The Castro LGBTQ Cultural District Is Finally a Reality

But now what?

The Castro is the world’s most recognized gayborhood, and while the giant rainbow flag snapping in the wind over Harvey Milk Plaza seems as as though it will stay that way forever, that’s not necessarily the case. Terry Beswick, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society on 18th Street, fears that the neighborhood could go the way of its predecessor precincts elsewhere in San Francisco.

“I’m concerned about whether the Castro is going to survive as an LGBT-associated neighborhood or whether it’s going to go the way of Polk [Street] or North Beach, other formerly queer neioghborhoods that are really just lost,” he says. “All that’s left are a couple plaques. We could go that way.”

That’s why Beswick founded the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, which, after months of planning and various bureaucratic hoops, the Board of Supervisors approved on Tuesday. The board unanimously passed an ordinance written by Sup. Rafael Mandelman, who represents the area. Modeled after Japantown and later districts like the Mission’s Calle 24, it joins several other zones of its kind, including two others that are LGBTQ-specific in nature, the Compton’s TLGB District in the Tenderloin and the LGBT Leather Cultural District in western SoMa, and it’s now eligible to receive up to $3 million in city funding per the terms of 2018’s Proposition E, which reallocated a portion of hotel taxes toward arts and culture. 

Shaped a bit like a Kalashnikov, the district’s boundaries are what you might expect, covering Castro Street from Market to 22nd streets, 18th Street from Sanchez all the way uphill to where it intersects with Market, most of the surrounding residential areas, as well as Market Street inbound as far as Octavia Boulevard.

The goal is simple: to preserve the LGBTQ culture, heritage, and identity of a historic neighborhood in flux. Achieving that goal will, almost by necessity, engender some conflict — and not merely because of differing opinions on what to do about unhoused people or the many commercial vacancies in the neighborhood. (Tempers run high, as the recent brouhaha over an allegedly anti-homeless, rainbow-painted rock outside Izakaya Sushi Ran attests.) On top of this, the Castro is an affluent neighborhood with many well-established nonprofits and services, a situation that practically invites turf wars. Witness the sparring over the potential redesign of Harvey Milk Plaza, that relic of a bygone era of urbanism saddled with a bizarrely angled staircase that might get a big ugly pink canopy over it.

Further, some issues simply exceed the purview of a cultural district. You can’t solve the homeless crisis without federal and state involvement, for instance, and obscene home valuations all but make it impossible for young queer people to move to the neighborhood in any significant numbers. During the district’s formation, peace held — although just how uneasy a peace may be apparent only in retrospect.

“We conceived of the district as bringing together the different constituencies by other organizations in the Castro, including the merchants, the nonprofit organizations, the neighborhood association residents, and the visitors,” Beswick says. “There’s no organization that looks at all those things. I have a lot of concerns — and I don’t mind saying this — about the extent to which the cultural district will be allowed to have its own autonomy and self-determination around the work we engage in.”

As such, the district has yet to appoint an executive director — Beswick facilitated community meetings but says he has no desire for the role — as it actively looks for potential advisory board members. It’s also looking for a “fiscal sponsor,” an established organization that will handle things like tax reports — and which may very well be the GLBT Historical Society. But one thing he is adamant about is that the neighborhood must maintain “a critical mass of queers.

“We’re organizing because we still see value for having a place for gay people — especially young gay people — to feel safe and comfortable and all those things we can take for granted,” he says. “Our fabulousness and celebrations, and also just fighting for our rights.”

Those are things that seem worth fighting for in an almost self-evident way if you’ve been a political crusader for decades. But the importance of a permanent LGBTQ neighborhood may diminish as new generations find assimilation into mainstream culture easier, more desirable, or simply as something that happens. Further, Beswick is sensitive to the ample research that shows efforts to preserve a certain culture in a neighborhood can have perverse effects of Disney-fying an organic urban setting or elevating rents even further.

“We’re dealing with socioeconomic forces that go way beyond our parochial Castro concerns, but I think it’s something to be mindful of,” he says. “We’ve got enough gay flags up. We got the gay sidewalk.”

What Beswick hopes to see is a full-fledged museum dedicated to LGBTQ culture. There has been talk of the vacant space on Market and Castro that used to be Pottery Barn getting repurposed, and the city has performed feasibility studies to that end. And he wants more housing, specifically for young people, trans people, people of color, and individuals transitioning out of homelessness. A lot of the changes to the fabric of the neighborhood over the last five years have taken place with insufficient input and planing.

“There’s been enough developments on Upper Market, and I think there could be others,” he says of all the wedge-shaped condo projects that have graced the street’s six-way intersections. 

“We’ve really lost the opportunities to try to do a little more social engineering around that — because we didn’t have a cultural district to look at those questions.”

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