Creating the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District

Gentrification and economic displacement are not mere abstractions for LGBTQ San Franciscans. We see the tangible effects daily on the places where we live, work and play. The loss of a neighborhood formed around our identities is devastating — not just for individuals but also for the extended families, institutions and events that form our collective, living culture.
Recently, members of the GLBT Historical Society participated in a march through the Polk District led by activist Juanita More. We laid black wreaths at former gay businesses in that once-thriving gayborhood.Ā Longtime LGBTQ activist Cleve Jones joined the march to remind us all why such territories are invaluable (for a video of his remarks, click here). The gathering was a powerful reminder of the centers of LGBTQ life we have lost not only in the Polk, but also in the Valencia Corridor, the Tenderloin and North Beach.
What We Stand to Lose
The march also was a vivid reminder of what we stand to lose today. The threat has inspired activists to pursue establishment of recognized cultural districts in our LGBTQ neighborhoods. This approach has proven a powerful tool for sustaining ethnic neighborhoods in the Japantown Cultural Heritage District, the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District and the SOMA Pilipinas Cultural District.
More recently, the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District in the Tenderloin and the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District in South of Market are leveraging political power to protect community institutions, support special projects and promote affordability. Both the proposed city budget and a November ballot measure hold out the promise of further funding for such districts.
A new initiative modeled on these existing efforts is in the organizing stages. The Castro LGBTQ Cultural District was introduced in May by Jeff Sheehy, the outgoing Board of Supervisors member representing the Castro. The newly elected supervisor, Rafael Mandelman, has pledged to bring the district to fruition in this world renowned gayborhood.

Enhancing Cultural Assets

Those of us involved in advocating the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District hope that city recognition will help enhance the area’s LGBTQ businesses and cultural assets. At the same time, we’re working to reassure local residents and merchants that the Castro will remain a neighborhood where all are welcome to live and work together.
Of course a cultural district can’t counter broad economic and social forces that extend far beyond our city’s borders. But it does provide one important tool to help ensure that LGBTQ people do not lose the housing, services and institutions that give us our heritage and our home in the Castro. That will be invaluable for both locals and visitors from around the world to whom this neighborhood means so much.
To learn more or to help with organizing the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, visit the organizers’ Facebook page.

Terry Beswick is executive director of the GLBT Historical Society.