In its first 200 years of recorded history, the sheltered little valley now called The Castro has been variously known as Rancho San Miguel, Horner’s Addition, Eureka Valley, Little Scandinavia, and Most Holy Redeemer Parish. We don’t know its first name, the one given to it by the Ohlone Indians, who used it for hunting and foraging.

 

The Hunters and Gatherers (500 through 1775)

Arriving in the San Francisco area about 500 AD, the Indians lived nomadically within a peninsula abundant with food. On the bay, they harvested mussels, clams, abalone, ducks and other shorebirds. Moving inland, they foraged for edible roots and hunted rabbits and other game in areas, such as The Castro, with freshwater streams and springs.

The Ohlone (meaning “the abalone people”) lived lightly on the land. All they left behind were burial mounds and shell dumps along the bay, and trails between their encampments. Two of these trails are said to have intersected at the present site of Castro and Market streets.

 

The Californios (1776 through 1845)

In 1776, Spanish authorities sent to the Alta California province Mexican settlers. They founded the Mission San Francisco de Asís (also known as Mission Dolores after a nearby stream) on land just below The Castro (see http://www.missiondolores.org). The “Californios,” as the Spanish-speaking settlers came to be known, also established the Presidio, a military post, near the Golden Gate at the mouth of the bay (see http://www.presidio.gov/history).

During the next fifty years, approximately 1400 Indians living in the area were, through a combination of forced conversion to Catholicism and brute force, compelled to give up their culture and work at the Mission as farmhands and servants, or for the Californios as laborers on the cattle ranches they built nearby. Painted Indian designs are still evident on the walls and ceiling of Mission Dolores, which they helped build.

The Indians were particularly vulnerable to European diseases, and the mortality rate for those pressed into service at Mission Dolores was calculated later at almost 75 percent. The graveyard next to the Mission contains only one marker for the hundreds of Ohlone dead. The marker is topped with a statue of a Mohawk lass.

In 1835, on the shore of Yerba Buena Cove, the civilian pueblo of Yerba Buena was established as a port for exporting California hides and tallow, importing goods from the United States and Europe, and provisioning ships, such as the whalers that stopped there. Located on land that became the heart of downtown San Francisco, Yerba Buena was a sleepy, pastoral village located at the center of a large cluster of cattle-raising ranchos.

 

The Americans (1846 through early 1850s)

In 1846, the U.S. Navy landed and seized Yerba Buena town and its 300 inhabitants as part of the Mexican War. That same year, José de Jesús Noe, one of the last Mexican alcaldes (mayors) of Yerba Buena, received from the Mexican governor of California a 4,443-acre land grant that encompassed a sixth of present-day San Francisco. The grant included areas known today as The Castro, Noe Valley, Glen Park, Diamond Heights, West Portal, and several other neighborhoods. Noe presided over his vast cattle spread, called Rancho San Miguel, from a large home located at what is now Eureka and 22nd Streets.

In 1847, the Americans changed the name of the pueblo to San Francisco and mapped out a broad boulevard named Market Street. On paper it ran from the center of the shoreline of Yerba Buena Cove (approximately at the intersection of present-day Battery and Market streets) toward Twin Peaks, with much of its route along the path to Mission Dolores. In reality, much of it was covered with sand dunes that blanketed much of the peninsula.

Everything changed in January 1848, when gold was discovered in the Sierra foothills. Most of San Francisco’s population of 700 departed for the diggings. The town was soon filled again by hordes of gold seekers from around the world: by 1850, it had grown to 20,000; by 1852, 36,000.

More than 90 percent of the new inhabitants were young men. About half were foreign born, turning San Francisco into a multicultural city overnight. They crowded into hastily built rooming houses and hotels, sharing rooms and beds. Some historians of gay culture have speculated that the city’s reputation as “gay friendly” began with the Gold Rush, when thousands of single males far from home were free to act as they pleased and lonely men took comfort where they found it.

