LGBTQ

The Fight to Keep the Castro Queer

This plaza in San Francisco's Castro District was named for assassinated city Supervisor Harvey Milk.
PETER DaSILVA
This plaza in San Francisco's Castro District was named for assassinated city Supervisor Harvey Milk.
The San Francisco neighborhood known as an international beacon of LGBTQ freedom is becoming more symbol than reality.

Every Wednesday, in the heart of the Castro, an eclectic group gathers for a communal potluck. Some are friends, some are strangers, and some are lovers, but everyone is a Radical Faerie. This is Grand Central, a sprawling second-floor apartment that’s one of the few queer collective homes left in San Francisco. The residence is a space for LGBTQ discussion, support, and spirituality, and a way station for queer travelers and those transitionally housed. Not too long ago, however, this sanctuary was threatened. Loosely defined, the Faeries are something between a queer anti-assimilationist movement and a spiritual subculture, dating back to the late 1970s and founded by the pioneering gay rights activist Harry Hay.

In 2017, the building, which in addition to Grand Central houses a ground-floor restaurant called the Sausage Factory, was put up for sale at $4.1 million by the Azzolino family, which owns both the property and the Italian eatery. “Two of my roommates are drag queens who work in food service when they’re not performing,” says Jesse Oliver Sanford, one of Grand Central’s permanent tenants. “This is not a household that’s full of rich people who are going to get together and qualify for a multimillion-dollar mortgage.”

Instead, Sanford and a contingent of other Radical Faeries created the Queer Land Trust and began organizing to purchase the building. The group solicited potential donors, and in a matter of months they received roughly $300,000 in pledges to save Grand Central: an amount nowhere near the anticipated $1 million down payment for the property. However, as luck would have it, the Queer Land Trust didn’t end up needing the money. The restaurant was sold to another family member, and the structure was taken off the market. Sanford and his housemates were not displaced, and Grand Central wasn’t converted into a high-end luxury condo. Disaster averted, right? Not so fast.

In the Castro, where speculative evictions, skyrocketing housing costs, and, yes, straight couples are gentrifying the gayborhood, keeping any apartment queer is far from assured. In fact, the Queer Land Trust is now focused on securing multiple housing sites in other Bay Area localities where queer communities already exist and where it’s cheaper to live. With a five-year goal of raising $5 million to purchase real estate, the organization hopes to eventually establish innovative models of cooperative LGBTQ housing not just locally but across the country. A lofty objective? Yes. Improbable? Less so than buying a building in the Castro.

Gentrification in the neighborhood predates the Faeries’ Sausage Factory scare. It goes back almost 40 years, to when two powerful forces tore through the neighborhood. First, there was the AIDS crisis. Between 1981 and 1990, an estimated 8,000 San Franciscans died of AIDS-related illnesses. By 1992, approximately 30 people were dying each week, many of them Castro residents. And according to Brian Basinger, the executive director of the Q Foundation, a nonprofit in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood formerly called the AIDS Housing Alliance, just as the Castro was ground zero in the city for the AIDS epidemic, the neighborhood was also ground zero for San Francisco’s eviction epidemic, the second ravaging force.

Radical Faeries activists Jesse Oliver Sanford (center) during a Radical Faeries potluck dinner held at his communal apartment in San Francisco's Castro District. The neighborhood, once a haven for the LGBTQ+ community, has become popular with heterosexual families. PETER DaSILVA
Radical Faeries activists Jesse Oliver Sanford (center) during a Radical Faeries potluck dinner held at his communal apartment in San Francisco’s Castro District. The neighborhood, once a haven for the LGBTQ+ community, has become popular with heterosexual families.
NOTICE TO QUIT

“During the AIDS epidemic, we all saw it: people would die, and then other people would move in who didn’t look like us,” Basinger says. “That’s when we started losing the community.” In 1985, the California State Legislature passed the Ellis Act, a law that allows landlords to exit the rental business by evicting tenants, and opening the door for the units to be renovated and sold as market-rate condominiums, tenancy in commons, or single-family homes. According to the San Francisco–based Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, between 1997 and 2013, 294 buildings in the Castro—representing 837 rental units—were cleared by way of the Ellis Act. That’s more than in any other neighborhood in San Francisco and nearly double the number of evictions in the Mission, the neighborhood with the second-highest rate of evictions. However, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project also estimates that for every Ellis Act eviction, an additional five homes are cleared and the residents displaced for reasons such as habitual late rent payments or a breach of the lease.

The Castro is primarily made up of two-to-four-unit buildings, which Basinger says make speculative evictions a cinch. Larger buildings with more units, mean more tenants, and a longer, more expensive eviction process. “That’s practically the entire neighborhood, and each of those units will sell for more than a million dollars,” he explains.

This onslaught of evictions seems to have paved the way for a straighter gayborhood. In 2014, the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District sponsored a retail-strategy survey of 1,200 individuals. Over 72 percent of respondents identified as LGBTQ; however, whereas 77 percent of people who’d lived in the Castro for more than 10 years identified as LGBTQ, only 55 percent of newer residents—people who’d moved to the Castro within the past year—identified as LGBTQ. Grand Central’s Sanford estimates that the latter number is even smaller. “Based on my own observations, I would suggest the number’s now down to about 50 percent,” he says.

The Castro is primarily made up of two-to-four-unit buildings, which experts says make speculative evictions a cinch.PETER DaSILVA
The Castro is primarily made up of two-to-four-unit buildings, which experts says make speculative evictions a cinch.
BUYING POWER

Tommi Avicolli Mecca doesn’t find the Castro’s slide down the Kinsey Scale surprising. He’s been prophesying this reality for over 20 years. An emphatic conversationalist and a weathered activist who, like many Italian Americans brought up in South Philly, talks with his hands, Avicolli Mecca fights for tenants’ rights with the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. He remembers the commotion when rent prices for a two-bedroom in the Castro hit $1,000 in the early 2000s, and he’s disappointed that the queer community didn’t do more back in the dot-com years to fight against LGBTQ displacement in the Castro, mainly because, as he puts it, “this shit is so much worse today.”

