The Castro

The Castro is an iconic neighborhood known throughout the world.

After transitioning from a multicultural working class district into the celebrated LGBTQ haven it is today, the community has time and time again committed itself to establishing its unique identity. Every adversity merely made the citizens band together more fiercely, and work harder toward their common good.

The area that is now the Castro was first developed in 1887 when the Market Street Railway Company built a line linking Eureka Valley to downtown. The availability of transportation made the land accessible for residential neighborhoods.

In the early 1800s Finnish seamen made up the bulk of Russia’s navy and they traveled up and down the west coast of the Americas transporting ice and salt among the Russian American territories. They were the first to hear about the gold found on Johann Sutter’s land in 1848 and they spread the word, sparking the California gold rush. As a result San Francisco had a large Finnish population at the turn of the 20th century.

After the 1906 earthquake, a large number of this community moved to Berkeley where another large Finnish community had been established already. Even with this substantial exodus, the Castro area was known as Little Scandinavia, because of the large number of the residents Finnish, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish ancestry. Their influence can still be seen in the Scandinavian-style "half-timber" construction that can still be seen in some of the buildings along Market Street.

In the 1930s there was an influx of Irish, Italian and other immigrants that transformed the Castro into an ethnically mixed working-class neighborhood. Working class families homesteaded there because they were able to buy the land at a cheap price and build large Victorian style homes that could house multiple generations of their family under one roof. The neighborhood was predominantly Catholic. It had bakeries, butcher shops and poultry and fish markets, but bars were the most common establishment. Then, as today, they served as important social meeting grounds for residents.

San Francisco was a major embarkation and naval training center during World War 2. A couple of million service members passed through the city on their way to the Pacific theater. When the US military actively sought out gay and lesbian service members and dishonorably discharged them solely on the basis of their sexual orientation a lot of them simply stayed there instead of returning to wherever they were from. San Francisco developed a reputation as a city of tolerance. Several gay communities were established throughout the city, including Polk Street, the Tenderloin, and South of Market.

Beginning in the 1950s, white working class families began moving out of the Castro and into the Suburbs. This left a lot of property available for sale at a low price or for a low rent. Gay residents made the best of this opportunity, and over the next few decades the Castro became the most prominent gay community in San Francisco.

Growth was spurred by an influx of open minded people into the area. Gay service people who weren’t exposed and discharged service remembered the accepting nature of the city and eventually moved there after the war. People from the hippie and free love movements gravitated toward the neighboring Haight-Ashbury district, especially during the Summer of Love, 1967. Over time the hippie’s aversion toward traditional conventions of working nine to five jobs made it difficult to support the communal living of large groups, and the Haight became drug-ridden and violent. A lot of the more affluent gay members of the community retreated to the Castro and built it up into an upscale, fashionable urban center.

The Missouri Mule was the Castro’s first gay bar and others soon followed, including the Corner Grocery Bar, Toad Hall, the Pendulum, the Midnight Sun, and the Elephant Walk. It wasn’t until 1972, however, that the Twin Peaks Tavern was the first gay bar in the Castro, and possibly the first gay bar in the United States, with large, street level windows that made patrons freely visible.

This was only the beginning of the long, ongoing struggle for LGBTQ rights. One of the most important figures of this movement was Harvey Milk, who owned a camera shop in the Castro in the 1970s. Campaigning on a platform for more representation, Milk became the first openly gay elected official in the history of California when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. During his 11 months in that position he sponsored a bill banning discrimination in public accommodations, housing, and employment on the basis of sexual orientation and successfully got it passed and signed into law by Mayor George Moscone. Milk and Moscone were then murdered by Dan White, a disgruntled city supervisor.

Milk became an iconic martyr for the cause, and the community continued to work towards the righteous world he had imagined. By 1980 it was estimated that 17 percent of the city's population was homosexual. Today it is estimated that 20 to 25 percent of San Francisco's voters are educated lesbians and gay men. Further factoring the fact that the Castro is a thriving, upscale business district with festivals that draw significant tourism year-round, and it’s clear that Castro residents command a respectable amount of political influence.

The Castro wears all of its history on its sleeves. Rainbow flags hang from lamp posts and business fronts. Plaques and murals throughout the neighborhood depict historical advancments in LGBTQ rights.  The Castro Street History Walk is a series of twenty historical fact plaques about the neighborhood, half from the early days of the Castro’s settlement and half from after it was established as a gay neighborhood. Pink Triangle Park honors gay prisoners persecuted by the Nazis during World War II.  The GLBT History Museum opened in 2011, and in 2014 the first bronze plaques of the Rainbow Honor Walk (an LGBTQ Walk of Fame) were installed.

The residents of the Castro have fought hard to make it the inclusive, prosperous neighborhood it is today. They have a lot of pride in the area and no plans to stop progressing.

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