June 6, 2014

The Gangway, San Francisco's 104-Year-Old Dive Bar

Credit: SF A Gogo, Flickr
Bartender Ed is known for his personable and easygoing attitude, not to mention his strong drinks and the occasional free shot of Jaeger.

It’s hard not to notice the Gangway. Just walk down Larkin Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, and look for the big white ship projecting from a storefront.

Behind that ship is one of the city’s oldest gay bars with a rich history of activism -- and, as regulars attest, a laid-back, home-away-from-home atmosphere with stiff drinks, to boot.

The Gangway’s history is colorful, going back to the beginning of the last century. The nautical-themed dive bar first opened its doors in 1910 and was the site of a same-sex raid a year later. During Prohibition, its name changed to the Larkin Street Grill and housed a speakeasy in the basement.

Credit: Ibison4, Flickr
The Gangway is a favorite spot for tourists to get a strong drink and a neighborhood favorite for locals and drag queens.

Throughout the years, as many local businesses turned away members of the LGBTQ community, the Gangway threw open its doors. Records indicate the bar was also a member of the Tavern Guild, an association of gay bar owners and liquor wholesalers that formed in San Francisco in 1962 in the wake of police raids and other forms of harassment of gay bars throughout the city.

“In a lot of ways, it became a community gathering space for the gay and transgender community,” says Laura Dominguez, communications and program manager at nonprofit San Francisco Heritage, which listed the Gangway to its Legacy Bars and Restaurants educational initiative.

In the following decades, the Gangway held numerous benefits, fundraisers, and holiday parties for San Francisco General Hospital’s Ward 5B, the first inpatient AIDS unit in the United States.

“The Gangway was really involved in that early activism and early support for people who were suffering from AIDS,” Dominguez says.

Credit: Joped, Flickr
San Francisco is internationally known for hosting one of the largest annual LGBT Pride festivals in the world.

That spirit of activism is one that runs deep in the Tenderloin, where for decades residents have organized to save the neighborhood’s character, increase affordable housing, and rally for other social causes.

And that legacy is alive and well today in the Gangway’s dark interior, where bulletin boards have newspaper clippings and historical archives documenting moments in the neighborhood’s history like civil rights rallies, the first gay pride parade, and early drag queens. Its decor also highlights the work of transgender activists and other figures involved in various social movements.

Says Dominguez, “It’s a place where people who felt unwelcome were able to make a home.”

Grab a seat at the bar, and you’ll see that sentiment holds true today.

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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