It’s LGBTQ+ pride month!
I was fortunate enough to spend a few years living in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco which borders the infamous Castro district, one of the well-known meccas for gay pride. Walking a few blocks to 24th Street was a weekly thing for my sister and I when we did all of our shopping. One block up and a few blocks toward the downtown, we would hit the Castro district with all of its color, vibrancy, and enthusiasm and all of its rainbow flags and rainbow crosswalks. It was a place full of energy.
Photo Credit: A crosswalk in the Castro District painted with the colors of the rainbow flag, 13 October 2014: Pinpinellus/Wikimedia Commons / CC BY SA 4.0
But the Castro district (often referred to as “the Castro”) didn’t start out that way. In fact, its beginnings are much more humble. In the 19th century, the area was inhabited mainly by working-class immigrants of Scandinavian origin. Their hard work and love of their new country and the city are well documented in the 1948 film I Remember Mama. The film is based on the true story of a Norwegian family trying to make ends meet in early 20th century San Francisco and get used to the modernizations of American culture, including putting one’s money into a bank (a major theme in the film).
This Scandinavian enclave lasted until the mid-20th century. Several things turned the tide for the Castro. The 1950s marked a great shift in American living when people, eager for a safe and sane life after World War II, sought the suburbs and their own houses with a picket fence. Families fled San Francisco for the more sedate cities of the Bay Area like Pleasanton, San Jose, and Walnut Creek. Many Scandinavian families from the Castro moved out of their homes, leaving them empty, and the city was eager to fill these homes, so buying or renting a home was reasonable (hard to imagine in San Francisco) at that time. This coincided with many gay servicemen being released from the army and looking for a gay-friendly place to live. Later in the late 1960s, when San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district (just bordering the Castro) became wild with drugs and violence, many gay people there escaped into the more livable Castro district.
In the 1970s, the Castro was a haven for gay activists, the most famous being Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay politician to serve on California’s Board of Supervisors. In the 1980s, the Castro saw a darker side when the AIDS/HIV epidemic hit the nation, but today, it stands as the symbol of gay culture and pride. This year marks the first since the COVID pandemic when all the festivities associated with Pride Month in San Francisco will be out in full force and as this article makes clear, San Francisco still remains a safe place for LGBTQ+ people to live and thrive just as it was in the mid-20th century.
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