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A city, any city, can take one of several approaches to the future…. There is the route that, for some reason or other, no major city has ever tried… the route of making a city an exciting place for all to live: not just an exciting place for a few to live. 

Harvey Milk, 1973

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If we wish to rebuild our cities, we must first rebuild our neighborhoods…. To sit on the front steps… and talk to our neighborhoods is infinitely more important than to huddle on the living-room lounger and watch a make-believe world in not-quite living color. 

Harvey Milk, 1978

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Myths for the making

june 19, 2000. The Castro has made it. The district which once lost its cable car line because no tourists ever wandered in its direction now boasts a direct streetcar connection to the city’s prime tourist destination at Fishermen’s Wharf. And this month the rainbow flag is flying everywhere. It lines the broad avenue of Market Street and flutters from the balcony at City Hall. The San Francisco Pride festivities on June 24 and 25 will attract visitors from all over the world, bolstering the city’s economy by more than $100 million.

The year 1971 seems part of the dark distant past. Most of the present residents of the Castro were not even present in the city then, when police arrested 2,800 gay men on public sex charges. (Randy Shilts notes that the NYPD made only 63 similar arrests that year.) And 1961 seems buried deeper still, the year that two rather staid groups with odd names — the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis — caused a candidate for mayor to sputter with anger that his city had become the national headquarters for “sexual deviates.”

The Castro has become a permanent part of the face that San Francisco shows the world. Perhaps because, unlike the other gay areas — the demimonde Tenderloin, flamboyant Polk Gulch, and leather-clad SOMA — it wears an air of bourgeois respectability on its well-buffed shoulders. Or perhaps because it was the main mecca for the thousands of young gay men and women who left their strait-laced small towns in the 1970s in search of a more hospitable home. Frances Fitzgerald estimates that more than 50,000 came to San Francisco from 1970 to 1978. Shilts figures that 80 gay men arrived each week in 1976 alone. Most of them settled in the Castro, where housing was cheap and companionship was plentiful. Before long, these politically minded newcomers, nurtured in the activist atmosphere of the Vietnam War era, made history by electing an openly gay man to the Board of Supervisors. A week after his victory, Harvey Milk taped three messages entitled “In case.” One contained a morbidly prescient line: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

Truly, these events are such stuff as myths are made on. And part of San Francisco’s reputation for tolerance springs from the changes that have visited this one small district over the past 30 years.


But the people who revitalized the Castro also rode a wave not of their own making, one that calls for closer examination. I have a suspicion, which I hope someone will verify, that this wave was part of a series as old as the city itself. San Francisco seems to have been washed repeatedly by waves of economic booms, each bringing into port a flotilla of commercial projects based on new technologies, which threaten to displace natives with little money or influence. Each, I suspect, is welcomed because the existing economy has run into trouble and the powers-that-be find it easier or more profitable to move into new ventures than to fix old ones.

At least, that’s what happened in the late 1960s and 1970s. The city that had prospered during World War II saw its commercial and industrial bases crumble as factories and shipping moved to cheaper venues. Darby and Joan, and many of the other folks who lived on Castro Hill, left in search of jobs, leaving behind the cheap housing that attracted so many gay “homesteaders.” (And a good many more packed their bags when the first gay bar opened its doors in the neighborhood.)

The wave of the future, ushered in by Joe Alioto and his cohorts, was finance and tourism. With it came “redevelopment” in the form of downtown hotels and convention centers. This was the period when African-American residents of the Fillmore could find few places to live in their own neighborhood, spruced up to attract corporate headquarters to office space nearby. When Latinos in the Mission saw businesses founder in the path of the new BART system, constructed to bring white-collar workers to the city comfortably. When, at the same time, the west side of town watched in frustration as property taxes soared and services declined, siphoned off to poorer districts.

Into these churning waters came the new Castro settlers. Often college graduates and white-collar trained, they fit well into the new city-in-the-making. And because they fit well, they contributed to the climate of acceptance they hoped to find here.

But soon the waves receded, leaving the latest flotilla stranded on the shore. The cycle rolled on, into unemployment and financial worries. Until one day, a few years ago, when another fleet appeared offshore, this time bearing cybergifts.

Like many other districts, the Castro daily discovers new traces of the latest wave. Suddenly, longtime tenants find themselves on the streets. Suddenly, longtime shops give way to chains. Suddenly, the neighborhood is changing.

For better or for worse? Opinions are divided. The Castro has happily adopted the web as a means of communication, and its sites offer ample samples of its varied stances. The proprietor of Planet SOMA sneers: “You’d be hard-pressed to find a more generally useless neighborhood than the Castro District. A few sterile bars, several stores selling tacky rainbow-colored crap, and about 75 smoothie shops are about all there is to this homogenized upscale strip mall with the cute Victorian facades.” Toby Wiggin of Save the Castro worries: “Might the future of the Castro be in a Cyberworld of gay culture with no physical neighborhood or physical power base, where you don’t run into your friends on the street?”

WebCastro wears rosier glasses, offering the weight of the past to buttress the present: “Home to an ever-changing neighborhood of shops, restaurants, street fairs, and residents, the Castro has continued in its evolution. It is a community and a people rich with history, diversity, tears, and laughter.” Photographs and reminiscences abound here and at Uncle Donald’s Castro Street, which wanders somewhere over the rainbow to a place where “it’s a warm Sunday afternoon in the 1970’s. The sidewalks are thick with handsome men. It’s just a typical day at 18th and Castro Streets, San Francisco, crossroads of the gay world!”

What, I wonder, would Harvey Milk say about the forces transforming his beloved neighborhood and city? Perhaps what he said to the Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union on September 10, 1973: “I want a city that is not trying to become a great bankbook.”