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The Castro, San Francisco, California

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Title: The Castro, San Francisco, California  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Gay village, Castro Street, Armistead Maupin, Harvey Milk, Andrew Cunanan, Castro Theatre, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Devendra Banhart, Etymologies of place names in San Francisco, Castro Street Station
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

The Castro, San Francisco, California

"The Castro" redirects here. For other uses, see Castro (disambiguation).
Castro District
Neighborhood of San Francisco

Castro Street and its namesake neighborhood, the Castro
Nickname(s): The Castro, The Gay melting pot,
Castro District
Castro District
Location within Central San Francisco

Coordinates: 37°45′42″N 122°26′06″W / 37.76171°N 122.43512°W / 37.76171; -122.43512Coordinates: 37°45′42″N 122°26′06″W / 37.76171°N 122.43512°W / 37.76171; -122.43512

 • Board of Supervisors Scott Wiener
 • State Assembly Tom Ammiano (D)
 • State Senate Mark Leno (D)
 • U.S. House Nancy Pelosi (D)
 • Total 1.71 km2 (0.662 sq mi)
 • Land 1.71 km2 (0.662 sq mi)
Population (2008)
 • Total 12,503
 • Density 7,290/km2 (18,890/sq mi)
ZIP Code 94110, 94114
Area code(s) 415

The Castro District, commonly referenced as The Castro, is a neighborhood in Eureka Valley in San Francisco, California. The Castro is one of the first gay neighborhoods in the United States, and it is currently the largest. Having transformed from a working-class neighborhood through the 1960s and 1970s, the Castro remains one of the most prominent symbols of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activism and events.


San Francisco's gay village is mostly concentrated in the business district that is located on Castro Street from Market Street to 19th Street. It extends down Market Street toward Church Street and on both sides of the Castro neighborhood from Church Street to Eureka Street. Although the greater gay community was, and is, concentrated in the Castro, many gay people live in the surrounding residential areas bordered by Corona Heights, the Mission District, Noe Valley, Twin Peaks, and Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods. Some consider it to include Duboce Triangle and Dolores Heights, which both have a strong LGBT presence.

Castro Street, which originates a few blocks north at the intersection of Divisadero and Waller Streets, runs south through Noe Valley, crossing the 24th Street business district and ending as a continuous street a few blocks farther south as it moves toward the Glen Park neighborhood. It reappears in several discontinuous sections before ultimately terminating at Chenery Street, in the heart of Glen Park.


Castro Street was named for José Castro (1808–1860), a Californio leader of Mexican opposition to U.S. rule in California in the 19th century, and alcalde of Alta California from 1835 to 1836.[2] The neighborhood now known as the Castro was created in 1887 when the Market Street Railway Company built a line linking Eureka Valley to downtown.

In 1891, Alfred E. Clarke built his mansion at the corner of Douglass and Caselli Avenue at 250 Douglass which is commonly referenced as the Caselli Mansion. It survived the 1906 earthquake and fire which destroyed a large portion of San Francisco.

Little Scandinavia

At the time when Finnish Sea Captain Gustave Niebaum, the founder of Inglenook Winery (1879) in Rutherford, California, was busy conducting business in the San Francisco Bay Area and Alaska - from late 19th to early 20th century -, both places had considerably large Finnish settlements.

As the Governor in Russian America from 1858 to 1864, Finnish Johan Hampus Furuhjelm helped pave way for the American Alaska purchase, just like Gustave Niebaum did as the Consul of Russia in the United States in 1867 (at the time Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia), when Alaska became a part of the United States of America. During his governorship, Johan Hampus Furuhjelm put an end to the hostilities with the natives in Alaska and he succeeded in abolishing the Alaskan Ice Treaty with San Francisco.

According to a contract which had been signed, Russian America had to deliver a certain amount of ice to San Francisco at a fixed price. The problem was that the product melted down on the way to the warmer climates. The ice contract became very awkward for the Russian colony. Furuhjelm arranged for a new contract to sell ice to San Francisco: 3'000 tons at $25.00 a ton.

The Russian-American Company had been established in 1802. Finns and Swedes and other Lutherans who had worked for the company had erected the Sitka Lutheran Church in Alaska in 1840. It was the very first Protestant church on the Pacific Coast.

Officially registered Finnish Club No. 1 was established in the Castro District of San Francisco in 1882. Soon after, two "Finnish Halls" were erected nearby. One was located at the corner of 24th Street and Hoffman Street. The other hall was located on Flint Street, on the "Rocky Hill" above Castro, an area densely Finnish-populated at the time - a Finn Town. Before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, nearly all the kids attending the McKinley school (now McKinley Elementary School) at 1025 14th Street (at Castro) were Finnish. Following the earthquake, a large amount of Finns of San Francisco - and Finns from elsewhere alike - moved to Berkeley, where many Finns had settled already before. A big part of the early Berkeley population was Finnish.[3]

