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    El Rio Receives Legacy Business Status

    By Karen Bardsley–

    On Monday, November 13, the San Francisco Small Business Commission unanimously decided to add El Rio to the city’s Legacy Business Registry. El Rio, Your Dive (to give its full name) is a neighborhood bar and LGBTQ+ space located at 3158 Mission Street in the Mission La Lengua neighborhood, a small, southern section of the Mission nestled between Noe Valley and Bernal Heights. The venue is well known for providing a safe and supportive space for a variety of community events and fundraising activities.

    Karen Bardsley

    In response to a study that showed the city’s small businesses were closing in record numbers, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors created the Legacy Business Registry in March of 2015. In November of that year, voters passed Local Measure J, which altered the definition of Legacy Businesses and created the Legacy Business Historic Preservation Fund. The goal of the Registry is to recognize the cultural importance of longstanding, community-serving businesses and to encourage their continued viability and success with educational and promotional assistance. The Fund supports these goals by offering yearly grants to Legacy Businesses and to property owners who extend ten-year or longer leases to those businesses. 

    To qualify for the Legacy Business Registry a business must be 30 years or older, have contributed to the history and culture of their neighborhood, and have been nominated by the Mayor or by a District Supervisor. Qualified businesses complete a lengthy application and must make their case for inclusion on the Registry at a public hearing before the Small Business Commission. 

    In an interview with me for the San Francisco Bay Times, Dawn Huston, El Rio’s Owner, said that her employees drove the application process and put in an incredible amount of work to make sure it was successful. She is very grateful to these employees, to District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen—who nominated the business—and to the numerous community members and groups who supported their application.  

    Huston sees the Legacy Business Registry as one small piece of a bigger picture, as the city adopts a variety of strategies to retain small businesses. The granting of Legacy Business status is a way of saying “well done” to El Rio and its staff, both for the success of the business and for the ways it has nourished the diverse community that it serves.   

    By accepting inclusion on the registry, El Rio commits to preserving its name and the physical features and traditions that define the business and its craft.  Both the Small Business Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission recommended that El Rio preserve key features, such as the large bar and shuffleboard inside the venue, the outdoor garden, community altar, large lemon tree and wooden deck in the back, and the large wooden Carmen Miranda and Marilyn Monroe paintings on the walls.

    In addition, the Commission called for the safeguarding of the traditions that defined the bar as a community institution, including a business model that involves profit sharing with its employees and multiple ways of giving back to the community and neighborhood in which it is rooted.

    El Rio has been a neighborhood staple since 1978, when Malcolm Thornley and Robert Nett opened it as a “leather Brazilian gay bar” designed to celebrate the owner’s passions for Brazil, motorcycles, and the leather and LGBTQ community through art, music and events. For example, they started the Salsa Sundays live music tea party, a bi-monthly institution that is still a beloved feature of El Rio’s calendar and one of the best places to see live salsa music in the city. 

    These interests provided the inspiration for the business, but from the beginning it was designed to be a mixed bar that was open to everyone who embraced the owner’s accepting and open spirit. As it says in El Rio’s Legacy Business application: “The heart of [El Rio’s] community includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex communities of color and their friends.  We have always been a mixed space, and our community also encompasses a broad range of public school teachers, service workers, construction workers and trades people, musicians, dancers, artist, politicians and activists.”

    To help support this diverse community, Thornley and Nett began to hold weekly benefit parties. When Huston took over ownership of the bar in 1997—after working with Thornley and Nett for a number of years—she used her background in the non-profit sector to greatly enhance this aspect of the business. Now the bar holds several benefits a week for a wide range of causes and community organizations. 

    Dozens of groups and individuals have been helped through these benefits including Larkin Street Youth Services, SF LGBT Center, Lyon Martin Health Services, Community United Against Violence, Causa Justa, San Francisco Dyke March, Give a Dog a Bone, Leonard Flynn Elementary School PTA, Michigan Women’s Music Fest, Rocket Dog and many, many more.

    As well as hosting a variety of one-off benefit events, El Rio houses regular events that have become essential gathering places for certain Bay Area populations. For example, El Rio goes out of its way to stage events that create women-centered queer spaces.  One such event, “Mango,” a monthly dance party for queer women of color and their friends, celebrated its 21th anniversary this year. The long lines of people waiting to get into the event attest to its importance and popularity.    