Today, according to Trulia, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Castro is about $5,000 a month, and the median sale price for a home there is north of $1 million.

“It’s the dot-com boom on steroids,” Avicolli Mecca says. “The number of evictions has skyrocketed in the last five years. I think at the height in 2000, maybe we reached 1,000 evictions. We’ve already gone way past that in the last five years. I think we’re up probably closer to 3,000 at this point, just in this area.”

Avicolli Mecca sees a future in which the Castro is predominantly made up of heterosexual couples, who, on average, have more buying power than same-sex couples. According to  a 2013 study by UCLA’s Williams Institute, the average income for a same-sex household raising children is approximately $15,000 less than for a straight family with kids. And despite a stereotype of gay affluence, LGBTQ people are more likely to be poor. The same UCLA study found that nearly 12 percent of same-sex households are living in poverty, compared with 5.7 percent of married opposite-sex households.

“Basically, the gayer the block, the faster its values will rise,” says Amin Ghaziani, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and the author of the book There Goes the Gayborhood? Ghaziani has made a career out of studying gayborhood trends, and this “straightening out” isn’t unique to the Castro: it’s underway or has already happened in places like New York City’s Chelsea district, Chicago’s Boystown, and Vancouver’s Davie Village. That’s because gayborhoods offer a premium return on real estate investment—something that real estate speculators know. Ghaziani cites academics and high-profile urbanists who claim “to follow around the gays because they know they’re going to make a big bang for their buck.”

Ghaziani says that to preserve a gayborhood, you need LGBTQ renters to never leave or LGBTQ property owners to sell only to other LGBTQ people. “Neither is plausible,” he says. Plus, the Castro’s LGBTQ renters often aren’t given a choice: they’re just evicted. And once that happens, there’s a good chance they won’t be able to afford to remain in the neighborhood, particularly if they’ve been evicted from a rent-controlled unit. So is there any other way to preserve a gayborhood like the Castro? Basinger of the Q Foundation has an idea: a “benevolent overlord.” He might be onto something—San Francisco’s Chinatown, one of the city’s top tourist destinations and also one of its most homogeneous neighborhoods, has traditionally benefited from community-oriented property owners bent on keeping things the way they are. Of course, Chinatown is nonetheless having its own problems with gentrification. Actually, every neighborhood in San Francisco seems to be changing. Why should the Castro be any different?

The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Castro is about $5,000 a month, and the median sale price for a home there is north of $1 million. When longtime residents with rent control get evicted, they can't afford to stay in the neighborhood. PETER DaSILVA
The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Castro is about $5,000 a month, and the median sale price for a home there is north of $1 million. When longtime residents with rent control get evicted, they can’t afford to stay in the neighborhood.
ETERNAL CITIES

“We don’t have a right to freeze a neighborhood in time,” says Shayne Watson, a San Francisco–based architectural historian, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be “a check on rapid growth and change,” she adds. Such a check has noticeably not been coming from San Francisco’s City Hall. Despite slow-moving efforts to create a pioneering citywide LGBTQ+ Cultural Heritage Strategy to preserve places like the Castro, most of the city’s efforts thus far have involved historical plaques, rainbow-striped crosswalks, and redesigning the Castro Muni metro station as Harvey Milk Plaza, rather than keeping LGBTQ people in the neighborhood. “It takes queer residents and communities to make an LGBTQ stronghold,” the Queer Land Trust’s Sanford says, “not just rainbow sidewalks and tourist attractions.”

The fact that the Castro has become an unaffordable, Disneyland-esque open-air LGBTQ museum is one of the reasons the Queer Land Trust is looking outside San Francisco for real estate acquisitions, in cities ranging from Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz, where property is cheaper and it’s easier to house large numbers of community members. Similar things are happening in other large cities, where gayborhoods have sprouted across the urban landscape like islands in an archipelago. “Today, plurality is the new game,” scholar Ghaziani says. As the Castro changes, who knows what new queer localities might emerge in the Bay Area and beyond.

Gerard Koskovich isn’t in the business of predicting the future. Still, as a historian and founding member of the Castro’s GLBT Historical Society, he has opinions. Koskovich believes the Castro can persist as a cultural trope much in the same way that Paris has retained its 19th-century image as the art capital of the world. “The Castro will remain a ghostly queer homeland for as long as people need queer homelands,” he says. That mirage pairs nicely with what Bowdoin College sociologist Theo Greene calls “vicarious citizenship,” the idea that you don’t have to live in a place in order to feel like you have a claim on that space.

Perhaps vicarious citizenship can sustain the Castro’s reputation as a once-upon-a-time storybook gayborhood. However, the reality is that with fewer and fewer resident LGBTQ people, this fairy-tale gayborhood full of rainbows will likely live happily ever after as a straight place where queer people pilgrimage. To some degree, that’s what happens at the Radical Faeries’ potlucks.

Participants come from near (maybe via public transit from the East Bay) or far—say, a new arrival from Kansas with only a suitcase. And they come to Grand Central not for the soup—but for the community. Under different circumstances, they could have easily gathered in an apartment near San Leandro, or West Oakland, or a town near you. Maybe one day they will.

Shane Downing is an award-winning San Francisco journalist who covers the LGBTQ community, at-risk youth, and local news. He wrote about plans for a National LGBTQ History Museum in Alta, Fall 2018.