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Castro in 2011:
A look back


By Bill Sywak

While most accounts portray San Francisco as a unique and even fantastic city, District 8, or more specifically the Castro, has a key role in making the city the special place that it is. This was no more apparent than in the events that transpired throughout 2011. Whether it was choosing a new mayor, setting rules for acceptable public nudity, or being the first neighborhood to test the new smart-phone operated parking meters, the Castro led the way.

Starting in January outgoing Supervisor Bevan Dufty reflected on his two terms in office and looked forward to trying to become the city's first gay mayor. Since the Castro "is such a hot-bed of opinions and activism," he said, "I think it has taught me not to be thin-skinned."

At the same time, the space on Castro Street formerly occupied by Harvey Milk's camera shop became the new location of Human Rights Campaign's San Francisco store, melding education, "grassroots advocacy" and the sale of HRC merchandise. Despite the views of some critics, the HRC maintained that it was appropriate to be in that location and was committed to LGBT equality and honoring the legacy of Milk. In mid-January the LGBT Historical Society opened its new museum on 18th Street with new exhibits from the Society's archives including "Our Vast Queer Past: Celebrating GLBT History."

In early February three cases of arson in the Castro caused over $3 million in home damage, though no one has been charged with the crimes.

By March the "Rainbow Honor Walk," a celebrity walkway honoring those who stood for LGBT freedom and equality, was taking shape. A dream of Castro residents Isak Lindenauer and David Perry, with support from Dufty, the Board of Supervisors and the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro, the project enabled a steering committee to select the first 20 names of LGBT individuals who "made significant contributions in their fields."

Also in March the Mollie Stone grocery chain presided over a very welcoming and smooth opening of its third store in the city at 18th and Collingwood streets in the former DeLano IGA site.

Meanwhile, up Castro Street in Jane Warner Plaza, a situation had been brewing for several months in which naked gentlemen would enjoy the sunshine and conviviality of the plaza without the benefit of clothing. While most of the naturists were said to come to the Castro from other city locations, the controversy over public nudity grew. While such a spectacle acted as a draw for tourists, especially from other countries, the plaza was on the way home taken by any number of school children going to and from the Harvey Milk Academy on 19th Street.

Enter J.Dean Woodbury,the Castro Courier intrepid reporter at the time who did his own research on the story, stripping naked and strolling through the Castro. While somewhat chagrined that he did not attract more attention, our photogenic reporter research turned up laid back and enlightened responses from the city public officials. Police LGBT liaison Chuck Limbert said he rarely handed out citations, preferring to encourage dialogue with the offending party rather than charging people with a misdemeanor.

In April the rains stopped long enough for Britney Spears to inaugurate her new album (Femme Fatale) with a week of appearances on Good Morning America and a concert at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. While the Castro Theatre was supposed to be the concert backdrop, the threat of rain forced the thousands of fans up to Civic Center.

May saw the escalation of the city's struggle with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) whose Park Service proposal to dramatically restrict off-leash access for dogs has met with widespread resistance. Taking the lead in the clash with the federal authority, Supervisor Scott Wiener noted that besides going "too far" in drastically restricting access for off-leash dogs, GGNRA has a "compliance-based management approach" under which dogs could be banned completely after a number of years. Wiener looked for ongoing dialogue and constructive consultation between the parties.

May 22 of this year was the second observance of Harvey Milk Day, a California state holiday and June saw the annual Pride celebrations and parade. One million people were expected to attend events in Civic Center, mid-Market and the Upper Castro over the parade weekend.

The summer saw mayoral candidates gearing up for the election in November. On a Monday night, Aug. 8, the election debates began with a full house of both candidates and citizens at the venerable Castro Theater. Onstage was the Castro's former supervisor, Bevan Dufty, along with ten other candidates, each saying why they should be elected mayor. Just that morning Interim Mayor Ed Lee had announced that he changed course and had decided to run for mayor after all, upsetting the field of candidates and eliciting a chorus of boos each time he spoke. In the end, of course, he went on to win the mayoralty race in November.

October saw a "Nude-In" at Jane Warner Plaza on the day before the Folsom Street Fair and enhanced notoriety for Supervisor Wiener and his proposed law concerning "nudist etiquette." Correcting media misrepresentations, he said his law would not shut nudity down but merely require that nudists not enter food establishments and that they cover up public seating before sitting.

October also witnessed the second Economic Empowerment Week at the LGBT Center, which aimed to help people learn the tools to recognize and build their own assets for financial empowerment. By all accounts the new and revamped week was well attended and the sessions were a service to the community. Finally, no mention of October is complete without a check-in on Halloween festivities. This year the recent community experience of generally sane, localized and fun-filled events continued.

This trend did not continue into November when police and bar owners called the public's attention to a rash of pickpocketing and theft at the neighborhood's bars. Incidents occur late at night when patrons have had a bit too much to drink. Professional and opportunistic thieves target wallets, purses, cell phones, and unattended bags, especially those left by dancing patrons. The Castro After Dark Bar Association and the San Francisco Police Dept. met as a result to increase safety.

On Friday, Nov. 18, Mayor Ed Lee walked through the Castro with Supervisor Wiener and MUMC President Steve Adams. With a full media army in tow, the locals introduced the mayor to businesses and cultural spots. For his part, Mayor Lee took every opportunity to describe how places and institutions in the Castro fit with his campaign commitments and his priorities for governing.

Finally, the year ended with the traditional tree lighting ceremony in front of Bank of America at Castro and 18th streets, supported by the MUMC merchants group and community leaders. This year the crowd swelled to 200 attendees and a good number of babies, as the Castro demographics seem to shift from almost total singles to families.