Nitty-Gritty City

posted by Madame Bubby

I moved into the nitty-gritty “big, bad” city in the middle of the 1980s. I rented a small, in fact, tiny, one-bedroom apartment for $425.00 a month, heat included, not far from Wrigley Field. The hoary Music Box Theater was within walking distance, still a major cultural center of the area. A mom-and-pop hardware store was among the retail establishments.
 

Music Box Theater
Image Source: https://musicboxtheatre.com/about-us/theatre-history

The Southport Avenue strip was dead at night. Signs of gentrification were occurring, mostly originating from well-heeled types who could afford to buy and rehab the large vintage dwellings that once housed working-class, white ethnic families.

One could hear wild metal and punk bands at the nearby Cabaret Metro, and the gay bars of Halsted Street were a cab ride away. Hustlers worked some corners to the east on Broadway. And, just a couple blocks to the north of my pad, the bar El Gato Negro, (picture at link) a dance club with a primarily Latino and trans clientele, was the scene almost every night of brawls. Yes, chair-throwing and punches.

I'm working with a cliché here, I admit. The strip has changed. It's all spas, boutiques, specialty restaurants and bars, geared toward the new well-heeled white jock/cheerleader types Chad and Brad and Taylor and Justine, many of whom are now pushing strollers. I am stereotyping; in fact, many of those who can afford to live in gentry-land make big money in the tech industries, as well as the more traditional legal and medical fields.

These new cityscapes of wealth don't possess the size and power of Silicon Valley in California, but the comparison is potent. Those who make money expect certain goods and services, and they are willing to pay for them. A $425 a month non-rehabbed apartment with a flower-power vinyl kitchen floor doesn't fit into this cut glass, opulent, homogenized landscape. The same apartment now goes for $1,350.00 a month (considered a bargain), and the kitchen and bathroom approximate the vast stainless steel and marble and quartz rooms in the million dollar condos where cooking often comes from a delivery box.

The situation in San Francisco, the most expensive city in the United States, is like this Chicago urban experience on steroids. Having just finished Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, where Anna Madrigal owns a gorgeous building with its own garden and can welcome new tenants with a joint on the door, the article that claims, “readers' first San Francisco rent prices will make you cry,” really wounds. Deeply. Bohemian paradise lost.
 

Barbary Lane
Barbary Lane

Here are few first hand accounts from that piece:

“1974 – $145 for a beautiful one bedroom apartment on pacific between Fillmore and Webster!! elevator had gate you had to to open and close. no bay view but all i had to do was walk to the corner and gaze at the most beautiful city. that was then. possibly 2340 Pacific? (those were the ’70s after all.)”—cicinla

and

“1975. Hyde and Sutter. 6th floor Studio with built-in antique (lukewarm) refrigerator, 180 degree view over the city. Furnished it with treasures out of a dumpster on Larkin. $105.00 a month. Now goes for $2195.00.”—George Reeds
 

San Francisco, 1970s
San Francisco, 1970s

and

“My first apartment was $245 a month on Dorland Street off Dolores in 1977. A spacious one-bedroom with a large kitchen with many glass-fronted cabinets and a huge bathroom containing a linen cupboard with drawers underneath and completely tiled. Night-blooming jasmine grew on the hedges in the backyard and their scent permeated the place when I opened the windows in warm weather. I loved it.”—Carolyn Zaremba

The cities are becoming suburban. The cities are living exhibits of profound income inequality and racial segregation. Yes, true, brutally true, but what I find worrisome is the association of those who had to flee from where they live with not just crime, but with activities that don't gel with a variety of norms, ranging from heteronormativity to late capitalist exploitation. I admit I've made that connection earlier in the blog, but does a “nice, safe” neighborhood necessarily mean an expensive, and usually segregated one?

Even gays and lesbians, who have earned a reputation as being one of the first urban pioneers (one might say colonizers) to take some previously nitty-gritty areas like Castro Street and Halsted Street, and make them safe spaces (in the meantime doing themselves the physical labor of rehabbing), aren't always the direct beneficiaries of their labors.

Now younger LGBT persons are once again trying to make their living on and in the physical and economic margins, but often without that funky edginess their ancestors experienced in the nitty-gritty, big bad city where there was an all-night unique diner on every corner and your eccentric landlady with her purple wig who you knew personally might invite you over for a nightcap.

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Tales of the City: I Read It, Finally!

posted by Madame Bubby

Oh wow, this summer has certainly been a summer or reading for me, in addition to the process of assembling many of these blogs into a book format. I guess I am lucky, to enjoy such large amounts of time to sit there and read. For hours.

As usual, I am way behind the trends. I tend to get interested in media after it is popular (for example, I only got interested in Seinfeld in reruns). I've known about Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City for some time, I know there was a miniseries in 1993 based on the books, and now there's one on Netflix (I don't get it, yet). But I just wasn't that interested.

Until a friend loaned me a huge volume that contains the first three novels, Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, and Further Tales of the City. I read all three Sunday night through last night. For someone who reads much dense scholarly material, it was a quick read, and I don't imply it is superficial. It actually read much like a screenplay, and I mean that as a compliment; less is more in the description, and the dialogue shapes the characters and moves along the action.
 

Cover of Maupin's 28 Barbary Lane

The 1978 one, the first one, was most interesting, as it really gave one a slice of the “sex and the city” life in San Francisco during the swinging seventies. The place was certainly comparable in some ways to the “blue bubble” cities (a scary thought in hindsight) of today.
 

Ad for 21st St. Baths, captioned Definitely for the Discriminiating Male
Ad for gay bathhouse in Mission District, definitely for the discriminating male, from: http://www.missionmission.org/2010/09/17/the-21st-street-baths-were-definitely-for-the-discriminating-male/

But it wasn't just LGBTQ persons who flocked to the city like the young ones did in the 1960s to the Summer of Love; they often were persons perhaps a little more daring than Mary Tyler Moore (who ended up in Minneapolis, not exactly the Babylon of Sodom of the 1970s) trying to figure out how to shape an identity that didn't necessarily conform to that of their Greatest and Silent Generation parents, who themselves, especially if they had the money to do so, were swinging themselves in their suburban sprawl.

But by 1978, the Summer of Love had degenerated into drug abuse, Milk had been assassinated, and Anita Bryant was vomiting her orange juice of bigotry on a national level. Liberation had come at a cost, but Maupin explores these times in a range from biting satire to gentle humor to bittersweet melancholy. Ultimately, the tales are about persons caught up in the wildest and even dangerous escapades (Jim Jones did not die at Jonestown? Oh, that's in the the third one I read) but still, somehow, never losing their ability to laugh at themselves.

One incident in the first novel that happens to the oh so hot straight guy who lives in the wonderful building of Mrs. Anna Madrigal at 28 Barbary Lane (Maupin gives us so many titillating descriptions of him sliding in and out of jeans and various forms of undergear) I found most interesting. Apparently, in San Francisco at that time, “the tubs” or the gay baths weren't the only places to enjoy no strings attached sex. Brian goes to some kind of co-ed bathhoue on Valencia Street. And there was The Party on Monday night, and also that night women were admitted free.
 

Valencia Street, San Francisco in the '70s
Valencia and Market Streets, San Francisco, 1970s, from: https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/northern-california/san-francisco/1970s-san-francisco/

He does meet a woman in her private room, (she invites him), but she assumes he is at least bi, and she builds on the fact that most of the guys who go to this bath are bi or gay (but of course!). And I find one ends up feeling sorry for Brian. Yes, he is the heterosexual equivalent of a gay “slut" and he knows it, and he want to get laid, not psychoanalyzed at the baths.

But Maupin's description of the main space is telling, perfectly selective detail, with a real zinger at the end:

There were twice as many men, mingling with the women in a space that seemed strangely reminiscent of a rumpus room in Walnut Creek; rosy-shaded lamps, mis-matched furniture, and a miniature electric train that chugged noisily along a shelf around the perimeter of the room.
A television set mounted on the wall offered Phyllis to the partygoers.
On the opposite wall a movie screen flickered with vintage pornography.
The partygoers were naked, though some of them chose the shelter of a bath towel.
And most of them were watching Phyllis.


Yes, Phyllis, a spin off the Mary Tyler Moore show. Mary's middle-aged friend Phyllis Lindstrom played by Cloris Leachman ends up in San Francisco after her husband dies to start over. And it's got one of the campiest beginnings to any sit com, ever. (Think the big number Hello, Dolly reworked by someone on acid.)
 

Phyllis oepning credits
Phyllis opening credits

But that allusion pretty much says it all about Maupin's take on the topsy-turvy, paradoxical yet also wild and wonderfully campy world that was San Francisco in the late seventies. A world where persons of any orientation could still afford to live in an apartment with a view of the wharfs and where they party with the neighbors and go out to diners at all hours and their landlady tapes a joint to the front door as a welcoming gift.

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