Many of the second wave of “49ers” were middle-class men with cosmopolitan tastes; it took considerable money and initiative to travel to remote California. Elaborate gambling halls and elegant brothels were soon flourishing. French restaurants served champagne, live Maine lobsters, and drinks chilled with New England ice packed in sawdust and brought round Cape Horn. A Paris mercantile family loaded an entire ship with wine, cognac, table silver, linens, silks, laces, stylish hats, gourmet items, and other French luxury goods, and sailed it to San Francisco. By the end of 1850, they had a thriving store called The City of Paris, named after the ship from which they first sold their expensive goods in San Francisco bay.

 

The Victorians (1854 through 1900)

As the gold rush of the 1850s went on, a more solid commercial city evolved, based on banking, manufacturing, the maritime industry, and the agricultural wealth of the Central Valley. The city’s core kept expanding, with one area of growth headed to the west, up Market Street.

In 1854, businessman John M. Horner purchased from José de Jesús Noe most of the San Miguel Rancho for $70,000 and subdivided the land. Naming a large piece of it “Horner’s Addition,” he mapped out the streets in a grid bounded by Castro Street on the west, Valencia Street on the east, 18th Street on the north and 30th Street on the south.

Horner named the main north-south streets after the Californio ranchers who had originally owned most of Yerba Buena: Noe, General José Castro, José Antonio Sánchez, Don Francisco Guerrero and José Manuel Valencia. (In 1895, Noe’s heirs filed suit against the city of San Francisco and about 7000 others who had purchased pieces of the rancho from Horner, claiming the land sale to Horner was illegal because half the ranch was their mother’s. They asked for the return of half the land or payment of its estimated value: $24 million. By then the land was filling with homes and businesses. The Noes lost their case.)

In the 1850s, the still-rural valley at the base of Twin Peaks attracted vegetable farmers, and cattle and sheep ranchers. Development of housing was dependent on transportation and shifting sand dunes still shrouded Market Street from Third Street to the west. The Market Street Railroad tackled this problem, and in 1860 a steam powered railway line opened, running up Market to Valencia and from there to 16th Street. The smoky, noisy steam dummy cars, which scared horses, were replaced with quieter horse cars in the late 1860s.

However, the stretch of Market from Valencia to Castro remained without streetcars because the grade was too steep for horses. Housing development along Castro Street and Upper Market was slow. In the early 1880s, a steam-car system began servicing the area and, in 1889, the Market Street Cable Railway’s line to Castro Street was completed, sparking a burst of development. The cable car line was extended down Castro and over the steep hill to Noe Valley, prompting more homebuilding on the hill between the two neighborhoods.

Rows of Queen Ann, Eastlake Stick and Italianate houses sprang up in what was now called Eureka Valley (one of the adjacent Twin Peaks is named “Eureka” and the other peak “Noe”). Decorated with gingerbread millwork and painted a variety of colors, new houses crept up the valley’s sides, pushing out the vegetable and dairy farms. The Victorians were quickly filled with working class families, whose breadwinners commuted to their jobs “in town,” along the waterfront and South of Market. Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants came to the outskirts of the city in search of cheap housing: a five-room cottage for $1000 and a two-story row house for under $3,500.

 

The Working Class (1900 through 1960s)

In the first decades of the 20th century, Eureka Valley’s popularity with Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish immigrants earned it the nickname “Little Scandanavia.” Businesses and amenities catered to the Scandinavian community, including the Norse Cove restaurant, Finnila’s Finnish Baths, the Scandanavian Seamen’s Union Hall, and bakeries specializing in coffee cakes, cardamom buns, rye bread and other specialities.

The 1906 fire and earthquake devastated most of the city but missed Eureka Valley’s redwood Victorians: the westward march of the Ham-and-Eggs branch of the conflagration was stopped at Dolores and 20th streets, just below Eureka Valley. Burned out of their old meeting hall, Swedes in 1907 celebrated the opening of a grand, new Swedish-American Hall (2174 Market Street (see http://www.swedishamericanhall.com). Designed with an old world, half-timbered exterior by Swedish architect August Nordin, it was built by Swedish-American craftsmen and would host many Swedish celebrations for years to come.

