Castro LGBTQ Cultural District Looks to Preserve San Francisco’s Iconic Gayborhood

As property prices and rents continue to skyrocket in San Francisco, the need is a greater than ever to preserve the heritage of the city’s threatened queer spaces. One response has been the creation of six cultural districts, each defined by the City as “a geographic area or location within San Francisco that embodies a unique cultural heritage.” Achieving this designation qualifies the area for resources to sustain and promote its cultural assets. Two LGBTQ-related cultural districts have already been established: Compton’s Transgender Cultural District in the Tenderloin and the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District in SoMa. An internationally recognized center of LGBTQ culture since the 1970s, the Castro will soon join them. After more than two years of effort, legislation creating the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District was introduced to the Board of Supervisors on April 9. Sponsored by District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, the legislation was proposed and developed by a working group convened by the GLBT Historical Society that includes neighborhood organizations, businesses, residents and supporters. Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick responded to our questions about the project.  

Why is the GLBT Historical Society invested in the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District? The GLBT Historical Society has always had a strong interest in place-based history and has worked to document and preserve queer cultural assets. The cultural district initiative focuses on preserving the living culture of a specific population, and that includes more than buildings. It includes people and everything that makes it possible to live, work and play in the neighborhoods they have claimed as their community’s home. The cultural districts program looks at how we can support affordable housing; cultural centers and events; human services; jobs for groups under greatest threat of displacement; and in general, anything the community decides is important to sustain and improve the queer culture of the Castro. 

 What process is involved in getting the district established? We called a community meeting of diverse neighborhood leaders, business owners, nonprofits and residents at the beginning of 2017 on the back patio of the Castro Country Club. At that time, many had never heard of cultural districts and did not know about the districts as a proposed source of hotel tax funding. We took a straw poll, and everyone was in favor of forming a Castro LGBTQ Cultural District. The process for establishing cultural districts in the city has changed since the first one was created, and that led to quite a number of open community meetings where we discussed our priorities and the boundaries of the district. I personally facilitated a lot of the process and just tried to keep the train moving. 

How can the designation of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District help maintain the area’s visibility outside of San Francisco, including internationally? Well, I’m not sure that’s the goal so much. The concern is that as we work to support and encourage the external trappings of queer culture that make it more attractive to tourists, new residents and businesses, property values and rents will continue to climb. Often, that means fewer people of color, fewer trans and young queer people. My hope is the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District planning process will be set up in an inclusive way that brings together all the stakeholders and that we will be intentional about what we want to achieve. People have been involved in this project for a variety of reasons, but I think we all agree there is value in maintaining an inclusive place for all LGBTQ people to feel completely safe and free. If that continues to attract people from around the world, then that’s beautiful, too. For more information about the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, click here. To follow the Facebook page, click here
Nick Large is an LGBTQ, API and Japanese American activist with a particular interest in LGBTQ movements and place-based organizing in San Francisco. He serves on the GLBT Historical Society Board of Directors.