Susie Bright Remembers a Life on Bessie Street

Susie Bright is a writer/activist who edited On Our Backs, an influential ‘zine about female and lesbian sexuality that was published during the 1980s. During the heyday of On Our Backs, Bright lived in a small apartment at 25A Bessie Street that also served as the magazine’s editorial office and photo studio.

Honey Lee Cottrell, Bright’s former partner and collaborator, has lived in the apartment on Bessie Street ever since. But on Friday she will be evicted. To mark the sad event, Bright wrote a short essay about years spent in the apartment, and she calls her recollection the “Annals of Bessie Street: From Revolution to Eviction.”

This Friday I am losing my long-standing home in San Francisco: 25A Bessie Street.

My first books Herotica and Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World were written inside this little nest. I grew up as a young woman in this apartment, my daughter grew up here from infancy to adulthood.

The best and most outrageous of On Our Backs pictures were conceived and often shot at Bessie Street. This is where Honey Lee Cottrell, my partner, and OOB’s staff photographer, became a legend.

We had a tiny garden that got a few rays of sun. We turned a roving green briar into a wandering rose. I held my first porno pajama parties there, which later became my big screen road shows: How to Read a Dirty Movie and All Girl Action. The thumb-size cactus we planted outside on the sidewalk grew into a behemoth.

We raised kids here— Honey Lee captured so many of our children’s best moments.

Some things I can’t get out of my mind. Fanny Fatale demonstrated “how to female ejaculate” on our kitchen linoleum one afternoon, and I said we should never clean that spot again. I think our apartment should be made into a feminist historical monument.

I moved to Bessie Street with my girlfriend, Honey Lee Cottrell, when I was 23 years old— and she was 37. It’s a tiny basement apartment on the steep north face of Bernal Hill. The bathtub is in the kitchen, which looks out over all of downtown and the Mission district. The kitchen windows are the one place where the light pours in.

Our first landlord was unsure if I could qualify as a tenant, because at 5’10”, I had to duck to get into some of the corners of the low-ceilinged apartment. I assured her I could— at $400 a month, the price was just right for the two of us. In the early 1980s, Bernal was still a poor and working class, multi-racial neighborhood, adjacent to “Needle Park,” which nowadays is filled with bouncy houses and miniature-dog birthday parties.

I moved out of Bessie Street when I was 30— we broke up after seven years— but I never “left.” I moved a few blocks away, and when Aretha was born, she went back and forth between our two homes. That never ended, no matter how many miles I moved away. The last two years, my daugther lived at Bessie Street with Honey, graduating from college.

Early this winter, the Bessie Street building was sold to a new owner, and after 30 years: “Eviction.” Ironically, it was bought by a wealthy man who wanted to make a home for his young son in the city who otherwise could never afford to rent a place…

There’s lots more at Susie’s site, including many more images from the pages from On Our Backs (NSFW). It’s a poignant tribute to a memorable time and an important place in the evolution of the Bernal Heights we all live in today.

Farewell, 25A Bessie Street.

PHOTO: Honey Lee Cottrell via Susie Bright.
Hat tip: Rita Roti

14 thoughts on “Susie Bright Remembers a Life on Bessie Street

  1. So very, very sorry! I lived at 21C Mirabel for years, and loved it — Cafe Commons, Dusit Thai, Precita Park, and Johnny’s little convenience store at the bottom of the hill. We had great, funky neighbors and even though there were gunshots, nutty people, and the smell of urine on most streets, we couldn’t have been luckier to live there. Now, when we go back, there are tons of “renovations” with cars on the street more expensive than we’ll ever own. Sad.

  2. A couple things: On Our Backs was a full-fledged magazine, not a “zine”, and it continued to be published throughout the 90s, although Susie and Honey Lee were no longer involved.

  3. Thanks for the mention, Todd. Now I am reading every single post here! What a great blog. Makes me want to share some more of my Bernal scrapbooks with you, too. I’m a total neighborhood history nut. I’ve lived on Bessie, Manchester, Hampshire, and Coleridge…

  4. I loved reading this piece; it makes me happy to know about this history, especialy as a huge fan of On Our Backs, Susie Bright, Honey Lee, and Bernal. Thank you for posting it – more would be fabulous!

    • I should add that the eviction, of course, makes me very sad. I hope we can at least preserve the memories and the history when we lose such creative neighbors, and maintain some of that magic.

  5. Bessie Street was one of the first places you took me to, Susie, when I first arrived in San Francisco in 1987. You took me on a tour of the important places – the On Our Backs office, the Bay Brick Inn and Bessie St. I spent many days there working with Honey Lee in that ridiculously under-equipped and uber creative outdoor studio downstairs. That’s also where Honey Lee helped me mat and frame my retrospective that hung at the Levi Strauss building downtown (and where they asked me to change the position of a portrait of you half nude, so that people eating their lunch in the cafeteria wouldn’t have it in their direct view!).
    And you and I have a further history in Bernal. We shared a great flat on Coleridge for a time and I lived there until I sadly departed San Francsico for a lesser place (Berkeley) in 1997. Bernal holds the most precious place of all in my heart – it’s where I fell in love with San Francisco, with dogs, with my partner of 12 years (the other Susie), with the neighbourhood, and where I almost was a partner in Bernal Beast (the name is my invention!). But Bessie Street and Honey Lee and you – my first enduring SF memories. Evictions are almost always the brutal result of a huge power imbalance in our world. This one stings in a particularly nasty way.

  6. We’ll need to get permission from Phyllis Christopher for the photos of you shackled to the bed with a hairnet and slippers on, with me bringing you tea in a waistcoat and bow tie. Whose idea was that anyway??

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