The Evolution of Bernal’s Lesbian Community, as Viewed from Wild Side West

Wild Side West

There’s an interesting story on the cover of SF Weekly this week that looks at the changing geography of San Francisco’s lesbian community.

It describes how “San Francisco’s lesbian enclave has shifted four times in the last 30 years, from Valencia Street to Noe Valley to Bernal Heights, and now, to Oakland, moving around in response to or anticipation of the next economic upheaval.” The Bernal Heights portion of that history turns out to be rather interesting — while providing a useful reminder that many of today’s venerable old-timers were once bizarre newcomers as well:

Bernal Heights was still largely an immigrant neighborhood [in the mid-1970s], so lesbians who moved there during the ’80s and ’90s were often perceived as perpetrators, rather than victims, of an early gentrification wave.

Against that backdrop, we then take a look at Bernal’s lesbian community, as seen through the prism of The Wild Side West on Cortland:

Domestic proclivities, compounded by the gender wage gap, are undermining the notion of a lesbian district. Younger, artsy people are descending on Oakland, but they don’t have the density, or the urgency, to create their own township. And there aren’t enough left in San Francisco to maintain a cultural critical mass.

Fritz, a gravelly voiced woman in a hooded sweatshirt, considers herself the “ambassador” of the Wild Side West, a historic lesbian bar in Bernal Heights. She offers tours to all variety of interlopers: ogling tourists, straights from the neighborhood, correspondents from local newspapers. Many are first-time patrons; some aren’t sure whether to treat the place as a neighborhood watering hole, or a shrine to Bernal’s past.

In fact, it’s a little of both.

The Wild Side West seems frozen in time, even as the city transforms all around it. And, on a balmy Thursday afternoon in May, it’s still packed with regulars: old men hunched over frothy beers, coarse-haired women unfolding crinkled newspapers, a large dog who lies, panting, in the corner. Fritz is unloading a bag of hot dog buns for anyone who wants to stick around later and watch the Giants game; she’s also taken it upon herself to lead another tour.

Sure, the neighborhood is changing, she acknowledges, strutting through the bar’s ample backyard and pausing to point out various amenities — the wood swing, the barbecue grill, the mannequin with a bottle-cap bikini. Fritz sits down at a picnic table and bunches her mouth studiously, taking mental stock of the new elements.

“When they got rid of the pay phones, that’s when the property values went up,” she says. Bernal used to be a working-class area with a small but noticeable population of drug dealers; now it’s dotted with organic tea houses and Pilates studios. In January, the online real estate brokerage Redfin crowned it the hottest neighborhood in the US, based on property listings searches; the median home price is just shy of a million dollars.

Fritz and her partner, June (not her real name), want to partake in the boom, too — they’re eyeing a $1.3 million house with two bedrooms upstairs and a studio on the ground floor. They think that by pulling together their savings, and June’s salary as a lawyer, they’ll be able to scrounge up the money.

Looking toward the future, she has few reservations about joining a new class of well-heeled startup workers and “couples pushing strollers” — even if she becomes the old-timer who doesn’t quite fit in anymore. A Long Island native, Fritz works at the Inlandboatmen’s Union and considers herself staunchly blue collar — making her part of an ever-dwindling population.

“I’ve seen younger gay women move in, but they’re mostly in the tech field,” Fritz says. The lesbians who came to drive forklifts or paint houses can’t afford their rent anymore.

PHOTO: Telstar Logistics


18 thoughts on “The Evolution of Bernal’s Lesbian Community, as Viewed from Wild Side West

  1. Interesting, well written article. I had dinner with a friend of mine who bought in Bernal on Ellsworth above Cortland in 1964. She’s straight but says she no longer likes Bernal and will be moving on next year.

  2. As a co-founder of the Pacific Center for Human Growth in Berkeley, and their first promotions director, I think I have a good track on populations and population shifts.

    The information in the post makes it appear that lesbians have MOVED to Oakland because of unaffordable rents. However, Wild Side West originally OPENED in Oakland (as the Wild Side) in the early 1960s and then moved to Broadway in SF a few years later.

    But Oakland has ALWAYS had a large lesbian population, as has Hayward. Institutions such as the La Pena Cultural Center have been largely lesbian-based since the 1970s. From Wikipedia: “Oakland counted 2,650 lesbian couples; one in every 41 Oakland couples listed themselves as a same-sex female partnership” — and that statistic is from 14 years ago.

    And, of course, remember that Gertrude Stein was born and raised in Oakland… 🙂

  3. “…now it’s dotted with organic tea houses and Pilates studios.”

    I suppose I can concede the tea house point on technicalities, but I’m surprised to hear that we have more than one Pilates studio.

  4. One Pilates studio (Pilates Heights), and two other businesses that offer Pilates classes (Bernal Yoga and BernalFit). As far as I know Lama’s Kenpo Karate does not offer Pilates at this time.

  5. Bernal Heights has always been known as a 3-D Neighborhood; Dykes, Dogs, and Diapers.

    I only wish my wife and I could afford to stay.

  6. Pingback: Is Wild Side West Now San Francisco’s Last Lesbian Bar? | Bernalwood

  7. Pingback: Greatest Hits from (Neighbor) Max Kirkeberg’s Historical Photo Collection | Bernalwood

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