As new bars open, a famed movie palace comes under controversial new ownership and the threadbare Harvey Milk Plaza gets ready for a date with the wrecking ball, it’s undeniable that big changes are happening in the Castro.
But one historic address lays curiously fallow: the site of the camera shop Milk opened in 1972 and later used as a campaign headquarters for his bid to become the country’s first openly LGBTQ+ public official. 575 Castro St. had sat empty for a year after the Human Rights Campaign’s retail outlet vacated the space.
Empty, that is, until some artists found it and turned it into a combination gallery, event space and retail environment called Queer Arts Featured, or Queer A.F.
“There was nothing here,” says co-founder Devlin Shand, a photographer and jewelry maker. “I was actually looking for a place to show a series of photographs that was supposed to mount on March 13, 2020. I was shopping around so many empty storefronts in the Castro, but I never thought this was a possibility.”
Shand was connected to the space by Manny Yekutiel (of cafe and civic gathering spot Manny’s), who observed that “it was a camera shop, and you’re a photographer.” The owners were receptive. In May, Shand, his boyfriend and now business partner Fadi Salah and fellow artist Erika Pappas signed a short-term lease. Unlike the frothy bidding wars over unremarkable two-bedroom homes, they didn’t even have to out-hustle any competition.
There wasn’t nothing-nothing left after HRC’s departure, either. A mural of a mustachioed Harvey can be seen from the sidewalk and his biography hangs on the door, talismans of benevolent queer vibes that guided the trio’s brainstorming about the feasibility of showing other artists’ work. They’ve already extended the lease.
Neighborhood revitalization is tricky and tends to succeed more from the bottom-up than the top-down. On the one hand, you have City Hall’s desperation to revive an ailing Financial District after two years of office closures and a cultural shift to remote work. Then there’s the Castro, that world-famous gayborhood beset with derelict storefronts and a woebegone aura of decline long before the pandemic struck. Although its commercial heart is quite compact, Queer A.F.’s precise location next to Anchor Oyster Bar toward the southern end of the action draws a specific crowd.
“During store hours, it’s mostly tourists,” Shand said. “People come in to see Harvey on their pilgrimage, and hopefully that will build and grow as more locals get interested.”
People wander in out of curiosity about a gay rights pioneer, but what they find is a “Victorian ’80s Deco Mid-Mod fantasy,” as Shand puts it. A piece by Berkeley-based mixed-media artist Alice Harrison, a neon pink triangle affixed to a bed of moss, hangs on the same wall as the mural of Milk dominates the wall over a hip-auntie living room set. Shelves and vitrines are filled with high-camp objects and puckish curiosities like a pearl-covered ax and gold-painted, barbwire-covered baseball bat—violent, yes, but in keeping with the mood in queer SF these days—as well as gentler things like handmade bowties, Jessalyn Ragus’ Tarot Erotique or Shand’s jewelry made with serpentine rocks sourced from a local beach.
“We want to give the queerdos a space to be,” said Shand, wearing chain earrings of his own design constructed from citrine and carved cinnabar attached to .38 special bullet cases.
The point of Queer A.F. is not merely to hawk stuff made by LGBTQ+ people, but specifically to center the work of emerging artists who historically haven’t always felt welcomed into the Castro—and let them keep 80 percent of every sale. Most of the makers have never had their work in a brick-and-mortar before.
“What they’re doing is unique,” said Sid Deshpande, a nonbinary and queer South Asian ceramicist who had been living in India until recently and has sold a few pieces at the shop. “I use the word ‘magic,’ and I don’t use that lightly.”
Co-founder Erika Pappas, the Director of Healing Arts at Sunset Youth Services, would love to channel that magic toward healing the LGBTQ+ community’s mental-health crises in this ambiguously post-Covid season. The 80-20 payment ratio stems from that, making it just a little bit easier for creatives to stay grounded in SF and keep on making art.
“The ratio was discussed in the very beginning and agreed upon across the board,” she said. ”We want to prioritize access. So how do we do that while also figuring out how we stay afloat? Additional revenue streams, so we’re not taking from artists.”
Pappas herself is one of those artists. One of her pieces, a pair of full, red lips with a dusting of beard against a jungle backdrop, leaps off one wall like a gender-creative tropical Twizzlers ad.
“I paint when I can,” she said. “I work primarily in acrylic, and my direction right now is a combination of what is organic and what has been stigmatized around our bodies, particularly body hair.”
In order to make it all work, Queer A.F. has to host events—lots of them. Co-founder Fadi Salah leads that end of things, along with vendor relations, social media and a forthcoming online store.
“So far, we’re word-of-mouth only,” he said. “One of our events was a book launch for a small queer publication that we carry called Queer Rain, and the second was a traditional corporate buyout.”
An LGBTQ-identified employee resource group took over the space to learn more about the neighborhood’s queer history. That’s what pays the bills, but his dream event would be “something experiential, where you’re learning something and applying it.”
“There’d have to be some kind of musical or dance element,” Salah adds. “I would love for there to be a dabke dance, a Palestinian dance.”
Queer A.F.’s grand opening, which spilled onto the wide sidewalk outside on a freakishly warm June evening, may have been the biggest event.
“It’s about a vibe,” Shand said. “All the residential neighbors were like, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but I liked it!’”
Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected]