Remember way back about a year ago, when we all heard the news that the Lexington, the last dedicated queer bar in San Francisco, was closing down? It did, in fact close down, but this year, there’s a new queer-lady-friendly space in town. And by in town, I mean across the bay, in Oakland. It’s called Qulture Collective, it’s owned by queer women, it just had its grand opening, and it is really, truly, rad.
If you go to queer events in the East Bay, then the Qulture Collective space might look familiar. The designer trunk show for Queer Fashion Week took place in the same building, and during Oakland Pride, the space was open as a place to chill and mingle amidst the festivities. Now, it’s a combination of cafe, workspace, gallery, retail store, and event space. The cafe’s out front, run by Mamacitas Cafe, which provides young female Oakland residents with job training and experience. Everything is hyper-local; the cafe serves locally roasted Red Bay coffee, the art hanging on the walls is provided by local artists, and the small retail section in the front room is full of merchandise provided by local shops and queer vendors. There’s a back room with tables and outlets where you can work, and on the second floor is available for studios, workshops, classes, etc. And y’all, the natural lighting in this place. My current day job is in an office in a windowless basement, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that cafe’s first floor windows are key.
Qulture Collective’s founders might look familiar, too: Alyah Baker runs Show & Tell, a retail shop and art gallery, a few blocks away, and Terry Sok and Julia Wolfson own a restaurant, the Garden House, down the street. I got a chance to chat with them after opening day.
Terry’s an Oakland native, and Alyah and Julia have lived here for years. They take active parts in their communities, and they see the Qulture Collective as a way to hold space and provide resources for the local queer community. Oakland has always had active and vocal population, but in spite of its reputation for having the highest concentration of lesbian couples in the country, there aren’t a lot of spaces that are dedicated to queer people. While Qulture Collective welcomes LGBTQIA+ people and allies alike to hang out, work, and collaborate, its primary goals are to “provide a central, devoted space for queer folks,” and “building QTPOC visibility.” They want to collaborate with more LGBT businesses, artists, and events, and provide a positive, public space for people to connect and learn from each other.
The Bay Area is often seen as a great place to be LGBT in America, but queer people are still oppressed, erased, and discriminated against here. They’re still marginalized in the mainstream workforce, still potentially endangered in public spaces. Safe spaces are hard to come by, and many queer-centered spaces in Oakland like monthly dance parties and queer dive bars center around, well, drinking. I love a monthly queer party, but of course, I’m queer and I like being in actively queer-friendly spaces, meeting new people and learning from them, when I’m sober, too. But opening and maintaining such a physical space isn’t easy. On a purely logistical level, the Qulture Collective ran into a few obstacles. Because the cafe and food service part of it was being built from scratch, it had to be up to recent health and safety codes, which required a more stringent approval process. “If the space came with a kitchen, the city would have been more lenient, since you’re working with what you’ve got,” Julia explained. They ended up using an IndieGogo campaign to fund the last part of the build, which required even more attention and energy. A few plans had to be put aside; they’d originally wanted to include a barbershop, but that would’ve been against code. Julia also brought up a problem specific to Qulture Collective: accessibility. Serving the community is a huge part of the mission statement. Providing a space for gatherings is a part of that. Paying the rent and the bills so that the space exists at all is also a part of that, which means that they have to find a balance between making Qulture Collective as accessible a platform as possible and keeping the lights on. They plan on using a sliding scale of rates to rent out the rooms on the top floor, and will rely on cafe and retail revenue for the rest.
The specter of gentrification and techie culture also hangs over the city — just last month, Uber announced that they were moving headquarters to Uptown Oakland — and I asked them whether they were concerned about how this would affect their businesses and close-knit downtown community of businesses, artists and activists. The founders are understandably wary, but they also expressed a willingness to roll with it, if new companies engaged with them. “Pandora moved in,” Terry pointed out. “They have two floors now, but when they moved in, they didn’t build a cafeteria for their employees. Their employees are coming out here for lunch, to our local businesses and meeting us.” More generally, “A lot of folks aren’t here to compete. We’re here to help push each other up, look out for each other, and not fight each other off.” Julia added, “I think there’s a lot of trepidation about [recent changes], but we can’t stop this wave coming. So how can we redirect it, or work with it, to protect ourselves and protect the community that’s been here and shaped the city from just being pushed aside.”
As the Qulture Collective settles in and grows, Alyah, Terry, and Julia are excited for its possibilities. There’s already a monthly open mic night and a queer movie night, but they could see more regular events happening as people offer them like karaoke. Once it can sustain more employees, they might add a mentorship program. “The space is going to shaped by the folks who use it and what they tell us they’d like to see,” Alyah said, and after opening day, they were already getting feedback on what they could provide. “A dancer had come by and asked what could be available to her. A plumber had come by, too, and expressed an interest in doing a plumbing workshop, which, we agreed was something we’d all attend. Said Terry, ultimately, “We’re open to whatever you have to throw at us.”