This is the period when Finnila's Finnish Baths began serving customers in the Castro District of San Francisco, first starting in the early 1910s at 9 Douglas Street; then starting in 1919 at 4032 17th Street, a half block west from the busy Castro Street; then starting in 1932 at 2284 Market Street; finally in 1986 - after having been stationed in the San Francisco's Castro District for over seven decades - continuing as Finnila's Health Club at 465 Taraval Street in the San Francisco's Sunset District. Despite of public outcry and attempts to prevent the closing down of the popular Finnila's Market Street bathhouse, the old bathhouse building was demolished by Alfred Finnila soon after the farewell party held in the end of December, 1985. Today, the Finnila family still owns the new Market & Noe Center building attached to Cafe Flore, in the corner of Market and Noe Streets.[4]

In 1906, St. Francis Lutheran Church St. Francis Lutheran Church was erected at 152 Church Street, between Market Street and Duboce Street.[5] The construction work was completed by immigrants from the Nordic countries, where Lutheranism is the largest religious group. The project overseen primarily by Danes took place in the heart of what was then the Nordic-dominated Duboce-Market neighborhood of San Francisco. Facing the backside of St. Francis Lutheran Church, a small and light-colored Finnish church served Finnish-speaking church-goers on the one block long side street.

The 1943 novel Mama's Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes focused on a Norwegian family living in the area in the 1910s. Forbes' book served as the inspiration for John Van Druten's 1944 play I Remember Mama. The play was adapted to a Broadway theater production in 1944; to a movie in 1948; to a CBS Mama television series running from 1949 until 1957; to a Lux Radio Theater play in the late 1950s; and to a Broadway musical in 1979.[6] "Mama's Bank Account" reflected a (then) Eureka Valley neighborhood, where for generations Norwegians worshiped at the Norwegian Lutheran Church at 19th and Dolores streets, and met for fraternal, social events and Saturday night dances at Dovre Hall, 3543 18th Street, now the Women's Building.

In the early 20th century - especially from c. 1910 to 1920s - the Castro District of San Francisco and some of the surrounding area was known as Little Scandinavia, because of the large number of people of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Finnish ancestry who lived there.

The Cove on Castro used to be called The Norse Cove at the time. The Scandinavian Seamen's Mission operated for a long time on 15th Street, off Market Street, just around the corner from the Swedish-American Hall, which remains in the district. In 1920s - during the prohibition -, the downstairs of the Swedish-american Hall served as a speak-easy, one of many in the area. "Unlicensed saloons" were known as ‘speak-easies’, according to an 1889 newspaper.[7] They were "so called because of the practice of speaking quietly about such a place in public, or when inside it, so as not to alert the police or neighbors." [8]

Scandinavian-style "half-timber" construction can still be seen in some of the buildings along Market Street, between Castro and Church Streets. A restaurant called Scandinavian Deli operated for decades on Market Street, between Noe and Sanchez Streets, almost directly across the street from Finnila's.

From 1930s Irish period to the gay period

The Castro gradually became a working-class Irish neighborhood in the 1930s and remained so until the mid-1960s.

There was originally a cable car line with large double-ended cable cars that ran along Castro Street from Market Street to 29th St. until the tracks were dismantled in 1941 and it was replaced by the 24 bus.

The U.S. military offloaded thousands of gay servicemen in San Francisco during World War II after they were discharged for their homosexuality. Many settled in the Castro, and thus began the influx of gays to the Castro neighborhood.[9] A popular gathering place had been the area near the foot of Market Street, but in 1967 this area was torn up and disrupted due to the building of BART.

The Castro came of age as a gay center following the Summer of Love in the neighboring Haight-Ashbury district in 1967. The gathering brought tens of thousands of middle-class youth from all over the United States. The neighborhood, previously known as Eureka Valley, became known as the Castro, after the landmark theatre by that name near the corner of Castro and Market Streets. Many San Francisco gays also moved there after about 1970 from what had been the formerly most prominent gay neighborhood, Polk Gulch, because large Victorian houses were available at low rents or available for purchase for low down payments when their former middle-class owners had fled to the suburbs.

By 1973, Harvey Milk, who would become the most famous resident of the neighborhood, opened a camera store, Castro Camera, and began political involvement as a gay activist, further contributing to the notion of the Castro as a gay destination. Some of the culture of the late 1970s included what was termed the "Castro clone", a mode of dress and personal grooming—tight denim jeans, black or desert sand colored combat boots, tight T-shirt or, often, an Izod crocodile shirt, possibly a red plaid flannel outer shirt, and usually sporting a mustache or full beard—in vogue with the gay male population at the time, and which gave rise to the nickname "Clone Canyon" for the stretch of Castro Street between 18th and Market Streets.

There were numerous famous watering holes in the area contributing to the nightlife, including the Corner Grocery Bar, Toad Hall, the Pendulum, the Midnight Sun, Twin Peaks, and the Elephant Walk. A typical daytime street scene of the period is perhaps best illustrated by mentioning the male belly dancers who could be found holding forth in good weather at the corner of 18th and Castro on "Hibernia Beach," in front of the financial institution from which it drew its name. Then at night, after the bars closed at 2 AM, the men remaining at that hour often would line up along the sidewalk of 18th Street to indicate that they were still available to go home with someone (aka The Meat Rack).