Kathryn (Anderson) Forbes, who grew up in San Francisco, used Eureka Valley and Upper Market as the setting for her semi-autobiographical novel, “Mama’s Bank Account,” about a Norwegian-American working class family in the 1920s. “For as long as I could remember, the small cottage on Castro Street had been home,” read the first line of the 1943 novel. The popular book was made into a hit play and movie, I Remember Mama, in the 1940s and a 1949-1956 television series.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, Eureka Valley was also known as a working class, Irish-American enclave. The Irish were a powerful presence in the city, involved in all levels of politics from precinct worker up, and the neighborhood was home to many laborers, firemen, policemen, and other city workers. The district produced a number of city’s Irish-American police chiefs.

Life revolved around Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church (100 Diamond Street), which had been built two blocks off Castro Street in 1900 (http://www.mhr.org). The church’s daily masses were well attended and the Sunday services were packed. St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated with a big show in the parish hall featuring children in costumes performing step-dancing, reels and jigs to Irish music played on the accordion. Many local residents, when asked for their neighborhood, simply replied, “Holy Redeemer.”

Housewives walked to the stores along Castro and 18th streets. A good bakery sold Beehive Cakes next to the Castro Theatre, which had been built on Castro in 1922. Across the street was Safeway, where everyone did their grocery shopping. Cliff’s Variety Store carried everything you couldn’t find elsewhere. And for the workingmen, there were lots of neighborhood bars.

Most of the Catholic kids went to the Holy Redeemer grammar school, taught by nuns who lived in the convent next door to it. The public school children walked to Douglass Elementary. All the kids, no matter what school they attended, loved Saturday movie matinees at the Castro Theatre, visiting the small wild animals at the Josephine Randall Junior Museum (http://www.randallmuseum.org) in nearby Corona Heights, and dressing up in costumes for Cliff’s annual Halloween parade.

But as Eureka Valley moved into the 1960s, the neighborhood started to change, look shabby. Victorian homes, the latest thing in 1890, now were outdated on the outside and flawed on the inside. They were hard to heat, didn’t have enough electrical outlets or closets, and their toilets were located on the back porch. Built before automobiles existed many didn’t have garages.

Younger residents left for modern homes with two-car garages and suburban life in the East Bay and in San Mateo and Marin Counties. Safeway, an anchor store for Castro Street, closed after the big new store at Market and Church opened in 1954. In 1964, San Francisco dropped its post-1906 earthquake regulation requiring all police and firemen to live in the city, and more families joined the exodus to new homes in places like Novato.

In 1963, a new tavern at 2348 Market Street joined the ranks of the shot-and-a-beer bars where local men drank. It was called The Missouri Mule, and it catered to gay men.

 

The New Immigrants (Late 1960’s through 1980)

During the 50s and 60s, gay and lesbian bars, like their patrons, were scattered throughout the city. The artsy crowd favored North Beach, drinking at the Black Cat (which featured shows by drag entertainer Jose Sarria), Ann’s 440, and 12 Adler Place. Polk Street was home to a number of gay and lesbian bohemians; in the 1950s a large group of artists, poets, actors and musicians lived at The Wently residential hotel at Polk and Sutter. The residents and their friends, who included poet Allen Ginsberg, had long, philosophical discussions while nursing their coffee at Foster’s Cafeteria, located on the ground floor.

The Tenderloin area was a favorite haunt of drag queens, who gossiped over coffee at Compton’s Cafeteria and cheered drag artist Charles Pierce’s send-ups of Bette Davis and Mae West at the 181 Club. Those looking for rougher trade patronized waterfront gay bars, such as The Sea Cow and Jacks, and in the 1960s, the new leather bars that emerged in the industrial South of Market area, including The Tool Box, Febe’s and The Stud.

Many homosexuals, terrified of exposure, avoided gay bars because of police raids. “I can’t risk it,” said a gay man interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle in June 1958. “I have a good job and I don’t want to lose it. So all week long, I’m straight. I talk baseball, and I take girls out for dinner, and maybe even dancing.” When “the masquerade gets to be too much,” he would go to North Beach and “have dinner in one of the gay little restaurants and just look around and realize that I’m not alone.”

In the 1950s, gay activists began speaking up for homosexual rights and filing court challenges. Harry Hay and a group of gay political activists founded the Mattachine Society in 1950 in Los Angeles to fight for gay rights. A San Francisco chapter opened in 1956. In 1955, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, two lesbians living in Eureka Valley, started a social group called Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). Lyon and Martin, realizing lesbians needed more than just a private place to talk and dance, soon broadened the DOB’s mission to include educational and political goals. They began publishing a magazine called The Ladder.

