San Francisco Castro District
Welcome to Castro District!
The Castro’s vibrant culture and colorful streetscapes have long been a source of San Francisco PRIDE. Buzzing with life and activity, the Castro’s flamboyant bars and restaurants, glittering shops, and historical theaters comprise its endearingly unapologetic attitude. Although this neighborhood is considered San Francisco’s gay-friendly epicenter, all are invited to experience the Castro’s unabashed zest for life. No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a trip to the Castro, San Francisco’s own gay village.
The Castro District, commonly referenced as The Castro, is a neighborhood in Eureka Valley in San Francisco, California. The Castro was one of the first gay neighborhoods in the United States and has been one of the liveliest for several decades. Having transformed from a working-class neighborhood through the 1960s and 1970s, the Castro remains one of the most prominent symbols of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activism. It brings in the capital all year round with many events catered to the gay community along with everyday business.
Here comes the History of the Castro District. The Castro Street was named for José Castro (1808–1860), a Californio leader of Mexican opposition to U.S. rule in California in the 19th century, and alcalde of Alta California from 1835 to 1836. The neighborhood now known as the Castro was created in 1887 when the Market Street Railway Company built a line linking the Eureka Valley to downtown. In 1891, Alfred E. Clarke built his mansion at the corner of Douglass and Caselli Avenue at 250 Douglass which is commonly referenced as the Caselli Mansion. It survived the 1906 earthquake and fire which destroyed a large portion of San Francisco. At the time when Finnish Sea Captain Gustave Niebaum, the founder of Inglenook Winery in Rutherford, California, was busy conducting business in the San Francisco Bay Area and Alaska – from the late 19th to early 20th century -, both places had considerably large Finnish settlements.
As the Governor in Russian America from 1858 to 1864, Finnish Johan Hampus Furuhjelm helped pave way for the American Alaska purchase, just like Gustave Niebaum did as the Consul of Russia in the United States in 1867 when Alaska became a part of the United States of America. During his governorship, Johan Hampus Furuhjelm put an end to the hostilities with the natives in Alaska and he succeeded in abolishing the Alaskan Ice Treaty with San Francisco.
According to a contract which had been signed, Russian America had to deliver a certain amount of ice to San Francisco at a fixed price. The problem was that the product melted down on the way to the warmer climates. The ice contract became very awkward for the Russian colony. Furuhjelm arranged for a new contract to sell ice to San Francisco: 3,000 tons at $25.00 a ton. The Russian-American Company had been established in 1802. Finns and Swedes and other Lutherans who had worked for the company had erected the Sitka Lutheran Church in Alaska in 1840. It was the very first Protestant church on the Pacific Coast.
Officially registered Finnish Club No. 1 was established in the Castro District of San Francisco in 1882. Soon after, two “Finnish Halls” were erected nearby. Before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, nearly all the kids attending the McKinley school were Finnish. Following the earthquake, a large amount of Finns of San Francisco – and Finns from elsewhere alike – moved to Berkeley, where many Finns had settled already before.
This is the period when Finnila’s Finnish Baths began serving customers in the Castro District of San Francisco. Despite of public outcry and attempts to prevent the closing down of the popular Finnila’s Market Street bathhouse, the old bathhouse building was demolished by Alfred Finnila soon after the farewell party held at the end of December 1985. Today, the Finnila family still owns the new Market & Noe Center building.
In 1906, St. Francis Lutheran Church was erected and the construction work was completed by immigrants from the Nordic countries, where Lutheranism is the largest religious group. In the early 20th century – especially from c. 1910 to 1920s – the Castro District of San Francisco and some of the surrounding area was known as Little Scandinavia, because of the large number of residents of Swedish, Norwegian and Danish ancestry. The Castro gradually became a working-class Irish neighborhood in the 1930s and remained so until the mid-1960s. There was originally a cable car line with large double-ended cable cars that ran until the tracks were dismantled in 1941.
The U.S. military dishonorably discharged thousands of gay servicemen from the Pacific theater in San Francisco during World War II (early 1940s) because of their sexuality. Many settled in the bay area, San Francisco and Sausalito.In San Francisco an established gay community began in numerous areas. The 1950s saw large amounts of families moving out to the suburbs in what became known as the “White flight”, leaving open large amounts of real estate and creating attractive locations for gay purchasers. By 1963, the Castro’s first gay bar was opened called the “Missouri Mule”.
The Castro’s age as a gay Mecca began during the late 1960s with the Summer of Love in the neighboring Haight-Ashbury district in 1967. The 1967 gathering brought tens of thousands of middle-class youth from all over the United States to the Haight, which saw its own exodus when well-organized individuals and collectives started to see the Castro as an oasis from the massive influx.
The gay community created an upscale, fashionable urban center in the Castro District in the 1970s. The neighborhood previously known as Eureka Valley became known as the Castro. Many San Francisco gays moved there after about 1970 because large Victorian houses were available at low rents or available for purchase for low down payments when their former middle-class owners had fled to the suburbs.
By 1973, Harvey Milk, who would become the most famous resident of the neighborhood, opened a camera store, Castro Camera, and began political involvement as a gay activist, further contributing to the notion of the Castro as a gay destination. Some of the culture of the late 1970s included what was termed the “Castro clone”, a mode of dress and personal grooming that exemplified butchness and masculinity of the working-class men.
There were numerous famous watering holes in the area contributing to the nightlife. After the bars are closed, the men remaining at that hour often would line up along the sidewalk to indicate that they were still available to go home with someone. One can see Rainbow flags, which are commonly associated with gay pride, are hung as banners on streetlights along the road. The area was hit hard by the AIDS/HIV crisis of the 1980s. Beginning in 1984, city officials began a crackdown on bathhouses and launched initiatives that aimed to prevent the spread of AIDS.
The Castro is a “thriving marketplace for all things gay” meaning everything in the area is catered to people who identify with LGBT culture and other associated meanings to the word gay. There are cafes, the Castro Theater, and many businesses that cater to or openly welcome LGBT consumers. These establishments make the Castro an area of high spending and lead to high tourist traffic. The city’s local people travel to visit the events that take place such as the Castro Street Fair. Events such as the fairs drum up business for the community and bring in people from all over the nation who visit solely for the atmosphere the Castro provides. People who do not necessarily feel comfortable expressing themselves in their own community have the freedom to travel to places such as the Castro to escape the alienation and feel accepted. There is a sense of belonging and acceptance that is promoted throughout the district to accommodate non hetero-normative people that many LGBT travelers are attracted to.
A major cultural destination in the neighborhood is the GLBT History Museum. It is the first full-scale, stand-alone museum of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history in the United States. The Pink Triangle Park is a city park and monument named after the pink triangles forcibly worn by gay prisoners persecuted by the Nazis during World War II.
Finding a place to live in the Castro is very difficult. Each room, floor, and home is coveted by dozens of would-be tenants who want to call themselves Castro residents. The homes are a mix of nicely kept, older Victorians often with multiple stories and tenants and newer condominium-like buildings. Most of the blocks in the Castro have leafy interior tree-filled courtyards, usually fenced off into individual yards, but occasionally sharing space with neighbors.
As laws passed and the rights of the people in the community became equal they had the opportunity to urbanize their cities to make it a fun and gay friendly environment. Today, if you visit the Castro district or surrounding neighborhoods, you will see how urbanized and beautiful these areas have become. “You can interpret sexual oppression in many different forms of social inequality and a limited understanding of sexuality itself; it suggests that sexuality becomes salient only when other social structures, such as race, gender, and class, are suspended”.