Can The Castro Be Saved?

Juanita MORE! leads a ‘March to Remember and Reignite Hope’ to help save the Castro. What more can be done?

The Saturday before last, a group of activists and advocates led by the indomitable drag queen Juanita MORE! gathered in the Castro for what has been described as a funeral march. The hundred or so people who traipsed as solemnly as they were able on that Leap Year Day did so not to honor the life of a person, but the neighborhood itself. 

It is in an advanced state of decay, perhaps the city’s densest concentration of vacant storefronts.

The emergency demands leadership with flourishes of symbolic resonance, perfect for a regal drag performer summoning her followers to Harvey Milk Plaza on a Saturday afternoon. So, for 90 minutes, MORE! and company placed black wreaths on lost queer spaces (like The Pendulum, a long-gone bar for the Black queer community) or rainbow wreaths on businesses that have endured (like the decades-old queer bar Twin Peaks). Addresses that used to house important places, like 489 Castro St. — once home to the LGBTQ bookstore A Different Light and now home to queer-friendly Dog-Eared Books — received both types. 

Elected officials, philanthropists, veterans of the HIV/AIDS crisis years, and small-business owners all turned out. Although participants were by and large chatty and someone dressed in a furry costume modeled on Juanita’s French bulldog Jackson, it was a largely somber affair. That’s no surprise: In the last year alone, numerous businesses have shuttered forever, from fire victim QBar to the sculptural floral arranger IXIA, along with a wealth of Castro restaurants, like Finn Town, Beso, Eureka, Firewood Cafe, Papi Rico, Izakaya Sushi Ran, Tacos Club, and even Cafe Flore. Unionmade, an upscale boutique on 17th and Sanchez streets, also closed — and not for nothing, but one of its exterior facades has one of the city’s several murals of Juanita MORE! 

Not since the film Arrival brought the phrase “Abbott is death process” to our attention has the idea of something in a perpetual state of dying felt like this. This march built on a similar gesture MORE! undertook last year along Polk Gulch, once the city’s gayborhood, after the closure of The Gangway and Diva’s. As she wrote at the time, there were once 79 queer establishments along Polk Street, and she got kicked out of every one.

But in the case of the Castro, people have gotten tetchy about all the dysfunction. Just weeks before the restaurant closed last summer, a rainbow-painted rock outside Izakaya Sushi Ran went viral as an example of “pinkwashed” hostile architecture, intended to deter unhoused folks from finding a sheltered nook to sleep in. That turned out not to be the case.

But the “March to Remember and Reignite Hope” wasn’t a weepy compendium of everything that’s gone; it was about concrete solutions to a material, solvable problem. Those solutions include lower rents or forms of city assistance, less avaricious business models, and a renewed community spirit that doesn’t write off the neighborhood as a dinosaur fated to die away. A demonstration of collective personal investment is a potent weapon.

More specifically, those solutions include the vacancy tax that San Francisco approved in the form of Proposition D — something you’d think would be a no-brainer, but the Bay Area Reporter, a LGBTQ alt-weekly, came out against it but without suggesting alternatives. A sense that the Castro’s current leadership has grown brittle, circling the wagons against newcomers, is palpable.

Still, even among people too young to have known Harvey Milk personally, a few people dressed in mourning garb, including the documentary filmmaker Leo Herrera (The Fathers Project). How much more energized does San Francisco’s queer community need to be to stanch the bleeding? Well, the march ended at Lookout, a second-story bar that proudly displays a placard toting up the $1.5 million it has raised over the years and which hosts the Disco Coalition, a regular meetup of nightlife pros who gather to honor the heroes and sheroes in their midst. So that’s a tourniquet of sorts right there.

As Shannon Amitin, my colleague at San Francisco Pride and a newly elected board member with the forthcoming Castro Cultural District, observed, the flower shop IXIA was known for its “unexpected and sometimes strange” designs. That is exactly what turned out on Saturday.

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Pride’s Communications Manager and a former editor of SF Weekly.

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