In the late 1960s, gay men began moving into Eureka Valley, attracted as earlier immigrants had been by cheap housing. Renting or buying the old, faded Victorians, and prizing their architectural contrast to the mid-century boxes, the men were the first wave of a movement that would change the neighborhood into a gay village, and give it a new name. Some social historians cite as a driving force 1967’s “Summer of Love,” which brought to San Francisco an estimated 100,000 middle-class youths rebelling against all types of conformity, including sexual stereotypes. Other historians point to the Stonewall rebellion of June 1969, when a police raid on a private gay bar in New York was met with violent resistance and became the catalyst of the modern gay rights movement.

Whatever the catalyst, in the late ‘60s and early’70s both Polk Street and Eureka Valley experienced an upsurge in gay residents as well as businesses catering to them. Initially, Polk Street was considered “the gay downtown.” San Francisco’s first gay parade in 1970, commemorating Stonewall, was a march down Polk Street to City Hall.

Eureka Valley’s cheap Victorians, however, attracted a much higher proportion of gay homeowners. The first wave of gay hippies was followed by more affluent gay professionals, who devoted countless hours to restoring their Queen Annes and Sticks, gentrifying the neighborhood in the process. Gay business owners set up shop along Upper Market, 18th, and Castro Streets. Soon it was possible for a resident to have nearly all his needs met by dozens of gay merchants: jewelers, florists, accountants, barbers, dry cleaners, clothiers, and more.

One of those new merchants in 1972 was Harvey Milk, a camera store owner whose activism on behalf of his neighbors, gay and straight, soon made him a political force in the neighborhood. Advocating gay political representation, Milk began running for local office in 1973. It would take him four tries to become in 1977 the first openly gay elected official of any large city in the U.S.

Gays were making a transition from hiding in the shadows and the closet to living “out and proud” lives. In the process, Eureka Valley was becoming one of the first gay neighborhoods in the world. The new inhabitants, who came from throughout the United States and beyond, sought not just a place of refuge but somewhere to celebrate gay identity.

They called their neighborhood “The Castro,” after its busiest street and the huge, red neon theater sign illuminating it at night. The handsome young men, showing off their gym-toned bodies in snug 501 jeans and tight T-shirts, many sporting close-cropped hair and moustaches, were dubbed “Castro Clones.” You could easily purchase the wardrobe on Castro Street at the aptly named All American Boy clothing store.

On sunny days, throngs of men cruised shirtless along the district’s sidewalks or basked in front of the Hibernia bank at 18th and Castro, earning it the nickname “Hibernia Beach.” At night they packed the bars and dance clubs, looking for action or dancing till dawn to the disco thump of Grace Jones’ “I Need A Man” and Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real.” They reveled in their sexual freedom; 1975 saw the repeal of California’s anti-sodomy law but the party was already in full swing.

The ‘70s Castro wasn’t just about sex. The neighborhood seemed energized, a new frontier. Gays and lesbians formed political groups, churches and synagogues. They started newspapers, film festivals, theatre groups, marching bands, and softball leagues. They registered to vote and elected Harvey Milk their city supervisor as soon as at-large elections changed to election by district.

Each weekday morning, they read their own serial, “Tales of The City,” in the San Francisco Chronicle. Created by writer Armistead Maupin, who moved to The Castro in 1981, Tales was a vivid, often hilarious, depiction of 1970s and early ‘80s San Francisco life as experienced by a variety of colorful straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered characters.

The Gay Pride Parade, now on Market Street, was bigger and louder every year, led by the roaring motorcycles of hundreds of Dykes on Bikes. Still, the late ‘70s were marred by political threats and painful events: the battle in 1978 to defeat a “Save Our Children” state ballot measure to ban gay teachers from the public schools; the assassination of Harvey Milk and San Francisco’s mayor George Moscone later that year; and the White Night gay riot and subsequent police brutality in The Castro following the light sentence given in 1979 to the murderer of Milk and Moscone.

