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San Francisco’s Castro District has been a vital part of San Francisco’s identity for decades. From Harvey Milk’s campaign for social change in the 1970s to today’s efforts to minimize the impact of gentrification on the community, the neighborhood is an integral part of the city’s magic.
Once owned by Mexican land barons, the rainbow-adorned Castro District situated between Ashbury Heights and the Mission District in San Francisco has transformed itself from a meeting spot for dairy farmers to what is now dubbed the gay capital of the USA. Through the 1960s and 70s, the Castro played an integral role in the LGBTQ-rights movement. Today, the Castro commemorates a rich history of civil, social and gender rights in San Francisco.
The Castro’s history is rich with details of ongoing change. The neighborhood was named after the 19th-century politician José Castro, who was once the commanding general of Alta California (the northern part of California).
The neighborhood saw rapid development after the construction of a Market Street rail line in 1887 that allowed passengers fast access to the city’s downtown area. Situated in the Eureka Valley of San Francisco, the Castro was a once sparsely populated valley surrounded by steep hills that was home to many Irish, German and Scandinavian immigrants in the late 19th century. Homesteaders, farmers and families lined the streets with Victorian-style homes, many of which remain today.
In the 1930s, working-class families filtered through the Castro. But following World War II, the demographics started to shift and families moved from city to suburb in a nationally induced migration. As the families moved out, dishonorably discharged servicemen moved in, most charged with sodomy or “homosexual acts.” By the 1970s, 40 years of activism and community growth led to wider acceptance and a neighborhood that acted as a safe haven for LGBTQ folk.
In 1977 the Castro finally earned its historical place in the civil fight for LGBTQ rights. That year, prominent civil-rights activist Harvey Milk ran his fourth electoral campaign from his Castro camera store. That was the year he finally won, becoming the “unofficial Mayor of Castro Street.”
Milk was the first openly gay elected official in California history, but he was assassinated only a year later. Less than a decade after that, the City of San Francisco officially named the Castro MUNI station part of Harvey Milk Plaza. Today, the immortalization of Harvey Milk persists, whether it’s through Sean Penn’s portrayal in the film Milk (2008) or the camera storefront that is now the Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store, and Milk’s breakthrough as an LGBTQ icon paved the way for the Castro community we see today.
The Castro community faced a great national epidemic in the 1980s and 90s: the HIV/AIDS crisis began to take hold from 1981 to 1984, as the number of AIDS cases reported rose from a handful to over 800. Rising numbers continued to appear in gay communities, mostly in New York and San Francisco. A New York Times article published in 1987 outlined the devastation the Castro neighborhood faced at the height of the epidemic. Shops were closing, homes were up for sale and many residents were grappling with friends and loved ones being diagnosed with the deadly disease.
As a result, advocacy groups such as the San Francisco AIDS Foundation began their mobilization efforts. During the summer of 1983, the group worked to educate people during San Francisco’s Gay Pride parade, by handing out condoms to the crowd. According to the AIDS Foundation, this act “was among the first significant outreach efforts to change the course of the epidemic.” This spurred a momentum that would define the Castro for generations, as the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (along with Strut, the Foundation’s health and wellness outpost in the Castro) continued giving out hundreds of thousands of condoms each year.
With numerous hangouts, clubs, bars and restaurants spread throughout the Castro, it’s transformed itself into a modern-day safe haven. The Twin Peaks Tavern, a long-standing go-to bar for locals and visitors, is often referred to as “the gateway to the Castro.” The tavern is located at the intersection of Castro Street and Market Street, right across the street from the Harvey Milk Plaza. Often described as the first gay bar in the city to put its activities on clear public view, the Twin Peaks Tavern was purchased in 1972 by Mary Ellen Cunha and Peggy Forster, a same-sex couple who identified as gay. The pair installed plate-glass windows in a symbolic act intended to enlighten passersby. By 2013, the tavern was awarded historic status in the city of San Francisco.
“The Castro offers a safe place for us LGBTQIA folks,” says Kenny Lim, a credit specialist who has been frequenting the Castro since he was a teenager. In his eyes, recent years have brought improvements to the neighborhood. “We now have plaques on the sidewalk honoring queer folks who came before us. We also have rainbow crossroads. It took a while for us to get this.”
For University of San Francisco student Jizelle Mariano, it’s the newfound freedom of sexual expression that makes the Castro a safe haven. “This neighborhood was created in the hopes of love being shared with anyone and everyone, a place where love is love is love is love is love,” says Mariano.
Among the monumental and historical Spanish Colonial and Baroque-inspired buildings is a new wave of sexual expression. “Cheeky sex-toy shops,” as Mariano puts it, are perhaps the pinnacle of this movement, with locations like Does Your Mother Know and Good Vibrations lining the Castro streets.
Neighborhood pride extends itself to the artistic residents and the actual decor on the streets. In 2014, the city collaborated with private entities to create rainbow-painted crosswalks as a monument to the city’s LGBTQ history. The rest of the neighborhood is just as colorful, with rainbow flags flying from businesses and bars along the streets.
“My favorite thing about it is how people dress,” says Ashira Elspeth, a former San Franciscian who frequently visits the city. “It’s inspiring to see so many unique looks and outfits.” But the artists who brought their energy to the neighborhood are not as common here now as they once were. As San Francisco remains the most expensive US city to live in, local business struggle to stay afloat in the Golden Gate City. Angela Newsham, a performance artist who lives with her wife in a brightly painted Victorian home in the neighborhood, witnesses the changes in her neighborhood every day.
“I woke up this morning and asked my wife if she would join me for coffee at a place on Market and Castro. We arrived and were shocked it was completely gone. Then we ended up going to a place across the street, to another café we loved, but realized it shut down last year,” says Newsham. Still, she believes there’s still inspiration and love to be found in the neighborhood, saying, “I have had many conversations with people in the Castro that have inspired my art.”
Despite past and present challenges, the vibrancy of the Castro is still thriving. Rainbow banners line the streets and dance music can be heard from the sidewalks. Advocacy remains a large part of the culture. Groups such as the Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Let’s Kick ASS – AIDS Survivor Syndrome work towards helping those in the LGBTQ community, while groups such as And Castro For All promote inclusion in the neighborhood. The pride of San Francisco can truly be found in the people and places of the Castro.