Photography by Michelle Kilfeather and Jeff Hunt
San Francisco is about to get its first new LGBTQ bar in a long, long time, y'all.
In Part 1, we'll meet Malia Spanyol. Currently, Malia owns Thee Parkside. She was born in Honolulu and went to ASU in Tempe, Arizona. But she hated it and came to San Francisco in 1989 just before the big earthquake that year.
Malia was already out and was here looking for her people. She worked, went to school at SF State, made friends, and explored the town on her motorcycle. It was a "great time to be gay in SF," the early 1990s.
She was always going to music shows, art shows, poetry readings, and parties, mostly in the Mission. "Valencia Street was dirty" then, Malia says. She worked in a dildo factory and lived in Hayes Valley. On her way to work, she and friends would drive down Valencia in a t-top, out and proud as fuck.
At her job, Malia learned bookkeeping and helped friends and small businesses do taxes. She seized an opportunity to become a business owner herself when she bought Pop's Bar with friends in 2003. Lil Tuffy, who some of you might know from this podcast and his show posters, came in and became the manager at the bar.
Malia ran Pop's for 10 years, from 2003 to 2013. In 2007, she found out about an opportunity at Thee Parkside, a spot with more to offer—food, a stage, an outside area. And so she capitalized. As Malia notes, the area around Thee Parkside was very different then—more blue collar.
She learned Muay Thai around 2007 and fell in love with the sport. Her coach asked her to open a new gym and she did.
We start Part 2 talking, briefly, about the 2016 election. Then we move on to COVID and how the pandemic affected Thee Parkside. In a word, it was devastating, but Malia and her crew rose to the challenge. They had opened La Lucha coffee from the front window of the joint in 2015, and were able to keep that going.
Because of Parkside's kitchen, they were considered essential and so were able to be open when other bars weren't. But, as Malia points out, it was a "constant state of pivoting." It wasn't only the always-changing federal, state, and local regulations around COVID, but she and crew trying out different things until they got to what worked.
Even though they made it, COVID got Malia thinking about community. Her friend, photographer Chloe Sherman, had been posting photos of queer San Francisco through the years. The photography revealed for Malia what had been lost, not in the pandemic, but through gentrification over decades. This inspired her to start doing research on the history of lesbian bars in The City.
At this point, Malia dives into some of that history, including the 40-some-odd lesbian bars that existed in San Francisco between World War II and the 1990s. She touches on the bigotry and discrimination of the lesbian community over the decades and what it meant to overcome that and operate a business, even here in The City.
Seeing a void, Malia sought to re-establish a space in San Francisco for womxn and femme-centered queers. With a word in to her realtor, incredibly, the spot on 16th Street in the Mission that used to be Esta Noche was available. Signs? Signs.
Opened in 1979 by gay Latinx men who were tired of going to predominantly white bars in the Castro, Esta Noche thrived for 35 years until 2014, when a new liquor licensing fee was imposed and they were unable to raise enough money to cover it. Bond bar opened soon after and ran until its owner sold to Malia earlier this month. Everything is set for Mother to open its doors.
Malia speaks to the fears of doing what she's doing. Not one to seek the spotlight, she feels an intense pressure to get this right, to defy what seem like odds in these times. We applaud her efforts and look forward to seeing Mother thrive for many, many years.
We recorded this episode at Thee Parkside in Potrero Hill in November 2022.