This San Francisco Exhibit Pays Homage to SF’s First Black-Owned Queer Bar

The SF-based exhibit at SFMOMA will feature a bar service and special events every Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Before the Castro became synonymous with San Francisco’s queer heartbeat, Polk Street held the city’s gay extravagance and densest number of LGBTQIA+ bars in SF. In fact, 1972, was the first year San Francisco hosted its first Gay Pride Parade — what we know now as simply Pride — on Polk Street, cementing Polk Gulch as the city’s oldest gay district.

But the decades following that inaugural march proved ruinous for San Francisco’s original gayborhood. Queer-owned businesses began closing left and right, largely due to rising operation costs and rents in the area; this was only later confounded by the vacated properties being hoarded by landlords who refused to put them on the market. Fast forward to the present day, and the only remaining gay bar on Polk Street is the Cinch Saloon… or as I like to call it cheekily, “Gay ‘Cheers.’”

The 1990s saw a resurgence of queer bars popping up in the Castro and SF’s South of Market neighborhood. One of them at 1884 Market Street, the Eagle Creek Saloon, became San Francisco’s first-ever Black-owned queer bar, helmed and operated by one Rodney Barnette.

Much like any queer-leaning watering hole, the Eagle Creek Saloon doubled as a community gathering spot and safe space for organized members of society; it, too, became a balm for many as San Francisco navigated the AIDS crisis.

Alas, much like Polk Street’s line of queer-owned stores, the Eagle Creek Saloon closed… just three years after its opening.

For those of us who grew up on Tamagotchis and were far too young to sling back tequila shots before the beloved bar closed, a new installation at SFMOMA is reimagining The New Eagle Creek Saloon in all its queer excellence — neon signage, in tow.

The Sadie Barnette-designed display, which is aptly named The New Eagle Creek Saloon, will feature performances, storytelling, and open “happy hours” for dancing and enjoying a drink, all of which are organized around the half-circle bar that glows in pinks and purples. Patrons of the exhibit are encouraged to interact with the immersive artwork — “take a seat at the bar, and flip through archival materials that offer connections to reawakened histories,” the museum notes in a press release.

Oakland-based Barnette (who, yes: is the daughter of Rodney) writes that the horseshoe-shaped bar is “glowing somewhere between a monument and an altar, the glittering bar structure is not only a place but is at once an invocation and an invitation.” Furthermore, it acts as a place “to call the names of those lost and to see one another as we are in the glow of our own small moments of freedom.” 

As we continue riding this wave of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation being introduced and passed in courthouses across the nation, it’s those flickering instances of liberation we must holster onto as we fight for our right to exist as our authentic selves.

‘The New Eagle Creek Saloon’ will open Thursdays through Sundays from April 22nd to May 11th; bar service and special events will be held Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday; entry to this exhibition is included with general admission, though registration for special events in advance is recommended; visit for more information.

Feature image: Courtesy of Adam Reich and the artist, photographed at The Kitchen, New York

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