How the Lesbians Invaded

We had been powerless tenants, evicted with no recourse, and then we became agents of displacement. There was no in between.

My collective household of four lesbians had found a place on Castro Street, one of those original Victorians with high ceilings and elaborate wood trim, an abandoned coal fireplace and a parlor whose big sliding doors opened to double the size of the room. It was rumored that the apartment had come up for rent because the previous tenants had been busted for selling weed and were all in jail. We embellished the story to claim that the famous Brownie Mary had lived there. She may not have lived there, but she had certainly been there in spirit. It was the seventies; the Castro was becoming a gay men’s mecca. During our time there a housepainter engaged to paint our building ran a brothel turning tricks in the building’s storage room. He painted that building for months.

We fondly remember political gabfests at shared dinners, Seders in which we sang all the way through, inventive costumes at Halloween parties (in the year of Anita Bryant I came as a lesbian recruiter). For a time our costume du jour at home was simply a vest, a way to show off a billowing bush and legs as thickly furred as animal pelts (we were hairy and proud!). We danced and sang along to Stevie Wonder and Lavender Jane Loves Women. There was much laughing and also much crying. Passionate love affairs abounded. Creating a new culture calls for invention. We tried out nonmonogamy, polyamory. We felt we were on the cutting edge of a cultural transformation.

dyke collective_0001
The original collective: me, Pam, Ruth S and Ruth M about 1978

When the gay male couple from New York, or maybe LA, bought the three-unit building in 1978 they immediately evicted us. We had no recourse; rent control was still a few years off. We found a smaller apartment on 29th Street just off Mission in the neighborhood we now call La Lengua. Our landlords were butchers, brothers who ran a shop on Mission right next to what later became Cole Hardware. Weirdly, the buildings on 29th Street and Mission Street were connected. Our apartment always smelled like dead meat, like something had died in the walls.

We liked the spot—right behind the Safeway parking lot and across the street from the Tiffany gas station. Pauline’s Pizza was just across Mission and Mexican restaurants like Mi Casa proliferated. I bought my work clothes at Lightstone’s; the post office was right next door. The building’s ground floor held a printer’s shop and the second floor was just a big meeting room that was rented by Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality (Union WAGE) which allowed other organizations like Tradeswomen, Gays for Nicaragua, Lesbians Against Police Violence and the Briggs Initiative opposition to meet there.

My collective of four politically active dykes—me, two Ruths and a Pam—was happy. We cooked and ate together and invited interesting people to share dinner. Jews and militant atheists ruled. I learned about Jewish culture. The Christmas tree was relegated to a bedroom. It was bliss, except that with visiting lovers and pets (one a gigantic great Dane) and parents and friends the place was just too small. Finally we decided that we either had to pool our money and buy a bigger place or split up the collective. Ruth M decided to pull up stakes and live with her lover and so my lover Nancy became part of our collective.

37 29th st
37 29th Street about 1978

We were earnest idealists; we were gay activists; we had just lived through the horrors of the Moscone Milk murders and Jonestown and the election of Reagan. We were committed to live ethically and, even in the midst of what felt like political chaos, we fervently believed we could change the world, ending US imperialism, racism, police violence, and discrimination against women and gays. We were part of a collective movement that emphasized cooperation and consensus decision-making, a radical departure from capitalist organization that resulted only in winners and losers.

We listed our requirements for the new house. Ruth had to have a garden. I desperately needed a garage to store my electrical contracting tools and supplies. We had to be close to public transportation. We didn’t want a fixer upper; no one had time for that and I was the only skilled tradeswoman. We were committed to collective living and we also fantasized about eventually dispensing with private property. What if we could donate the place to a land trust so that our dream of a lesbian nation could live on into future generations?

We negotiated a contract. What would happen if one of us died or ended up in jail or for some reason couldn’t make her payment? How would we sell and buy shares in the building? What if we needed to make repairs or improvements? We listed all contingencies. We were good at processing—we were lesbians!

We imagined a larger single-family house, one with four real bedrooms, but then when we found the three-unit place on the south side of Bernal Hill our imaginations blossomed. We would no longer have to share one bathroom and one kitchen, but we could still cook and eat together whenever we wanted. Instead of negotiating for time to call each of our telephone trees on our shared phone, each could have her own phone.

The listing price was $135,000, an incomprehensible amount. A hundred thousand then felt like like a billion now—you couldn’t get your head around it. Still, we dug deep and came up with the down payment, only because Pam was able to borrow money from her family. Then we wrote up a new contract to repay Pam by the month. We got pretty good at writing contracts.