As the 1980s began, the future seemed bright. The Castro’s gay residents had forged a vibrant community and would use all their political and economic clout to defend it. They did not know their most heartbreaking and costly battle lay just ahead.

 

The Uninvited Guest (1981 through the mid-1990s)

In mid-1981, the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention began reporting on mysterious disease clusters of Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS) and pneumocistis carinii pneumonia (PCP) among gay males in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

That summer, Castro resident Bobbi Campbell became San Francisco’s sixteenth official KS case. As the weeks went by and more men became ill, rumors of “gay cancer” and “gay pneumonia” raced through the community.

Campbell, a registered nurse, decided to raise The Castro’s awareness of the disease. In late 1981, he posted homemade flyers describing the “gay cancer,” including pictures of his lesions, in the window of Star pharmacy (now Walgreen’s) at 18th and Castro. In December, he went public about his KS in the San Francisco Sentinel, a local gay paper, becoming the first person in the country to disclose his illness to the media.

Doctors didn’t know what was causing the PCP and KS but theorized it was an immune deficiency brought on by sexual promiscuity. Concerned about the thousands of gay men partying-on in San Francisco without regard to the deadly, uninvited guest in their midst, Campbell began a health column in February 1982 in the Sentinel. Calling himself “The KS Poster Boy,” Campbell reported on his illness candidly, discussing the treatment options and resources available, and advising readers to “Take care of yourself.”

It soon became evident this wasn’t just good advice, it was the Reagan administration’s attitude towards what was portrayed as a “gay disease.” Appeals for federal funds or action to stave off the impending health crisis fell on deaf ears. Some Christian fundamentalists called the disease God’s punishment of homosexuals. The Castro was awash in fear and anger as more young, healthy men began to sicken and die of the mysterious disease that had no known treatment.

cityhall protestSpurred on by gay activists, San Franciscans refused to let their friends and loved ones die without a fight. They started community-based groups to provide political advocacy, support and services. First launched was the Kaposi’s Sarcoma Research & Education Foundation (renamed the SF AIDS Foundation in 1984), which opened a small office with an information hotline in the heart of the Castro in the spring of 1982. In the years to come, it would be followed by many other advocacy and service groups: People With AIDS San Francisco, the Stop AIDS Project, the S.F. Black Coalition on AIDS, ACT-UP/Golden Gate, and more.

In July of ’82, San Francisco doctors and gay activists lobbied city government to begin funding the health care and services needed to combat the disease, which now had a name: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS. The city approved $40,000 to turn a cancer clinic at S.F. General Hospital into an AIDS outpatient clinic that would open at the beginning of 1983. It was the first outlay of municipal funds anywhere in the world to fight AIDS. In September, the city’s Board of Supervisors approved spending $450,000 to fund the clinic as well as provide support services for AIDS patients though the Shanti caregivers group, and educational outreach by the Kaposi’s Sarcoma Foundation.

The community began organizing volunteer-based AIDS support groups to feed, care for, and assist the sick and dying. The AIDS Emergency Fund began in 1982 to help pay basic living costs for those who had been fired by panicked employers or evicted by landlords. A food bank helped people who couldn’t afford groceries. Shanti began training volunteer caregivers to assist the sick with cleaning, running errands, emotional support, and other basic services. Dozens of groups and thousands of San Franciscans, young and old, gay and straight, would step up to help as the crisis developed and AIDS emerged in the Tenderloin, Mission, Potrero Hill, and Hunters Point neighborhoods.

Just as The Castro served as a prototype for similar gay enclaves in other cities during the 1970s, the neighborhood’s and San Francisco’s grassroots response to AIDS in the 1980s would become a model elsewhere the world. By mobilizing community members and local government, and organizing advocacy and volunteer support groups, a safety net was created to help people with AIDS survive.

Years of pain, loss and devastation lay ahead. In 1983, it felt like a sniper was at work in the Castro, randomly eliminating people and generating terror. If you didn’t see someone for a few weeks, you began to fear the worst: they could be gone that quickly. The retrovirus causing AIDS was discovered that year but researchers said a cure was a long way off. In May, Bobbi Campbell and two friends organized an AIDS Candlelight March, “to honor the dead and support the living.” Starting in the Castro, San Francisco’s first-ever public demonstration by people with AIDS marched down Market Street to Civic Center behind a banner proclaiming “Fighting for Our Lives.” Later that year Campbell would appear with his lover on the cover of Newsweek, again putting a human face on the AIDS epidemic.