    Changing economic realities have forced many women-centered queer businesses to close, and the traditionally LGBTQ neighborhoods are becoming less and less affordable. As a result, many of the Bay Area’s queer women have become social nomads. Using social media platforms to spread the word, they assemble at venues across the city, temporarily making bars and restaurants women-dominated, queer spaces. 

    It is a testament to the growing acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community that so many Bay Area businesses are welcoming to these momentary transformations. The constant shifting from place to place, however, can be disorienting. It is important that some of the traditional spaces and events remain. El Rio is one of those safe harbors, a place where queer women can, and do, come together on a regular basis.

    Above all, El Rio is a neighborhood bar where one can relax, have an affordable drink and perhaps play some shuffleboard or (most recently) ping pong. Despite gentrification in the Mission and the displacement of many of its traditional residents, El Rio has committed to keeping its pricing accessible and to welcoming customers both old and new.

    Furthermore, it will continue to be a community center, providing a safe place for people to enjoy themselves, celebrate, and do some good for a valuable cause. In so doing, “legacy” seems an appropriate moniker for the business, as the word captures both the idea of historical significance and the sense that something is being passed on to the future as a gift from that history. 

    In gaining Legacy Business status, El Rio, Your Dive, is looking both to the future and to the past, and to inviting Bay Area residents both old and new to join in on the fun. “Support local businesses,” Huston advises. “Make the world you want to live in with your actions and with your pocketbook.” If there is a cause that you want to support or a space that you want to create, she advises to “be an event producer.” 

    As the past 39 years of this Legacy Business’ history attest, it is easy enough to do, especially when you have El Rio on your side.

    Karen Bardsley is an independent scholar and writer who lives in the Bay Area.


    El Rio Feels Like Home

    By DJ Olga T

    El Rio has always felt like home since the very first time I was able to DJ at the opening of Mango, San Francisco’s longest running Tea Dance for women and their friends, 21 years ago. Just the fact that a bar owner gave a women’s party an actual Saturday was a huge deal. Also, it is refreshing that El Rio is an LGBTQ space that truly welcomes everybody—and I mean everybody, as El Rio is dog friendly as well—regardless of gender identity, sexual identity, race, age, and countless other labels that tend to separate us.

    To know that you can always come to El Rio and not be judged or feel out of place for simply being whoever you may be is so incredibly valuable. In my many years of DJing all over the Bay Area and countless venues on the West Coast, I have never ever felt so supported and safe as I do here.  

    It’s rare to work with bar staff who not only care about proving excellent service to their patrons, but also who genuinely care about the community they serve. I have always noticed how the staff work as a team, are extremely diverse, and completely support and include communities of color, transgender and non-binary people and organizations. El Rio doesn’t shy away from fiercely combatting every and any “ism” every day, all the time, in order to make everyone feel safe, welcome and relaxed.

    I’ve often worried about the day that I would hear that El Rio is no more simply because of the needless greed in the real estate market, which has displaced so many people and cherished businesses in the past few years. El Rio and countless other businesses in the city—whether they’re queer or not—are very important to the people and communities they serve. 

    There’s, of course, the historical significance, but even within that, I think the cultural richness that is nurtured and passed on through the decades—when people love and support a business that loves and supports them in the way they interact at the venue—is priceless. What I mean is that long-standing successful businesses like El Rio thrive because of events or activities that are not solely driven on profit, but rather are a rich combination of entertaining, political awareness, community building and even fundraising that is directly relevant to the people and community that support the business.  

    People who walk into El Rio, whether they’re heterosexual or not, immediately sense that El Rio is different and that difference feels good and it feels safe. That vibe, that mindset of the place being community driven and supported, is key and it exists because of the longevity of the space and the people who run and support it.

    It’s a welcome relief to know that El Rio won’t be going anywhere soon. Like I said before, El Rio always feels like home to me and that is never a place you want to disappear or lose.

    DJ Olga T hosts the ultra-popular Mango events at El Rio. Mango celebrated its 21st anniversary in October of this year. Called “Northern California’s master of the decks,” DJ Olga T keeps dance floors packed week after week. For more info: