The Castro, San Francisco
|Neighborhood of San Francisco|
Castro Street and its namesake neighborhood, the Castro
|Nickname(s): The Castro, The Gay melting pot|
|Named for||José Castro|
|• Board of Supervisors||Scott Wiener|
|• State Assembly||Tom Ammiano (D)|
|• State Senate||Mark Leno (D)|
|• U.S. House||Nancy Pelosi (D)|
|• Total||1.71 km2 (0.662 sq mi)|
|• Land||1.71 km2 (0.662 sq mi)|
|• Density||7,290/km2 (18,890/sq mi)|
|ZIP Code||94110, 94114|
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 most lively 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 (LGBT) activism and events.
San Francisco's gay village is mostly concentrated in the business district that is located on Castro Street from Market Street to 19th Street. It extends down Market Street toward Church Street and on both sides of the Castro neighborhood from Church Street to Eureka Street. Although the greater gay community was, and is, concentrated in the Castro, many gay people live in the surrounding residential areas bordered by Corona Heights, the Mission District, Noe Valley, Twin Peaks, and Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods. Some consider it to include Duboce Triangle and Dolores Heights, which both have a strong LGBT presence.
Castro Street, which originates a few blocks north at the intersection of Divisadero and Waller Streets, runs south through Noe Valley, crossing the 24th Street business district and ending as a continuous street a few blocks farther south as it moves toward the Glen Park neighborhood. It reappears in several discontinuous sections before ultimately terminating at Chenery Street, in the heart of Glen Park.
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 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 (1879) in Rutherford, California, was busy conducting business in the San Francisco Bay Area and Alaska - from 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 (at the time Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia), 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. One was located at the corner of 24th Street and Hoffman Street. The other hall was located on Flint Street, on the "Rocky Hill" above Castro, an area densely Finnish-populated at the time - a Finn Town. Before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, nearly all the kids attending the McKinley school (now McKinley Elementary School) at 1025 14th Street (at Castro) 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. A big part of the early Berkeley population was Finnish.
This is the period when Finnila's Finnish Baths began serving customers in the Castro District of San Francisco, first starting in the early 1910s at 9 Douglass Street; then starting in 1919 at 4032 17th Street, a half block west from the busy Castro Street; then starting in 1932 at 2284 Market Street; finally in 1986 - after having been stationed in the San Francisco's Castro District for over seven decades - continuing as Finnila's Health Club at 465 Taraval Street in the San Francisco's Sunset District. 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 in the end of December, 1985. Today, the Finnila family still owns the new Market & Noe Center building attached to Cafe Flore, in the corner of Market and Noe Streets.
In 1906, St. Francis Lutheran Church St. Francis Lutheran Church was erected at 152 Church Street, between Market Street and Duboce Street. The construction work was completed by immigrants from the Nordic countries, where Lutheranism is the largest religious group. The project overseen primarily by Danes took place in the heart of what was then the Nordic-dominated Duboce-Market neighborhood of San Francisco. Facing the backside of St. Francis Lutheran Church, a small and light-colored Finnish church served Finnish-speaking church-goers on the one block long side street.
The 1943 novel Mama's Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes focused on a Norwegian family living in the area in the 1910s. Forbes' book served as the inspiration for John Van Druten's 1944 play I Remember Mama. The play was adapted to a Broadway theater production in 1944; to a movie in 1948; to a CBS Mama television series running from 1949 until 1957; to a Lux Radio Theater play in the late 1950s; and to a Broadway musical in 1979. "Mama's Bank Account" reflected a (then) Eureka Valley neighborhood, where for generations Norwegians worshiped at the Norwegian Lutheran Church at 19th and Dolores streets, and met for fraternal, social events and Saturday night dances at Dovre Hall, 3543 18th Street, now the Women's Building.
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 Cove on Castro used to be called The Norse Cove at the time. The Scandinavian Seamen's Mission operated for a long time on 15th Street, off Market Street, just around the corner from the Swedish-American Hall, which remains in the district. In 1920s - during the prohibition -, the downstairs of the Swedish-American Hall served as a speak-easy, one of many in the area. "Unlicensed saloons" were known as ‘speak-easies’, according to an 1889 newspaper. They were "so called because of the practice of speaking quietly about such a place in public, or when inside it, so as not to alert the police or neighbors." 
Scandinavian-style "half-timber" construction can still be seen in some of the buildings along Market Street, between Castro and Church Streets. A restaurant called Scandinavian Deli operated for decades on Market Street, between Noe and Sanchez Streets, almost directly across the street from Finnila's.
1930s Irish neighborhood to gay mecca
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 along Castro Street from Market Street to 29th St. until the tracks were dismantled in 1941 and it was replaced by the 24 MUNI bus. The Castro is at the end of the straight portion of the Market Street thoroughfare and a mostly residential area follows Market Street as it curves and rises up and around the Twin Peaks mountains.
The U.S. military dishonorably discharged thousands of gay servicemen in San Francisco during World War II (early 1940s) because of their sexuality. Many settled in the Castro, beginning a noticeable influx of gays to the Castro neighborhood. A popular gathering place had been near the foot of Market Street, but in 1967 this area was torn up and disrupted due to the tunneling and building of the Bay Area Rapid Transit stations underground.
The Castro came more of age as a gay mecca during the 1970s after the Summer of Love in the neighboring Haight-Ashbury district in 1967 which is separated from the Castro by a large mountain topped by Buena Vista Park. The hippie and free love movements had fostered communal living and free society ideas including housing of large groups of people in hippie communes. Many were overtly gay-inclusive, or even LGBT-centric. Even before the Summer of Love gathering LGBT households were being set-up in the Castro neighborhood. Before the 1960s hippie scene, the car culture sweeping the U.S. led to a flight to the suburbs for many of the area families who saw the counter-cultures in the sixties, including women's lib, and increasing acceptance of minorities including blacks and gays as oppositional to their church and family centered lives. The 1967 gathering brought tens of thousands of middle-class youth from all over the United States to the Haight which saw its own flight of sorts when well-organized individuals and collectives started to see the Castro as an oasis from the massive influx. Many of the hippies had no way to support themselves or places to shelter.
The neighborhood previously known as Eureka Valley became known as the Castro after the landmark theatre by that name near the corner of Castro and Market Streets. Before the Spring of 1970 (April or May), the Castro was straight. Then Herb Caen wrote in his colume that Polk Street was getting kinda seedy and that any gay who wanted a better neighborhood should take a yellow taxi to the corner of Castro and Market on a Friday at 11AM. I was working at the Castro-Market Bank of America that day, and looked out at a sea of yellow cabs. In one day the neighborhood was transformed. The twin Peaks bar was not gay until that day. The 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 in construction—tight denim jeans, black or sand combat boots, tight T-shirt or, often, an Izod crocodile shirt, possibly a red plaid flannel outer shirt, and usually sporting a mustache or full beard—in vogue with the gay male population at the time, and which gave rise to the nickname "Clone Canyon" for the stretch of Castro Street between 18th and Market Streets.
There were numerous famous watering holes in the area contributing to the nightlife, including the Corner Grocery Bar, Toad Hall, the Pendulum, the Midnight Sun, Twin Peaks, and the Elephant Walk. A typical daytime street scene of the period is perhaps best illustrated by mentioning the male belly dancers who could be found holding forth in good weather at the corner of 18th and Castro on "Hibernia Beach," in front of the financial institution from which it drew its name. Then at night, after the bars closed at 2 AM, the men remaining at that hour often would line up along the sidewalk of 18th Street to indicate that they were still available to go home with someone (aka The Meat Rack).
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. Kiosks lining Market Street and Castro Street now have posters promoting safe sex and testing right alongside those advertising online dating services.
18th and Castro is a major intersection in the Castro, where many historic events, marches, protests have taken and continue to take place.
A major cultural destination in the neighborhood is the GLBT History Museum, which opened for previews on Dec. 10, 2010, at 4127 18th St. The first full-scale, stand-alone museum of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history in the United States (and only the second in the world after the Schwules Museum in Berlin), The GLBT History Museum is a project of the GLBT Historical Society.
The F Market heritage streetcar line turnaround at Market and 17th-streets where the Jane Warner city park let sits. Across Castro street is the Harvey Milk Plaza in honor of its most famous resident with its iconic giant flag pole with an oversized rainbow flag, symbol of the LGBT community. Below street level is the main entrance to the Castro Street Station, a Muni Metro subway station and a multitiered park. Milk's camera store and campaign headquarters which were at 575 Castro has a memorial plaque and mural on the inside of the store, now housing the Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store. There is a smaller mural above the sidewalk on the building showing Milk looking down on the street fondly.
Across Market Street from Harvey Milk Plaza, and slightly up the hill, is the Pink Triangle Park - 17th Street at Market, a city park and monument named after the pink triangles forcibly worn by gay prisoners persecuted by the Nazis during World War II.
Twin Peaks is the first gay bar in the city, and possibly the United States, with plate glass windows to fully visibly expose patrons to the public is located at the intersection of Market and Castro.
Special events, parade and street fairs that are held in the Castro include the Castro Street Fair, the Dyke March, the famed Halloween in the Castro which was discontinued in 2007 due to street violence, Pink Saturday, and the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.
A LGBT Walk of Fame was installed in August 2014 with an inaugural 20 sidewalk plaques representing past LGBT icons in their field, who continue to serve as inspirations. The walk is originally planned to coincide with the business district of the Castro and eventually include 500 bronze plaques.
The main business section of Castro St from Market to 19th street were under reconstruction and repaving in 2014 to address a number of neighborhood concerns. The area has heavy vehicular traffic as well as many visitors. As part of the work the sidewalks were widened and new trees were planted. Additionally 20 historical cement etchings covering from the inception to the area being settled to the 2010s sweeping gay marriage movement victories will be installed in September 2014.
San Francisco has a large and thriving tourist economy due to ethnic and cultural communities such as Chinatown, North Beach, Haight-Ashbury and the Castro. The Castro is a site of economic success that brings in capital all year round with many events catered to the gay community along with everyday business.
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. In addition to the city's locals people travel to visit the shops and restaurants as well as 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 travellers are attracted to.
The Golden Gate Business Association (GGBA) was created in 1974 to help promote the Castro as a place for tourists, but also San Francisco and LGBT businesses as a whole. The GGBA sought to gain local political power and hoped to achieve their gains through an increase in gay tourism. This association formed the San Francisco Gay Tourism and Visitor’s Bureau in 1983. Politically, the Bureau was neoliberal and focused on economic interests. The LGBT tourism industry drives and benefits the economy due to the constant influx of consumers.
The gay community that the Castro generates is vital in making the area prominent and cohesive. The idea of community is demonstrated by both geographical location and the shared characteristics of the people that make up the community. International research suggests that gay men gain a sense of belonging and inclusion from large friendship networks, such as ones established by communities in the Castro. Despite the positive connotations to the word “community”, there is sometimes hesitation for men to include themselves when discussing the “gay community”, as it can be somewhat exclusionary. The term ”gay community” is a broad term that is very generalized. There are many sub-categories within the LGBTQ collective and simply lumping them under a singular title does not give recognition to all of them. Because “gay community” is so generic, many of those who identify with other aspects of non hetero-normativity do not feel they should be categorized with the rest by such a vague term as not everybody has a shared commonality.
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- Boyd, Nan Alamilla (2011). "San Francisco's Castro district: from gay liberation to tourist destination". Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change 9 (3): 243.
- Boyd, Nan Alamilla (2011). "San Francisco's Castro district: from gay liberation to tourist destination". Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change 9 (3): 245.
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|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for San Francisco/Castro-Noe Valley.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to The Castro, San Francisco.|
- Castro Biscuit - The Castro Area Happenings Blog
- Castro District Guide - Things To Do, Reviews and News
- Castro SF - The Complete Local Guide
- Guided photo tour of Castro
- SF Gate: Gay & Lesbian Guide: Castro
- Finnila's-related exerts from the novel The Contest, by Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D.
- Finnila's Finnish Baths on Facebook
||Corona Heights||Duboce Triangle||South of Market|
|Upper Market||Mission District|
|Diamond Heights||Noe Valley|