The History of the Castro

17th Street Circa 1900
17th Street, circa 1900
Credit: D. H. Wulzen

Eureka Valley

Eureka Valley, named for one of the Twin Peaks (the other was called Noe), began as sparsely populated ranchos that belonged to Mexican land barons like Jose Castro and Jose de Jesus Noe. In the 1880s when Irish, German and Scandinavian families homesteaded on the slopes of Twin Peaks, a village of dairy farms and Victorian houses flourished. With the opening of the Castro Street segment of the Market Street Cable Railway in 1887, Eureka Valley became a desirable and accessible neighborhood.

It was every working man's dream: buy a cheap piece of land and build a stately Victorian, big enough for several generations of the family. And it was not just who lived in one house that was family but everyone who lived around you. It was a total neighborhood by its truest definition. There was economic solidarity; everyone was working class. They worked in the trades, public-service sectors and on the waterfront. There were bakeries, butcher shops and poultry and fish markets. Eureka Valley had its own commercial autonomy. And there were bars everywhere. The bars were always an important social meeting ground for residents of this neighborhood, and this remains unchanged today. There was religious unity; everyone was predominantly Catholic. The Holy Redeemer Church was more than a place to worship: it was the focus of social activities and the school for all the neighborhood children. Scattered houses soon yielded to whole city blocks. The tight little community of Eureka Valley was soon promoting itself as the Sunny Heart of San Francisco.

The area remained basically unchanged until after World War II. The decline in the neighborhood in the post-war years, FHA-backed mortgages and the increase of automobiles caused a mass exodus to the suburbs. In the 1970s, during its post-industrial years, San Francisco experienced an explosion of white-collar workers. Many well-educated, middle-class gay men with capital and a real appreciation for old architecture found Eureka Valley a perfect place to settle.

San Francisco: City of Tolerance

Castro Theater
Castro Theater
Credit: Dan Nicoletta

San Franciscans rode out the Depression with their usual verve and gusto for food, fun and frivolity. As the economy started to pick up following the lean years, San Francisco decided to stage The Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. Seventeen million people from around the world came to San Francisco to enjoy the Exposition. When it closed with "The Star Spangled Banner" on September 1, 1940, Hitler had already set World War II in motion. San Francisco was moving from the mood of frivolity to one of defense. Treasure Island became a major embarkation and naval training center. Thousands of servicemen and -women came to San Francisco on their way to and from the Pacific battlefronts. The War Years, like the Gold Rush a hundred years earlier, drew masses of people out of their accustomed walks of life, threw them together with a group of minorities and separated them into sex-segregated settings. This was also the first time the US military actively sought out gay and lesbian service members and dishonorably discharged them solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. San Francisco had become known as a city of tolerance with a long history of relative openness. It was therefore understandable that to the two million men and women who passed through the Golden Gate, San Francisco was a city of magic, a world far different from what they had known back home.

The Homosexual Community in Transition

San Francisco's homosexual population has been growing steadily since World War II when a number of military personnel from the Pacific area were dishonorably discharged in the Bay Area for their sexual orientation. Many other homosexual veterans remembered San Francisco as a tolerant, open-minded city and returned after the war. By 1980 it was estimated that 17 percent of the city's population, 115,000 people, were homosexual.

Propelled by the great migration to the suburbs during the 1950s, a new group of of migrants were attracted by the Victorian houses of the Eureka Valley: white-collar gay men and gay couples with money. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s this gay influx gave the blue-collar Eureka Valley neighborhood, in the vicinity of Castro and 18th streets, a new social identity. Counter-cultural homosexuals gave rise to a movement of epic proportion with its own dress code, prejudices, leaders, political figures, economic base and ensuing problems. Castro Street, the main business section of Eureka Valley, gave the neighborhood its new name -- "The Castro." The changes in the Castro were not just social; they were also political, cultural and economic. The power from this emerging community exerted a real influence on San Francisco politics.

Before the gay rights movement helped foster acceptance in San Francisco, many gay people led double lives. Worried about being "found out," they feared devastating effects on their public and professional lives. In those years, the majority of gay men in San Francisco worked in the business community, or in the few working-class trades where they were tolerated. In spite of the commonality of sexual orientation, the Castro was not always a harmonious neighborhood. The Castro, as in the greater male-dominated society, was majority white gay males who could afford to live and work there. There was an obvious void of women as well as people of color in this community. As a newly arrived black gay male observed: "Well, I guess this is the gay neighborhood. But it sure is a vanilla gay neighborhood. There's nobody here who looks like me."


"People started to die pretty quickly in my life. Most of my dad's lovers died. Milton was the first. That one hit me really hard because Milton was this very vibrant young man. And he was everything the Castro was about. Total celebration of his sexuality and everything that he was, and everything that embodied. And then he just died, really quickly and painfully. Without support, and without medical attention or anything."

Felicia Park-Rogers sums up the AIDS epidemic, which began in the early 1980s and changed the neighborhood again. But the tragic impact of AIDS had an unexpected positive impact on the Castro.

Even though AIDS and HIV encouraged a negative view of gay sex, the educational efforts to combat the disease, inadequate as they were, helped to demystify same-sex unions. As a result, public awareness of homosexuality is much greater now than it was before AIDS was first identified in 1981. One of the most dramatic consequences of AIDS is that a large number of men were catapulted out of the closet when their illness became obvious. Gay men "in the closet," who were more likely to seek anonymous sexual contact, were at greater risk than those who were open about their sexual orientation. The tragic opening of many closet doors forced heterosexuals to become aware of homosexuality in a new way.

The AIDS crisis mobilized the gay and lesbian community by concentrating its focus on a single threat, and by involving many people who had not been politically active before. Because of the general public's indifference to this crisis, the greatest response came from the gay community itself. Community-based groups started support services such as ACT UP, Shanti, Project Open Hand and the Coming Home Hospice. AIDS, which had the potential to destroy the gay liberation movement, in fact brought the neighborhood closer than ever before.

Another unexpected development was the new spirit of cooperation and solidarity between lesbians and gay men. AIDS also brought many new supporters to the gay cause: parents whose sons had died of the disease; heterosexuals in the medical profession; and people who were beginning to understand the problems and discrimination encountered by gay people.

The Castro Today

Compassion and solidarity emerged in the Castro from the frustration and devastating losses to AIDS. Earlier factions evolved into a supportive community. New social services were formed: hospices for the dying, education about HIV and AIDS, centers for elderly homosexuals and gay youth, and the Names Project, a communal memorial quilt to celebrate loved ones who died from AIDS. A special cornerstone is LYRIC, a safe social center for gay and lesbian teens, a home away from home.

Lesbians have become more visible and involved in the gay rights movement. The races are less segregated. The emerging Asian American gay presence has made itself more visible. The popular clubs are less gender-segregated than in the 1970s. It is estimated that 20 to 25 percent of San Francisco's voters is comprised of educated and committed lesbians and gay men. Harvey Milk's dream (see page 4) has finally come true -- a gay neighborhood with economic and political clout. But the Castro, which has always been known for its exquisitely restored Victorian houses, is now the target of rampant commercialism. Like similar battles in other neighborhoods, it is a hard fight to win. The commercial strip is lined with trendy cafes, apparel stores, bars, health and fitness clubs, and nouveau boutiques selling the latest in upscale products.

The "gay" and euphoric delirium of the 1970s was replaced by the sobering crisis of the 1980s. As those in the 1990s learned to cope with the struggles, comedy offered a welcome remedy for grief. This new gay and lesbian comedy gave a fresh, upbeat voice to the community. The voices now converge: the older generation; heroes and martyrs to the gay rights cause; the same-sex couples, many with children; the young, self-assured Queer culture accepted by and even integrated with the straight culture. The acceptance by mainstream society is far from total but major victories have been won. Humankind -- with its additional definitions -- marches on.