Hello, readers – especially to you followers I do not know, who have somehow found my little corner and signed up to tag along. This post is just for you! Well, everyone else too – but, I want to play tour guide this week. I have no idea where you live – perhaps you know San Francisco, perhaps not – but this week’s exploration is a chance for you to visit a corner of my world. Come stroll with me through a neighborhood like perhaps your own, and yet, unlike any other – world changing, in a way, at least at one time – and still revered and treasured, though at the moment a little tattered and bruised. And still shining through that shadow of COVID.
The Castro has a long history of being home to various ethnic and cultural groups – at one point, it was known as “Little Scandanavia”, and was not the original core area for San Francisco’s emerging gay/lesbian population. But, in the 70’s, with a variety of factors contributing, bars and their patrons began moving from the Polk Street area to the Castro, and it became known as the “gay capital” in many ways, particularly after Harvey Milk began his campaign for political office from his camera shop. There are many wonderful documentaries and websites for you to learn about that heritage – it is somewhat less vibrant today, again for many reasons even before COVID. But, my stroll this week to buy a birthday gift for family gave me a chance to see how this once, and still, magical few blocks is changing – like us all.
Today the Castro is revered in the LGBTQ community world wide as an early refuge, a symbol of freedom and standing for rights long denied. Now, Harvey’s old camera shop is a retail and community center for the Human Rights campaign (although some were aghast at that idea, it has proven to be a reminder of his presence); it would be rare to see anything other than a Democratic campaign event here or anywhere in SF. Harvey’s restaurant, formerly the “Elephant Bar”, displays posters for the upcoming presidential election; victory parties are already planned ….
Like all of San Francisco, politics are fervently expressed in the Castro everyday.
Nightlife and retail are the lifeblood of many urban communities, even more so here. The bars are limited to serving alcohol outdoors, with food – so the restaurants, with a slightly increased capacity now that SF has moved into the “least restrictive” color coded compliance zone, partner with bars as well as serving their own customers. By building “parklets” in the streets – some more extravagant than others – in theory, visitors can comply with mask and distancing rules. We do not attend these locations – to us, it is not important – but they are well populated, and probably going to be around for quite a while – their version of the new normal. But the shops still carry unique products that even reflect the current COVID focus that casts its long shadow over all. The heads in one window display made in SF pride masks.
There are businesses that are closed forever – one long time, ahem, adult shop among others; but new businesses waiting to open, oddly enough a second ice cream shop, near the famed “Hot Cookie” bakery, where a wall of photos of customers wearing the namesake briefs welcomes visitors to buy a “butch bar” or a more than suggestively shaped cookie to enjoy.
Cliff’s variety store is exactly that – a little bit of everything, plus some you never knew about! It’s a mainstay of the neighborhood, with a long history of its own – customers line up to enter now, but on this early morning access was easy. I kept my visit to enjoying the Halloween display, featuring some very creative garden gnomes.
Speaking of creative, this local small independent gym was one who adopted the “outdoor training” approach when all else was still verboten – I was impressed with their logistics to providing a complete workout experience. We used to go to the chain gym down the street, which is now reopened indoors – but, we have modified our attendance to another, non-Castro location which the chain opened, featuring an outdoor tent filled with equipment. Business owners are struggling to stay open, daily, weekly – following restrictions, hoping customers will be faithful, and adapting – while they can.
The term currently in use may be different – I think recently it was “un housed” – or something similar. Perhaps there is another term this couple might use for their classification, but, for the moment, on this weekday morning, they find shelter in a nook of the entry to the GLBT Historical society museum, up the street between “Harvey’s” restaurant and two of the remaining gay bars. This museum, small but well curated, would normally be a spot I would recommend visiting – but for us, for now, we are content with our virtual visits, and supporting the society and other causes financially until, one day, we feel the reward of a visit outweighs the risks.
Our “gayborhood” represents more than business – in some ways, it is a Mecca. I recall my first visit as an out gay man in 2012 – I rode my Indian motorcycle up specifically to be in the Castro. Among the traditions – the memorial to lost loved ones, which began during the AIDS crisis early years by posting pictures and other tributes on the walls of the Hibernia Bank (long gone, but this corner still referred to as “Hibernia Beach”). And, not far away, the community “bulletin board” – empty, but formerly filled with event flyers and posters for all kinds of things that you don’t find in Kansas city. The “angels” above still circle, waiting for those days to return.
A couple of blocks up Market – perhaps not the traditional “Castro” but one of my favorite little spots, Giddy’s candy store has a few Halloween treats available.
Yummy treats at Giddy Candy – imports from around the world, always fun!
Once upon a time, Halloween in the Castro was a major street party, but that ended before my arrival and long before COVID, due to public safety concerns – the costumes were, of course, fabulous in their day. Some may appear this week ….
From years past – Halloween in the Castro – no social distancing back then!
Our last stop, for now. The famed Castro Theater, which I referenced in my column last week about the slow return of films to our cultural menu, is completely walled off – the organ, presumably heard occasionally but only by a few, was in the process of being replaced by a new, sophisticated model. It almost doesn’t matter what the first movie to be shown when those doors open is – it will be crowded, and those in attendance will gladly sing along with the traditional “San Francisco, Open your golden gates” introduced by Jeannette MacDonald in that MGM epic of 1936. Of course, that depicted a city torn by earthquakes and fire – and then, rebuilt. Ours is facing a different onslaught – but renewal can come, as it did more than a century ago. What will that look like – and who will take up the challenge?
Our world will look different a year from now. The future is something we can create – you, me, all of us – can build it. Your neighborhood may have seen changes already, as well. The Castro may look very different in a decade; this is just a moment in a stream of constant energy and life. For many of us, our local places, whether routine or world famous, are still – sacred, in a way. A part of our hearts lives there, even after we move on. But what gives our communities life is the spirit of those who are there today (and tomorrow), building, creating, celebrating, sharing, loving – giving. You may not have a drag queen on your main street USA, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shine. Let our hope shine. The shadows will pass, others will come – we must hold on, to one another, and build, today. And we will.