By 1984, The Castro felt like a war zone. Everyone could identify the walking wounded by their gaunt faces, thinning hair, and emaciated bodies swimming in clothes that had fit a few months ago. People kept track of how many friends and ex-lovers they had lost. The city shut down the gay bathhouses: the party was over. San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade was dedicated, for the first time, to people with AIDS. The People With AIDS contingent marched with their “Fighting for Our Lives” banner, Bobbi Campbell among them wearing a lavender “AIDS Poster Boy” T-shirt. It was his last gay parade.

As San Francisco’s epidemic raged on into the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, its epicenter, became more subdued. People were focused on their T-cell count, the latest antiretroviral AIDS medications, staying healthy, and taking care of the sick and dying. Each week’s Bay Area Reporter contained twenty or thirty new obituaries. Many obits were brief; lives cut short in their twenties don’t have time to gather a lot of details. The ones for men in their thirties and forties were longer, listing accomplishments in business, government, and the arts. All that talent and energy, gone. All that promise, lost.

Most people stopped counting. Besides, it was too hard to keep track. In 1987, Cleve Jones and other activists started sewing the AIDS Memorial Quilt in a Market Street storefront. At one name per panel, the quilt quickly grew to thousands of panels, becoming the largest public art project in the world. Similarly, in 1988, a group of San Franciscans began developing the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park, finding solace in building a living tribute.

By the time protease inhibitor drugs were introduced in 1995 and the AIDS death rate finally began to decline in the developed world, over 300,000 Americans were dead. In San Francisco, over 16,000 died, the majority of them gay males.

 

The Next Generation (1995 through Today)

There was no big announcement or celebration in the Castro marking the turning point in the epidemic. It happened quietly. Month by month, there were fewer obituaries in the Bay Area Reporter. The volunteer groups began to notice there were less people to visit in the hospital or who needed homecare services. There were empty beds at Coming Home Hospice, which had opened in the old Holy Redeemer convent in 1987 to serve as the city’s primary AIDS hospice. People were living.

The dot-com boom of the late 1990s was on, and thousands of young software professionals were crowding into the city, looking for housing and pouring money into the economy. Life in The Castro began to rebound. Rents and housing prices rose, making the neighborhood less affordable to the kind of young gays who had come there to express themselves in the 1970s and ‘80s. Many of the young gays instead moved to less-expensive neighborhoods in the city or outside of it. Some gay youth didn’t bother to come at all: from 2000 to 2005, the 10 states with the biggest increases in the percentage of gay couples were all in the Midwest.

In 2002, after nine years of fundraising and planning, the LGBT community celebrated the opening of The SF LGBT Community Center (1800 Market Street), a 40,000-square-foot building that would be used to provide space and programs for the community. Two years later, just in time for Valentines, there was another reason for The Castro to break out the champagne: San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. to grant marriage licenses to same sex couples. Among the first were Del Martin, 83, and Phyllis Lyon, 80, the lesbian pioneers and Eureka Valley residents who started the Daughters of Bilitis almost 50 years before. In one month, before the licenses were invalidated by the California State Supreme Court, San Francisco married 4000 jubilant same sex couples.

In recent years, The Castro has become one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist destinations. The F-Line extension, opened in 2000, brings streetcar-loads of camera-toting sightseers straight from Fisherman’s Wharf. Some residents find the tourists annoying but feel downright threatened by several major condominium developments that are planned for the adjacent Market Street corridor: they say the condos’ high price tags are sure to change the area’s demographics, making it less gay.

Will The Castro remain gay or take on another new name and new set of immigrants? Currently, one-third of The Castro’s residents identify themselves as gay or lesbian, compared with 13 percent citywide. Gay activists say it is important to maintain communities that gay people feel safe in and consider their home.

“You got to give ‘em hope,” as Harvey Milk used to say.

Written by Pauline Scholten

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