As soon as we took possession in 1980, our place in the property hierarchy changed. We became agents of displacement. All three of the units were occupied. Each of us had to evict tenants before we could move in and none of us could afford to pay both rent and mortgage for long. Oh the contradictions! I talked with the couple in “my” unit, offering to help them find a new place. Our exchanges were friendly and civil, and they soon found new housing. But Ruth couldn’t even get the tenant in “her” unit to open his door, though she could hear him spewing expletives from the other side. She resorted to lawyers and eviction notices.

We weren’t the first lesbians to move to Bernal Heights. Political activist Pat Norman and her large family lived up the block. A lesbian couple had settled just around the corner on Andover. But there were four of us, and with friends and lovers coming and going we were hard to ignore. People in the neighborhood noticed. Homophobia took the form of nasty notes left on car windshields, DYKES graffiti on the building. Two neighbors who grew up on the block, guys about my age, made it clear they understood what we represented—a lesbian invasion. Years later, when our relationship had grown friendlier, one of them confided, “We were watching you.”

As much as we wanted to live collectively, the house on Richland restricted collectivity. Having separate apartments led to fewer shared meals, less knowledge of each other’s daily lives. I retreated into the dreaded merged lesbian couple relationship. After a few years the original members began to sell their shares and move out while others bought in. At the cusp of the 80s our world changed. That frantic hopeful creative collective time was ending.

But we are still here. Since the birth of our dyke-owned dream, we have aided the lesbian colonizing of San Francisco and particularly Bernal Heights. With each refinancing (too numerous to count) and buyout, our property underwrote the purchase of new female-owned houses. When we started, four single women buying property together was rare and suspect by financiers. Tenants-in-common was not a typical way to hold property. Since then it’s been adopted by the real estate industry as a way to make buying of increasingly expensive property possible for groups of unrelated individuals.

We were agents of change, the leading edge of a new wave of homeowners in the Mission and Bernal Heights. But change is not new to our neighborhood. As one of the authors of a small history of Bernal Heights, I researched its historic demographics. Irish squatters displaced the Mexican land grant Californios. European immigrants made homeless by the 1906 earthquake and fire moved earthquake shacks here and built new homes. Southern Italians colonized the north side of the hill. Germans, Swedes and Italians built churches here for ethnic congregations. Mexicans and blacks found a neighborhood free of racist covenants and restrictions, although Bernal was not outside redlining boundaries. During the economic downturn starting in 2008, big banks (locally based Wells Fargo gained our enduring hatred) evicted scores of homeowners, most of them people of color. Now houses on this block are selling for millions and the techies are moving in.

The life we built is changing. Pat Norman retired, sold her house and moved to Hawaii. My long-time friend on Andover, the first lesbian I met in the neighborhood, just sold her house and moved to Oakland. And now I’m selling the apartment where I’ve lived for 37 years in order to colonize a neighborhood in Santa Rosa. Our particular experiment may be ending, but the neighborhood is still full of dykes.

In Bernal Heights, lesbians found an affordable generally accepting environment. At one time I heard that the neighborhood was home to more woman-owned property than any neighborhood in the country or in the world. Who knows; that may still be true.

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Still Standing

Ruth S was the first to live in the top floor apartment after our collective household of four lesbians bought the three-unit building on Richland Avenue. She confided that in big storms it felt like a boat on the sea. You could get seasick with the rocking.

386 Front
It’s a weird looking building

I’ve now lived in all the flats—A B and C—and I can testify that Ruth was not exaggerating. One afternoon, lying on my bed in the far southern reaches on the lowest floor of the four-story building, I could feel a gentle rocking. It might have rocked me to sleep had I not been worrying about its source. There was no wind. I could see the blue sky from my window. Later I asked my partner D, whose bedroom was on the top floor in the far northern corner, what she thought might have caused it. Sex, she answered rather sheepishly. “We were having sex.”

As amusing as this was, to have knowledge of my house partners’ sexual habits by just lying on my bed in a distant part of the building, it concerned me greatly about the constitution of our home. Was it going to fall down? And if so, when?

With this question in mind, I invited one of my building inspection coworkers to come by and have a look (I didn’t tell him about the sex). I just felt there was something terribly wrong with the way this building had been constructed. What could the problem be and how might we fix it?

Of course he had no idea. The walls had long been closed and I didn’t at that time have the energy for a big project that included opening walls and inspecting structural members. But I had at various times opened pieces of walls to pull in low voltage wiring or to try to parse out what the builders might have had in mind.

I first moved into the lowest unit, apartment A, in 1980 with my lover Nancy. We noticed immediately that the kitchen floor’s angle was far steeper than, say, the angle of repose for raw eggs. Whenever we dropped anything liquid it would run so quickly from one side to the other that the cook would have to dive to the floor in order to catch it before it disappeared into the framing.

