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Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco: The Castro

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Out of the heart of San Francisco comes an epic story that is at once poignant and controversial -- a tale of social upheaval, political assassination, and devastating plague -- all happening within a few square blocks, and in just a few short years.

Airing during Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, The Castro, premiered Friday, June 12, 1998 at 9:00 pm on PBS. The 90-minute documentary tells the dramatic story of how a quiet corner of San Francisco became the cornerstone of a movement-an international symbol of gay liberation.

Using rare archival film and fresh contemporary footage, the story of the Castro's transformation is told here for the first time on television. Because it is a recent chapter in American social history, the story is told by the people who lived it: young and old, straight and gay. They bring to life a history ranging from the discriminatory world of the 1950s, through the flowering of "gay power," and into the age of AIDS.

"The drama in this one neighborhood is remarkable," says producer/director Peter L. Stein. "It's the story of men and women who came to San Francisco, seeking a place to call home when their own homes were often hostile to them. In the process they built a whole culture, with nationwide ramifications."

What happened in the Castro changed the way Americans viewed gays and lesbians. For the first time, this long-persecuted minority had the audacity to lay claim to a residential neighborhood as its own -- and to begin exercising its own political and economic clout. The Castro of the 1970s became, for many gays and lesbians, both a haven from prejudice, and a model for joining the fabric of middle-class American society. At the same time, the neighborhood became a lightning rod for America's growing discomfort with the new openness of gays in their midst.

The Castro reveals key factors in the transformation of the neighborhood:

The roots of a gay subculture in San Francisco long predate the rise of the Castro in the 1970s. Despite having a reputation for tolerance, San Francisco experienced a period of harsh harassment of gays and lesbians through the 1950's. Ironically, that discrimination helped build a politically aware gay community in San Francisco that drew national attention in the 1960s.

Not long after the famed "Summer of Love" in 1967, the demise of the nearby Haight-Ashbury district prompted many of San Francisco's counterculture gay youth to migrate "over the hill" to what was called Eureka Valley, in search of cheap communal housing.

Harvey Milk, a local merchant and charismatic neighborhood booster, became known as "the Mayor of Castro Street" through his efforts to organize a new political force out of the gay culture springing up in the Castro. Elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977, he became the first openly gay elected official in California. Just a year later, his assassination by a fellow Supervisor rocked the city, and signaled just how volatile an issue the integration of gays and lesbians into mainstream society still was, even in San Francisco.

Meet Witnesses to an Ongoing Movement:

  • Meet the original merchants and families of Eureka Valley, like Sharon Johnson, who says "I remember my father being horrified" The very idea that homosexuals were moving into the neighborhood was scary to them. They didn't know what that meant for them."

  • Meet the lesbian and gay pioneers who paved the way through for a community to evolve in San Francisco in the 1950s, such as Dorrwin Jones, who says "I often tell young people that we weren't just in closets. We were under rocks. It was that bad."

  • Meet those who planted rainbow flags in the neighborhood in the `70s, including Walter Park, who says, "When I was 25, the Castro meant 'gay men in an island' and we really needed that."

  • Meet the self-styled "queer" youth disaffected from the neighborhood today such as Rachel Timoner, who says "The Castro is like a mirage. On the surface it's supposed to be one thing, but in reality, it's something else. It's supposed to be a gay Mecca, but when you get there it's a commercial strip and houses."

"The neighborhood has evolved as gay culture has evolved," says Stein. "Nowadays people are beginning to grapple with the problem of the Castro being predominately white, male, and middle-class. And the fear that the place is becoming a kind of commercialized "gay theme park" indicates how far the economic clout of the neighborhood has come. It's being seen not as an enclave now, but a market niche -- and that angers people."

The Castro has won a George Foster Peabody Award, a CINE Golden Eagle Award and has been invited to be screened at numerous film festivals in the United States and abroad.

The program continues the PBS tradition of presenting universally accessible programming that reflects America's cultural history.

Funding for The Castro is generously provided by Pacific Bell, James C. Hormel, The Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, The Durfee Foundation, The R. Gwin Follis Foundation, The Mary A. Crocker Trust, Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund, The California Council for the Humanities, Chevron, Michael DeZordo, Robert W. Hofer, Richard Mac Almon, Alvin H. Baum, Jr., Rudolph W. Driscoll, Sr., Ayse and Bob Kenmore, The Advocate, Charles Q. Forester, Library Foundation of San Francisco, Gerald B. Rosenstein, and PBS.

The Castro is a production of KQED San Francisco. It is produced, directed and written by Peter L. Stein. The Associate Producer is David Condon, and the Editor is Dawn Logsdon.

KQED, Inc. operates the nation's most-watched public television station in primetime; KQED 88.5 FM, one of the most-listened-to public radio stations in the U.S.; and the KQED Center for Education and Lifelong Learning, which provides related curriculum materials, resource guides, and training to educational institutions and community groups.

Funding for The Castro is generously provided by:

Pacific Bell, James C. Hormel, The Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, The Durfee Foundation, The Mary A. Crocker Trust, The R. Gwin Follis Foundation, Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund, Richard Mac Almon and Michael DeZordo, The Morris Stulsaft Foundation, California Council for the Humanities, Chevron, Robert W. Hofer, Walter and Elise Haas Fund, Alvin H. Baum, Jr. Rudolph W. Driscoll, Sr., Ayse and Bob Kenmore, The Advocate, Gerald B. Rosenstein, Library Foundation of San Francisco, Charles Q. Forester, Lucius and Eva Eastman Fund, PBS,
and hundreds of individuals throughout the Bay Area community