Perverse Landuses: Reconstructing Queer Life on the San Francisco Waterfront in the 1950s

Authors: Damon Scott*, Miami University
Topics: Historical Geography, Sexuality, Urban and Regional Planning
Keywords: Urban renewal, Queer geographies, San Francisco, Urban Planning, Historical geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Rampart, Sheraton, 5th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


As part of a larger book project, I argue that new forms of political and social organizing among gays and lesbians developed in San Francisco as a reaction to efforts to refashion the urban landscape for a post-industrial economy. While rational land-use planning practices took hold, the low-rent hotel and nighttime entertainment districts surrounding downtown were targeted first in slum clearance and anti-vice campaigns and then as urban renewal project areas. The transformation of San Francisco from an industrial port city into the urban core of an expanding metropolitan region disrupted and dispersed established patterns of queer sociability. Rather than simply undoing or relocating queer life, however, urban redevelopment aroused a cultural response that included new forms of social organizing around sexual identity, new vocabularies for understanding sexual difference, and new topologies of sexual subjectivity. Using the 1954 city directory and ArcMap GIS, I constructed a pre-redevelopment map of waterfront land-uses—illustrating the complex mix of residential hotels, restaurants, cafes, warehouses, and office buildings in a 28-block area. Although this area was characterized solely as a congested wholesale fruit and produce market by redevelopment officials, less than half of the area was devoted to wholesaling and at least 600 single men lived in residential hotels within the urban renewal boundaries. The pre-redevelopment land-use map--along with planning documents recently unearthed from the redevelopment authority archives--establish the significance of the area as a historically significant queer zone of the city before the emergence of legible, sexual identity-based gay neighborhoods in the 1970s.

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