The interior had been finished, but badly. We could see that the previous owner had covered the kitchen with quarter inch sheetrock, painting it all a bright white so that no one would notice. The sheetrock covered the window trim, making you wonder what he had been trying to hide. Nancy was a carpenter and I an electrician. We couldn’t stand not knowing what was behind the quarter inch. And we wanted to even out the kitchen ceiling, which had a mysterious soffit hanging over the entrance door. One Saturday while I was away at a tradeswomen meeting Nancy demo’d the soffit (it had seemed like a simple quick job) and I returned to a kitchen full of rats’ nest material and rat poison boxes from the 1920s. We could only guess that a previous owner had built the soffit around the rats’ nest to avoid cleaning it up. After that we did not open walls with such abandon.

RatsNest
Rats’ nest inside the ceiling

But later I did have to open the kitchen wall. Investigating a short, I opened electrical boxes trying to figure out where the kitchen outlet was fed from with no success. I finally pulled off a piece of the quarter inch sheetrock thinking I’d find a pipe or a piece of electrical cable leading to another outlet. Instead I found that someone (clearly not an electrician) had run not cable but two wires stapled directly to the wooden original kitchen wall and then covered the whole mess with the quarter inch sheetrock. The wires disappeared under the sheetrock. Where did they go? There was no telling. This discovery horrified me. No electrician or anyone concerned with fire hazard would ever have done such a thing. It meant that we could hang a picture on the wall and short out a circuit or start a fire. But there was nothing to be done then. I patched the sheetrock and made a mental note to never hang a picture on that wall. It wouldn’t be till 20 years later that I would have the money and gumption to open the walls to see what was really inside.

386 Richland
So that’s where the wire went!

After closing up the kitchen wall and vowing not to think about the wiring, Nancy and I lived together in Apartment A for a couple of years before experiencing a devastating breakup involving our mutual best friend who lived across the street. Nancy was the first of our original collective of four to be bought out.

We all had thought long and hard about all the possibilities of home ownership, drawing up a contract that spelled out how collective members would be bought out and how new owners would be chosen, how much monthly “rent” would cost and the amount of homeowners’ dues. We even consulted a lawyer from which we learned that contracts drawn up between people are whatever the people agree to. In other words, the lawyer was no help. What we failed to understand was the concept of equity as it relates to real estate. Our idea was that each member’s equity was equal to all the money she had put into the pot, including monthly mortgage payments. None of us had owned real estate. We didn’t understand that most of the payment went toward interest on the loan. So we ended up buying Nancy out for more than her actual equity. But it was a good lesson. We became real estate mavens.

Then I moved in to apartment B. At the culmination of a lovely housewarming dinner, I turned on the coffee maker and all the lights went out. The electrician’s house, my friends laughed, like the unshod cobbler’s kids. That was the start of a long journey of discovery that would shock my electrical sensibilities and make me wonder why the building had not burned down in an electrical fire long before my time here.

Wires live inside walls and ceilings and so without opening up walls it would be very difficult to understand what was going on, but I could surmise that the apartment was served by only a single circuit. That in itself was troubling and there was no way of knowing the quality of workmanship or the condition of the wiring. At least the old fuse panel had been replaced with a circuit breaker panel so the wires were protected from overload. I wasn’t prepared to start a construction project on my home at that time in the early 80s. That would have to wait until after my retirement as an electrical inspector. My job as an inspector required me to explain to other home owners and business owners that their faulty electrical wiring could cause a fire. Every time I said, “If you don’t fix this problem, a fire could result,” I would think to myself, “My own home could burn down!” I didn’t know the half of it.

Over the years collective members sold their shares, others bought in and sold out until I was the only one left. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that I had the time and inclination, and also a partner who wanted to get her hands dirty, to begin to open walls and really see the structure. What we found was worse than anything I’d imagined: no studs in half of the third story apartment, bearing walls cut off at the garage level causing the building to sag in the middle (the answer to the raw egg question), a monstrous electrical fire hazard.

As we deconstructed the building, we kept wondering why it is so oddly shaped, why construction methods differed from floor to floor and room to room, why floors were different heights in adjacent rooms, why floor and ceiling joists sometimes went north and south, sometimes east and west, why when wall coverings were removed we could see sky through cracks in the exterior walls.

 

Then one day when I was standing across the street looking at the building I had an epiphany. Our home was never a plan in some architect’s mind. It was a collection of buildings set on top of one another, cut off, pushed together, raised up, and without benefit of removal of siding, spiked together with a few big nails. Suddenly all the mysteries we’d catalogued made sense. Our four-story three-unit building had probably begun life as a homesteader’s shack in 1893, the year of the newspapers that had been pasted on interior redwood walls as insulation. We read the San Francisco Call as we uncovered the walls. 1893 was a very interesting year.