This stone marks the San Francisco’s first woman-owned leather store. (Photo/Miller Company)
This stone marks the San Francisco’s first woman-owned leather store. (Photo/Miller Company)

Honoring gay leather culture with art installation in SoMa alleyway

There was a time, mostly before the AIDS epidemic, when a sexual subculture thrived along a rundown alleyway in the South of Market area. Now, that shadowy side of San Francisco’s cultural history has come into the light, with the conversion of the alley into a safe pedestrian passageway that commemorates the so-called leather culture with informative public art.

“Leather Memoir,” designed and fabricated by the company of San Francisco-based landscape architect Jeffrey Miller, comprises four works of art along Ringold Alley in the SoMa-district block between Eighth and Ninth streets, and Folsom and Harrison.

“I have a longstanding interest in creating projects and installations that reveal varied cultural histories, social alignments, industrial and workplace activities, and political movements,” Miller said. “I was excited to engage in an opportunity to create a revelatory installation focused on the history of Ringold Alley.”

Miller came to the Bay Area in the 1980s to work in the firm of landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, who was renowned for his social, ecological and cultural approach to design. When Miller later formed his own company, he endeavored to integrate his progressive Jewish social values into his professional designs.

Landscape architect and contractor Jeffrey Miller installing the brass “bootsteps” honoring those who helped to build the leather communities of San Francisco. (Photo/Miller Company)
Landscape architect and contractor Jeffrey Miller installing the brass “bootsteps” honoring those who helped to build the leather communities of San Francisco. (Photo/Miller Company)

“Much of our family’s Jewish identity revolved around the notion of having some responsibility for improving the world,” said Miller, who grew up in Los Angeles. “This was very much stressed in our home.”

In both public and private commissions, his work often highlights resource conservation and environmental education, such as in school gardens and public playgrounds. Former clients also include Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo and the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

While raising a family in Bernal Heights with his wife, the artist Amy Trachtenberg, Miller says he became familiar with the leather culture near his professional office on Folsom Street.

The transformation of the alley, which from the 1960s through the late 1980s was a meeting place for people with similar sexual proclivities, was generated through community-benefit funding associated with an adjacent multiuse housing development. The developer, L Seven, selected Miller Company for both the landscape and public art aspects to create a lasting visual statement. The reimagined alley opened in July 2017.

The art literally has set in stone a part of the city’s gay legacy that might otherwise fade from public memory, a culture that flourished for over two decades and still survives in this rapidly developing neighborhood.

Ringold Alley installation (Photo/Miller Company)
Ringold Alley installation (Photo/Miller Company)

“As far as I know, the new Ringold Alley is the only such monument to leather history anywhere on a public street or sidewalk,” said Gayle Rubin, scholar of San Francisco LGBTQ history and an adviser on the project.

As a social or demographic term, “leather has many meanings,” explained Rubin, a University of Michigan associate professor of anthropology and women’s studies and scholar of leather culture. Initially associated with a group of gay men who wore black leather biker jackets and gear to emphasize gay masculinity and the practice of SM or fetishism, the reference to leather broadened over time to include lesbians and heterosexuals as well, she said.

Rubin was a key member of the community advisory group that Miller consulted with to develop his designs. She said the inclusion of the leather community in planning a very visible downtown project is culturally significant.

Brass “bootsteps” honoring those who helped to build the leather communities of San Francisco (Photo/Miller Company)

“Over the course of U.S. history, marginal groups … tend to not have their accomplishments recognized in public landmarks,” she said. “In recent decades, a lot of energy has been put into changing that and finding ways to include installations that celebrate the legacies of laborers, of women, of ethnic and racial minorities, and more recently of LGBTQ populations, and to make these parts of the physical landscape.”

Miller’s treatment for the public art component of the commission features four art elements. A black granite marker stone is etched with a narrative written by Rubin and a reproduction of artist Chuck Arnett’s historic mural in a former leather bar. Engraved granite standing stones honor relevant community institutions, such as A Taste of Leather (the city’s first leather shop); Fe-Be’s (the first leather bar on Folsom); and, of course, the Folsom Street Fair. The stones emerge through “Leather Flag” pavement markings. (San Francisco author and publisher Tony DeBlase designed the original leather pride flag in 1989 to represent all “people of leather.”) Finally, in a rugged twist on the standard commemorative plaque, bronze boot prints embedded along the curb honor 28 individuals who helped to create and build the leather communities of San Francisco.

“I wanted the character of the installation to be a memoir in its physical form,” Miller said.

Rubin said that is key to what this project represents. “It is a concretization of leather pride. And leather pride is akin to the similar articulations of other marginal groups that are considered disreputable by the larger society but which know their own worth and are willing to assert it,” she said. “This installation is part of an ongoing process toward more inclusive forms of historical accuracy and public memory.”

Miller’s embedded artwork is integral to a revitalized live-work area. Hundreds of new residents and LGBTQ tourists now come to view the installation, and the street has been added to the city’s “alternative culture” tours.

This San Francisco Pride Weekend, June 23-24, the Sunday parade down Market Street to Civic Center ends around Eighth Street. Participants interested in visiting “Leather Memoir” can continue toward Folsom to enter Ringold Alley.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.