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Castro: SF’s Naughty Neighborhood

the Castro; the little big neighborhood
The Castro has some great public art, including this at Hibernia Bank

The San Francisco neighborhood known as the Castro is one of the best-known in the city. It was a birthplace of the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the U.S. and was where Harvey Milk, the gay-rights activist and politician, began his political career. It’s also a very picturesque and historic part of the city, with some of its best examples of Victorian housing, that originally had strong links to Russia and Finland. Today the Castro District is a major attraction for San Franciscans and visitors, drawn in large numbers by its great restaurant and cafe scene and vibrant nightlife. Although it’s fame has spread far and wide, the neighborhood is quite small, but it packs a lot of punch.

In this article I’ll give you a brief(ish) history of the Castro and some of its important figures, and then make some recommendations for things to do, historic sites to visit and some places to eat and drink there.

A Short History of the Castro

The Castro gets its name from a Mexican Governor of Alta California (Mexico’s name for the state while it controlled it), José Castro. However, it was very sparsely settled until 1887, when the Market Street Railway Company built a line linking that part of Eureka Valley to downtown San Francisco.

During its early years Castro was settled by a lot of Finns. Why Finns? Well, in those days most of the crews of Russian ships were made up of people from Finland, which was at the time part of the Russian Empire. The Russians had maintained an interest in California since the mid-1700’s, when they’d established settlements at several places in the region, which is where the San Francisco neighborhood of Russian Hill gets its name. 

During the latter half of the nineteenth century many Russian vessels manned by Finns would stop in San Francisco and, over time, a large population center developed in Castro. To get an idea of how large this population was it’s useful to know that some estimates reckon that more than 10% of the seafaring community in the city were Finnish during that period.

By the early 1900’s they had been joined by immigrants from the other Nordic nations and the neighborhood had become known as Little Scandinavia (the Cove on Castro, which is on the corner of Castro and Market Streets, was called the Norse Cove when it opened in 1935).

The area survived the Great Fire intact (due the Golden Hydrant, on the edge of Mission Dolores Park being one of the few to provide water) and in fact has some of the best examples of Victorian housebuilding in San Francisco.

A lot of Irish and Italians joined the local mix during the 1930’s, although the population remained largely working-class. Each new wave of immigrants joining the last.

Castro Becomes a Gay Neighborhood

During and after the Second World War many gay service-members in the US military were discharged because of their sexuality and, ultimately, ended up staying in the Bay Area. In the 1950’s ‘White flight’ (white, middle-class, families moving out of the city to the suburbs) meant that a lot of housing stock in places like the Castro and the nearby Haight opened up and became cheaper.

This is one of the main reasons that so many hippies moved to the Haight in the 1960’s, large Victorian mansions that suited their communal style of living and rents that suited their erratic income. However, after the Summer of Love in 1967, the communes and councils had become more characterized by drug-taking, meaning many gay people moved over to the Castro, concentrating their population there.

Harvey Milk

In 1973 a disaffected New Yorker, called Harvey Milk, opened a camera store on Castro Street. Milk had himself been driven out of the U.S. Navy when he’d had to resign, rather than be court-martialed for homosexuality. He’d worked on the presidential campaign of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964, but the hippie era of the late 1960’s had completely changed his political perspective and from Castro Camera, his base in the neighborhood, he began to get involved in local politics, eventually becoming known as ‘the mayor of Castro’.

Milk ran for office several times, finally succeeding in 1977, when he became a county supervisor. That election is particularly notable, not only for his election as the first openly gay non-incumbent to win election in the U.S., but also for the other candidates who won office. Sworn in with him was a civil-rights activist single-mother, as well as the first Chinese-American and the first African-American woman to hold the office of supervisor.

The city had just moved to a system of neighborhoods voting for their own supervisors, as opposed to a city-wide ballot, in order to make local government more responsive to the concerns of its citizens – and it seemed to have worked!

Unfortunately, Milk was only on the board for ten months. On the morning of November 27, 1978, he was assassinated by another supervisor, Daniel White, in his office at City Hall, along with Mayor George Moscone. It’s never been exactly clear why White carried out the killings, they were clearly premeditated and planned (he even reloaded his gun between murders), but they bear all the hallmarks of hate crimes. In a bitter irony White had been elected on a law and order platform in the same elections that had swept Milk into office. 

