Has the Castro Lost Touch With Its Radical Roots?

“Let’s make no mistake about this: The American Dream starts with the neighborhoods. If we wish to rebuild our cities, we must first rebuild our neighborhoods. And to do that, we must understand that the quality of life is more important than the standard of living.”

-Harvey Milk

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As the United States waged a daring and vicious campaign against the Axis in the Second World War, it also dishonorably discharged thousands of Gay service members who were putting their lives on the line in the Pacific Theater simply because of their sexuality. These service members rarely had homes that would embrace their taboo relationships, and soon found themselves settling in the city of San Francisco.

This influx of homosexuals helped create radical new neighborhoods throughout the city: Where Polk Street shone as a Gay epicenter and the Tenderloin embraced the still heavily shunned Transgender and Queer communities. Though these communities still suffered from severe discrimination from the city government and law enforcement, they created a place for refugees of homophobia and transphobia to settle in some peace.

In the 1950s, thousands of white, heterosexual families moved to the suburbs, a phenomenon now known as “white flight”, which led to the abandonment of massive amounts of real estate to become available in American cities. This made the cities more accessible to economically downtrodden communities, like the LGBTQ community.

As white flight continued to drive down real estate costs and the Summer of Love began to normalize the idea of same-sex relationships, the LGBTQ community set its eyes on the now affordable Eureka Valley, now so famously known as the Castro District.

The Castro District became the capital of LGBTQ neighborhoods, embracing a radical stance politically and helping elect the first ever Gay official, the Mayor of Castro Street, Harvey Milk.

We could write about the Castro’s history all day long, and this definitely won’t be the last time we talk about Harvey Milk, especially since he was a fierce housing advocate and even attempted to create a speculation tax before his assassination. The important thing is that we remember the Castro was a sanctuary for poor and displaced refugees of homophobia and transphobia and was where the seeds of the radical LGBTQ political movements were sown.

(If you want to learn more about the history of the Castro we recommend reading Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts).

Fast forward to 2017: Castro Street has transformed into a shopping and nightlife destination with blocks and blocks of clubs, big banks, high-end shops, property management companies, and the still-stunning Castro Theater, where families and neighbors get to see everything from Disney sing-alongs to Drag Shows. Take a walk down 18th Street and you get a chance to see some of the stunning historic Victorians once abandoned during white flight, with well-manicured gardens and windows dotted with Marriage Equality and rainbow-clad “I’m With Her” signs. Many people can say with confidence that the economic success of this district just goes to show you how far the LGBTQ community has come since the 1970s.

Oh, right, and according to Trulia the median rent is just under $7,000 a month.

Anyone living in San Francisco is probably not surprised at that number. We wouldn’t have started this blog if the cost of housing wasn’t so astronomically high. But what’s most troubling about it is how inaccessible the Castro has been to LGBTQ youth, especially the Trans community, and how many people have been evicted from the neighborhood in the past 20 years leaving the neighborhood firmly in the hands of wealthy, middle aged men.

You’d think the residents of District 8, once represented by the developer-friendly Scott Wiener, would have recognized the need to begin building more affordable housing for its evicted and low-income residents, yet there is very little new affordable housing in the pipeline for the district. And most of the current inclusionary housing that is being built is just over 10 percent of new developments. Even now-Supervisor Sheehy, who has expressed a desire for more affordable housing and said that addressing homelessness would be a priority for him, has not made any major legislative moves to tackle either.

It almost makes one wonder: Why aren’t Castro residents putting more energy into fighting for more affordable housing? Where did the radically progressive energy that helped create the Gayborhood of all Gayborhoods go?  

Neither were they present during last year’s election when Proposition Q, a measure that would ban people that are homeless from sleeping in tent encampments, was approved by voters. This measure was especially heinous, as it was passed despite the fact there are not enough homeless shelters to house the people we booted off the streets. We can argue all day long about the best solutions to homelessness, but banning people from sleeping in the streets without any alternative is simply not the logical approach to this issue.

Then-Supervisor Scott Wiener was an avid proponent of the measure, and his replacement, Jeff Sheehy, was happy to endorse Wiener for his State Senate bid.

So how does this relate to the Castro? Well, city data estimates that 29 percent of homeless people identify as LGBTQ, which is a staggering number when you consider the San Francisco Bay Area’s LGBTQ population is only 6 percent of the total population. There are an estimated 6,880 homeless people in San Francisco, which means around 2,000 homeless people are members of the LGBTQ community. What’s even more eye-opening is that 48 percent of homeless youth identify themselves as LGBTQ. This is an amazingly high number considering how small the LGBTQ community is.

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So what solutions do we have now? Well, building more shelters, especially the very effective navigation centers, would have to be the best next step in order to tackle this crisis. Navigation centers combine health services, housing relocation services, and places to sleep for the homeless while allowing them to keep their items and stay with their families. Navigation centers had a 78 percent success rate transitioning people that are homeless last year!!! That’s stellar! So Supervisor Sheehy, who says ending homelessness is a priority, would definitely embrace a navigation center in District 8, right?

Nope.

In an interview with the Chronicle, Sheehy mentioned that he didn’t see there being enough support from the neighborhood for a navigation center, and that there weren’t enough health services that navigation center residents needed there. But the castro has plenty of health services provided by Strut, Magnet, The SF LGBT Center, the Castro-Mission Health Center, and so many more fantastic non-profits.

The fact that he also worries about neighborhood support is especially troubling, and speaks to the loss of the district’s radical soul. Would the Castro of Harvey Milk’s time be a place where neighbors would be against a program that could help thousands of homeless LGBT folks find a place to live, get access to healthcare they need, and rebuild their lives after living in extreme poverty? Would the Mayor of Castro Street, a man who was himself evicted, tolerate mass evictions that plague the Castro now? Would the refugees of transphobia and homophobia who came to settle there tolerate a lack of affordable housing developments?

If District 8 doesn’t begin some major soul-searching there will be no room left for the next generation of LGBTQ residents who dream of one day living in the capital of all Gayborhoods.

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