The area was hit hard by the AIDS/HIV crisis of the 1980s. Beginning in 1984, city officials began a crackdown on bathhouses and launched initiatives that aimed to prevent the spread of AIDS. Kiosks lining Market Street and Castro Street now have posters promoting safe sex and testing right alongside those advertising online dating services.


One of the more notable features of the neighborhood is Castro Theatre, a movie palace built in 1922 and one of San Francisco's premier movie houses.

18th and Castro is a major intersection in the Castro, where many historic events, marches, protests have taken and continue to take place.

A major cultural destination in the neighborhood is the GLBT History Museum, which opened for previews on Dec. 10, 2010, at 4127 18th St. The first full-scale, stand-alone museum of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history in the United States (and only the second in the world after the Schwules Museum in Berlin), The GLBT History Museum is a project of the GLBT Historical Society.[13]

The F Market heritage streetcar line turnaround at Market and 17th-streets at the Castro Street Station, a Muni Metro subway station, attracts many tourists which was renamed Harvey Milk Plaza in honor of its most famous resident. His Camera Store and campaign headquarters on 575 Castro has a memorial plaque and mural.

Pink Triangle Park - 17th Street at Market, a city park and monument named after the pink triangles forcibly worn by gay prisoners persecuted by the Nazis during World War II.[14]

Harvey's, formerly the Elephant Walk that was raided by police after the White Night Riots.[15][16]

The Hot Cookie Bakery located on Castro Street[17] is a world famous destination serving some of the city's most interesting shaped cookies. It is especially known for its coconut macaroons.[18]

Twin Peaks, the first gay bar in the city, and possibly the United States, with plate glass windows to fully visibly expose patrons to the public is located at the intersection of Market and Castro.[19]

The Hartford Street Zen Center is also located in the Castro, as well as the Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, 100 Diamond Street.[20]

Special events, parade and street fairs that are held in the Castro include the Castro Street Fair, the Dyke March, the famed Halloween in the Castro which was discontinued in 2007 due to street violence; Pink Saturday, and the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.

Gay tourism

San Francisco has a large and thriving tourist economy due to ethnic and cultural communities such as Chinatown, San Francisco, North Beach, San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury and most notably, the Castro. The Castro is a site of economic success that brings in capital all year round with many events catered to the gay community along with everyday business.

The Castro is a “thriving marketplace for all things gay” meaning everything in the area is catered to people who identify with homosexuality or other associated meanings to the word gay.[21] There are gay cafes, gay theatres, gay shopping malls, and all other possible amenities with the word “gay” placed before it to make it a specialty establishment aimed at gay consumers. These establishments make the Castro an area of high spending and lead to high tourist traffic. Local residents to the area are not the only people who frequent the streets of the Castro. People travel from outside the city to visit the shops and restaurants as well as the events that take place such as the Castro Street Fair. Travellers make the trek from all over to experience this annual event and though it is advertised as LGBT, that does not stop heterosexual people from attending and partaking in the festivities. Events such as the Castro Street Fair drum up business for the community and bring in people from all over the nation who visit solely for the atmosphere the Castro provides.

People who do not necessarily feel comfortable expressing themselves in their own community have the freedom to travel to places such as the Castro to escape the alienation and feel accepted.[22] There is a sense of belonging and acceptance that is promoted throughout the district to accommodate non hetero-normative people that many gay travellers are attracted to.

The Golden Gate Business Association (GGBA) was created in 1974 to help promote not just the Castro as a place for gay tourists, but also San Francisco as a whole. The GGBA sought to gain local political power and hoped to achieve their gains through an increase in gay tourism.[23] This association then went on to form the San Francisco Gay Tourism and Visitor’s Bureau in 1983. The Bureau viewed gay tourists as spenders and realized capitalist gains could be made from them. Politically, the Bureau was Neoliberal and focused on economic interests.[24] The gay tourism industry is a successful money-making entity that drives and benefits the economy due to the constant influx of consumers.


The gay community that the Castro generates is vital in making the area prominent and cohesive. The idea of community is demonstrated by both geographical location and the shared characteristics of the people that make up the community. International research suggests that gay men gain a sense of belonging and inclusion from large friendship networks, such as ones established by communities in the Castro. Despite the positive connotations to the word “community”, there is sometimes hesitation for men to include themselves when discussing the “gay community”, as it can be somewhat exclusionary. The term ”gay community” is a broad term that is very generalized. There are many sub-categories within the LGBTQ collective and simply lumping them under a singular title does not give recognition to all of them. Because “gay community” is so generic, many of those who identify with other aspects of non hetero-normativity do not feel they should be categorized with the rest by such a vague term as not everybody has a shared commonality.[25]


External links

  • Castro Biscuit - The Castro Area Happenings Blog
  • Castro District Guide - Things To Do, Reviews and News
  • Castro SF - The Complete Local Guide
  • Guided photo tour of Castro
  • SF Gate: Gay & Lesbian Guide: Castro
  • , by Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D.
  • Finnila's Finnish Baths on Facebook
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