His defense was extremely weak – he’d grown depressed and, as evidence of that, his lawyers noted that the ex-soldier and firefighter had gone from eating a healthy diet to bingeing on junk food. Reporters latched onto this and it became known as ‘the Twinkie defense’, even though White’s lawyers didn’t argue that junk food caused him to commit the murders and twinkies were only mentioned in passing.

Ultimately, White was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison, due to ‘diminished mental capacity’. With the time reduced for various reasons he ended up serving just five years. Many felt that he’d literally gotten away with murder. 

White committed suicide, shortly after being released and returning to San Francisco, in 1985. He never publicly expressed any remorse or regret for the killings.

The murders and subsequent trial had three major effects. First of all, there was a riot, known as ‘the White Night’, as thousands of residents of the Castro marched on City Hall in anger when they heard of the verdict. Hours later the police responded with their own riot in the Castro itself. Eventually peace was restored, but much of the anger remained. The second significant change was that California barred diminished mental capacity as a defense, although it can be considered when sentencing. And the final major impact was on the county voting system, which went back to being a city-wide ballot, since San Franciscans worried that voting by neighborhood was creating too many conflicts, with the potential for violence.

In 2000 the city returned to district supervisor elections, which have been used ever since.

Castro Today

It’s still the spiritual heart of the gay community in San Francisco, but the Castro has attractions and things to do for everyone, as well as some great restaurants and bars. An open mind is necessary though, otherwise you might be shocked to see a naked man happily walking up the street or offended by the cookies sold at Hot Cookie (which resemble male body parts).

It’s only a short ride on the historic streetcar from the downtown Financial District, so it’s very accessible and very walkable.

Our Recommendations

The Castro itself is quite a small district (which is perhaps surprising, bearing in mind its fame), occupying less than a square mile, but there are a lot of things to do in the area and surrounding neighborhoods, and you could easily spend a very pleasant day exploring it.

THE CASTRO THEATRE

The Castro marquee, with its famous blade sign, dominates Castro Street. Amazingly the same family has owned the theatre since it opened a hundred years ago, in 1922. The theatre actually moved to this new building from its old home, which is now Cliff’s Variety Store, a few doors down. 

At the moment the theatre is closed, but ‘normally’ it has a great program of film screenings and live events. Renovation work is planned and, hopefully, the Castro will reopen soon.

CASTRO STREET

Castro Street has a ton of great café’s, bars, restaurants and shops, such as The Cove on CastroHot CookieCliff’s Variety and Twin Peaks. It’s a great spot to have lunch (or dinner) and people-watch.

HARVEY MILK PLAZA

Harvey Milk was a crucial early figure in Castro’s journey to becoming the LGBTQ+ friendly district that it is today. His murder in 1978 was a shocking event for all of the neighborhood’s residents at the time. He’s honored with an informational mural dedicated to his life.

MISSION DOLORES PARK

One of the loveliest parks in San Francisco, it’s technically in the Mission District, but Castro borders it on one side and it’s less than ten minutes walk from the intersection of Castro and Market Streets. It has its own micro-climate so that often even when it’s cool and overcast in other parts of SF, the weather’s warm and sunny in the park. 

The sloping park, with its amazing views of the city, is a great spot for a picnic and there are several nice cafes and bars surrounding it; Woods Cerveceria and Dolores Park Café flank the park on either side and both are well worth a visit.

TWIN PEAKS AND BUENA VISTA PARK

Fancy a hike? Both Buena Vista Park and Twin Peaks are great parks that, since they’re on the top of the hill, have great views. Both are a relatively short (although often very steep) walk from Castro.

TAKE THE STREETCAR

If you’re going to Castro from the direction of the Financial District, or leaving that way, then you have to take the F Market and Wharves line streetcar. The terminus is right on the corner of Market and Castro and the MUNI’s wonderful collection of vintage streetcars ensure this is a memorable ride. You can take the F-line from here all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Read our article on how to ride SF cable cars and trams for more information about this.

This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.

Every Sunday our SF: Food + History + Art Tour takes guests on a walk through the nearby Mission District, finishing at Mission Dolores Park, on Castro’s doorstep.

Our daily SF in a Day tour also includes a walk through the neighborhood, visiting Castro Street itself and Mission Dolores Park.

If you have any feedback on Castro: SF’s Naughty Neighborhood, please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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