Where Mayberry Becomes "Gayberry"
By Joel P. Engardio
After I knocked on her door in San Francisco’s West Portal neighborhood last fall, an elderly woman told me, “Oh, I know you. You’re that gay candidate.”
An openly gay candidate for supervisor hasn’t been a big deal in San Francisco for nearly 40 years — at least on the sunny side of Twin Peaks. But it’s a different world on the foggy Westside, where half the voters in some precincts supported California’s ban on gay marriage in 2008.
The woman seemed to represent what has long defined District 7: Irish-Catholic, politically conservative, retirement age. Then she surprised me.
“Your people know how to decorate houses and improve property values,” she said. “I can vote for that!”
She was talking about couples like Ron Wong and Mike Tekulsky, realtors who moved to West Portal after many years in the Castro. They know eight other gay couples who live within two blocks of that elderly woman.
“Everyone’s nesting,” said Wong, a Westside native who returned with his partner. More gays are discovering District 7 now that they can marry. It’s the suburb of San Francisco, a bucolic stretch of real, detached homes with original details and formal dining rooms.
“A traditional neighborhood is blending into a 21st Century version of Mayberry,” said Mark Norrell, who owns West Portal Optical, a boutique that fits many gay customers with handmade, independent label eyewear. “We haven’t lost our small town feel. We’re just updating it for people who want a nice home and merchant corridor that reflects their style and taste. You could call it Gayberry.”
But there’s some resistance to Norrell’s push to update the shopping experience on West Portal Avenue. Decades-old businesses feel frozen in an earlier time and attempts to modernize are decried as ruining the area’s “village charm.”
“Our meetings can be soap opera dramatic; get the popcorn,” said Maryo Mogannam, president of the West Portal Merchants Association. “About 40 percent of the avenue is still holding onto the old way of life. Change is scary so there’s a knee-jerk ‘No’ to anything and everything.”
The prospect of a wine bar was bitterly fought.
“Some folks tried to portray me and my wife as devils,” said Vin Debut owner James Robinson, who was forced to operate under an 8 p.m. closing restriction.
“The first few years were tough,” he said. “But what helped my business were all the gay couples who showed up.”
Gay pride is visible along West Portal Avenue. The front window of Citipets, a pet supply store, displays merchandise in rainbow colors. Ambassador Toys sells rainbow flags.
It’s becoming easier for trendier establishments to succeed, like the Italian eatery Trattoria da Vittorio, where Wong said he always sees several other gay couples when he dines there.
Efforts to attract a high-end grocery have proven more difficult.
“From a business perspective, gay customers are awesome to cater to,” Mogannam said. “But our seniors don’t want to pay $4.50 for a torte and they aren’t interested in gourmet ketchup. They want Heinz.”
Still, Mogannam and Norrell are counting on a new La Boulange café to increase the neighborhood’s cool factor — even if they admit it’s not a hangout for true hipsters.
“La Boulange is the beginning of our cutting edge,” Norrell said. “Not too cutting edge to be avant-garde and just cutting edge enough to be refreshing.”
Yet Norrell has big plans. He wants to start a gay film festival and launch a Sunday brunch campaign to attract Castro transplants to the Westside.
“My gay clientele means so much to me,” Norrell said, “I’m tempted to put a rainbow flag on my store and hide my wife.”