The past will come to life across SoMa for the next two weekends, with a new walking tour that dramatizes the neighborhood’s role in LGBTQ+ history.
“Out of Sight: SoMa” celebrates historical figures spanning 150 years of queer history in the neighborhood, from indigenous people who embraced a third gender to the locals who stood up to Justin Herman’s efforts to redevelop low-income housing in the neighborhood.
The tour is part of a multi-year project led by Eye Zen Presents, a theater company dedicated to highlighting LGBTQ+ history, stories and traditions. Last year, the company hosted a similar walking tour in North Beach, and this year, they’ve decided to take the tour to SoMa.
The group’s founder, Seth Eisen, is a performance artist and puppeteer. He’ll be directing each of the theatrical scenes along the tour, which he co-wrote with K.M. Soehnlein, a novelist and professor at USF. Shaping San Francisco, which leads biking and walking tours that highlight the city’s lesser-known history, is also a partner on the project.
“Our tour celebrates historical figures from the past 150 years, remixed with our own imagination,” said Eisen in a statement.
To develop the piece, Eisen and Soehnlein spent the past year reading oral histories, digging through historical archives, reading books and articles, and talking to SoMa residents. The performances aim to show how the neighborhood’s past is reflected in current events, Eisen said.
The performances and sites highlighted in “Out of Site” span decades, from SoMa’s origins as a tent village for gold miners to its role in the birth of the leather community in the ’50s and ’60s.
To bring characters from each era to life, they recruited local performers like J. Miko Thomas, a Chickasaw writer and artist who is a lead organizer of the Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits organization, and Marga Gomez, a Latinx lesbian playwright and comedian.
The tour begins at the Howard/Langton Community Garden at 10 Langton St. (at Howard), which, in its years as a children’s playground, bore the nickname “Needle Park.”
In the 1980s, residents worked with Friends of the Urban Forest to plant trees in memory of a neighbor who had died of AIDS, setting the stage for the land’s transition into a community garden in the 1990s.
From there, it’s on to the Cat Club (1188 Folsom St.), the former site of the lesbian-friendly Bay Brick Inn, which encompassed a dance club, restaurant, and hotel.
There, performers will bring to life SoMa celebrities like Mr. S Leather co-founder and owner Alan Selby, who was also a patient advocate and fundraiser during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
The tour will also honor the former site of Labyris Auto Repair, the first women-owned and -operated automobile maintenance shop in San Francisco. A performer will play Nancy Rupprecht, the former therapist who co-owned Labyris from 1977-1988, before opening Grandma’s Garage in Berkeley.
Other important locals portrayed by actors on the tour include Jim Stewart, a photographer who lived on Clementina Street and was an early advocate of SF Open Studios, and his neighbor, ballet dancer and artist Chuck Arnett, whose best-known mural graced the walls of the Tool Box at Fourth and Harrison streets even after the bar itself was demolished.
The tour concludes at Ringold Alley, also known as the SF Leather History Alley and site of the first Up Your Alley Fair.
The “Out of Site” tours will be offered at noon and 3 p.m. on Saturday (June 8 and June 15), and at 1 p.m. on Sundays (June 9 and June 16). Visit https://www.eyezen.org/ for tickets and more information.