At a July 21 event recognizing the passage of one full year since the popular Castro bar the Pendulum closed, a group of about 25 concerned citizens, including several City Hall heavyweights, asked why embattled Pendulum owner Les Natali has done nothing with the space for so long.
Sup. Bevan Dufty, who represents the Castro, was nowhere to be seen.
The Pendulum was known in Dufty’s district as a popular spot for African American gay men, and rumors abounded as to why Natali was allowing it to sit empty. Natali, who owns at least $6 million worth of property around the city according to public records, had kept the bar open for over a year after he bought it in 2004, then abruptly shut it down.
Natali has since taken out numerous construction permits for the place, city records show. But progressive supervisors, including Tom Ammiano and Chris Daly along with board candidate Alix Rosenthal (who’s running against Dufty), all showed up for the small rally saying nothing was happening and they wanted to make sure there was somewhere in the Castro for gay black men to go.
Confusion about the status of the Pendulum has been replaced with speculation, due in part to an April 2005 city report that alleged that Natali discriminated against African Americans, Latinos, and women at his establishments, which include the Detour on Market Street and SF Badlands, located just across the street from the Pendulum at 4121 18th St.
At the time, Dufty waved the report and declared that he wouldn’t tolerate business establishments in his district that discriminated against any of their employees or patrons. So where is he now?
“At this point I have a larger objective: that I want to work with Mr. Natali and the broader community so that when the Pendulum reopens, it will be open to all,” Dufty said in a phone interview with the Guardian. “Sometimes I work behind the scenes and sometimes I work out in front,” he responded when asked about his silence on the Pendulum issue. “This time I worked behind the scenes.”
But Calvin Gipson, a past president of the SF Pride Parade Committee and a self-described close friend of Dufty’s, says he doesn’t know how Dufty intends to handle the political powder keg that is Les Natali or how the Castro can again create a new home for gay black men.
“Bevan confuses me,” Gipson said. “He says all of the right things, but he has not put forth a plan.”
The controversy, for its part, has clearly left a fissure in the community.
In the summer of 2004, customers and former employees of other Natali-owned Castro bars alleged to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission that the proprietor systematically attempted to screen out African Americans, Latinos, and women from his venues.
The HRC conducted an investigation and eventually issued a report summarizing the complaints and finding that Badlands had indeed violated the city’s antidiscrimination ordinances. Some Natali critics accepted the report as gospel and declared that it made official rumors about the club impresario that had persisted for years. Dufty and the complainants from Badlands, who eventually formed a group called And Castro for All, demanded that the place be shut down by city and state officials.
The report, however, was technically preliminary, as the HRC now sees it, and the agency chose not to issue its “final determination” after the complainants later worked out a settlement with Natali, according to a letter from HRC director Virginia Harmon obtained by the Guardian last week.
Natali sued the HRC last month to have its findings voided, and that’s what the legalese in Harmon’s July 21 letter appears to attempt to do — without establishing that the claims made in the report are patently untrue.
“The April 26, 2005, finding is no longer operative and does not represent a final legal determination of the HRC director or the commission,” the letter states.
After interviewing several customers and former Badlands and Detour employees, the HRC originally found that Natali’s bars required multiple IDs from some African American customers, selectively applied a dress code, and generally discouraged “non-Badlands customers” — what the complainants insisted meant black folks — from patronizing the bars. According to the report, Natali prohibited VJs from playing hip-hop and mostly hired only “cute, young, white guys.”
Natali eventually asked that the HRC reconsider its findings, which it did. He responded to the allegations by stating that he didn’t want his bars to air music that promoted drug use, violence, or homophobia, and he charged that the claims against him were either outdated or leveled by embittered former employees.
An attorney who helped Natali formulate the response, Stephen Goldstein, said the HRC’s investigation was “superficial and already headed toward a foregone conclusion.”
“They had a certain agenda they wanted to substantiate…. They could have had a more careful study of the events, which didn’t add up to much,” Goldstein said. He said Natali wasn’t given a chance to have his case “aired and tried.” Attempts to reach Natali through his attorneys failed.
Instead of issuing a “final determination,” which would have included an account of Natali’s retort, the HRC encouraged the parties to go into the mediation that eventually led to a settlement. The settlement allowed the HRC to avoid issuing a final conclusion.
After the release of the HRC’s early finding, meanwhile, Dufty had called for Badlands to be shut down and urged the Alcoholic Beverage Commission to take into account the report before determining whether Natali would receive a liquor license transfer for the Pendulum.
After a months-long investigation that included state officials going into Badlands undercover, the ABC chose not to punish Natali.
“After reviewing all the findings of its investigation and the HRC report, the ABC has determined there is not enough evidence to support a license denial in an administrative proceeding,” the agency announced last year.
Nonetheless, queer progressive activists and organizers from the National Black Justice Coalition held protests outside Badlands every week for about four months last summer. After the January settlement, according to local LGBT paper Bay Area Reporter, the parties agreed not to discuss any of the terms publicly, but they did announce to the press that all grievances were handled.
The settlement’s undisclosed terms have obviously left unanswered questions, however, because Natali’s lawsuit against the HRC appeared to reopen wounds and startle nearly everyone. The settlement had presumably meant the complaints were withdrawn, but the HRC had initially denied a request by Natali in April 2005, around the time the report was released, to reconsider its own findings, Natali’s suit insists.
“It just seemed like everything had been put at rest and now it’s all being dredged up again,” said longtime queer activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who went to last summer’s protests. “It just seemed so strange for someone who was trying to put all this behind him.”
Natali’s suit declared he’d been “falsely labeled a racist by San Francisco’s official civil rights agency” and essentially asked that the report’s findings be very clearly and publicly deleted.
But the still-empty Pendulum has allowed criticism of Natali to continue. Another Natali-owned space called the Patio Café has been closed now for years.
“The tone [of the July 21 rally] was that people don’t trust Les Natali, nor do they feel that he has the best interests of the community in mind,” Gipson said. “Being that the Patio has been closed for that long, it’s difficult to trust that Pendulum will be open soon, and it’s difficult to trust that it will be a welcoming place for African Americans.” SFBG
Editor’s note: Alix Rosenthal is the domestic partner of Guardian city editor Steven T. Jones. Jones did not participate in the assigning, writing, or editing of this story.