who had spent a long evening hustling. One night in August 1966, after a police officer tried to arrest a transgender woman and she threw coffee in his face, a riot broke out.
In her 2005 film “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria,” the historian and filmmaker Susan Stryker called it “the first known incident of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in U.S. history,” predating the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969.
Later, at the Tenderloin Museum, which opened in 2015 and aspires, in its own words, to “show you the heart of San Francisco uncovered,” I took in photographs that both wink at the neighborhood’s heady days of “girls, gambling and graft” and revel in its outsider dignity, playing up how Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Santana either performed or recorded music in the neighborhood. One display focuses on the Compton’s Cafeteria riots, placing the Tenderloin at the epicenter of San Francisco’s nascent gay rights movement.
Before sending me off to Valencia Street, Graves guided me to Civic Center, one of the nation’s last big civic complexes built in the Beaux-Arts style and the terminus of San Francisco’s annual pride parade. Harvey Milk was assassinated here at City Hall, as was a San Francisco mayor, George Moscone; Graves pointed to where a statue of Abraham Lincoln was surrounded by candles following the murders.
I made my way alone to the Castro, stopping for a look around the Women’s Building, with its electrifying murals stretching 4 stories high. Built in 1910, the structure once served as a meeting hall and bar for the Sons of Norway, a fraternal organization of immigrants. Today, it’s a room of one’s own for women: In 1979, a group of women, most of them lesbians, bought the building and opened it as a community center for performances and courses. But the winding wooden stairway, as well as a throne in the old banquet hall, testify to its storied past.
Similar markers line Castro Street. Since 2011, Castro Camera, once owned by Milk, has housed, appropriately, the Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store. From there, I walked north, past the home of Leonard Matlovich, the first member of the U.S. Armed Forces to come out while still in uniform, and past colorful cafes and erotica shops, before ending up at the GLBT History Museum.
There was a powerful retrospective on exhibit of dancers who died of AIDS, and I also stood for a time in front of a glass case shielding the bloodstained shirt, tie, jacket, pants and belt that Milk – affectionately called the mayor of the Castro – was wearing when he was assassinated. Visitors can listen, as I did, to a moving, reflective recording Milk made shortly after being elected to the city’s board of supervisors in 1977.
Afterward, around the corner, I sat at Harvey’s for a late veggie burger lunch. Like Castro Camera and other sites I had visited earlier in the day, it had a story. As I waited for my order, I read about it in the menu: It had once been called the Elephant Walk, and its opening date, Nov. 27, 1974, was exactly four years before Milk was assassinated. The disco icon Sylvester had been a regular in the 1970s; a police riot broke out here when Milk’s convicted assassin, Dan White, received a light sentence. In 1988, a fire nearly destroyed it.
But it was thriving now, with packed tables and large windows thrown open onto the street. The owners, when they opened the Elephant Walk, decided it should be a place where all patrons felt no shame, and it would have this airy atmosphere, this wide and good view to the world. It hadn’t been easy. But then again, as the author Armistead Maupin, the San Francisco faithful and connoisseur, once put it, “The worst of times in San Francisco was still better than the best of times anywhere else.”