When I write about San Francisco I have to encompass it all. My logic leads me to this particular path because San Francisco is schizophrenic. It’s not the same place when you are venturing through it. The neighborhoods evolve and absorb different parts of your heart. At least that’s what the city does for me. It has possessed me. Maybe its influence over me is so strong because I’m not from here…or maybe it’s because I love it too much. Either way, its control over me is like a craving in the blood, and something deep within me will always want more.
I found myself in the San Francisco Bay Area when I was twenty-four years old. I was young, determined, and hungry for adventure. I had a yearning to meet new people, a want to peer into new faces; I longed to take advantage of my one life and start living to my fullest potential for the first time. I felt like Anne Wells in Jacquelyn Susanne’s #1 bestselling trash novel Valley of the Dolls. Except, I have not settled for booze and dope. Now there are times where I see myself as Mary Anne Singleton from Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.
I believe no other city in America, save New York, has more romanticism built up around it than San Francisco, California. This miniature seaside metropolis on the edge of the New World is erected over forty eight rolling hills and offers its residents and herding tourists some of the most spectacular natural beauty in the world. The city is braced by two bridges that are symbolic engineering marvels. The Golden Gate, being the most legendary; is an emblem of invitation, hope, and opportunity.
Try as I do, I cannot get the image of Jeanette MacDonald from the classic film San Francisco out of my head. It’s delightfully gay. Jeanette is all dolled up in this gaudy black and white sparkling dress. She’s crowned with a large twinkling black ostrich feather hat and belting out, “San Francisco! Open your Golden Gate! You’ll let no stranger wait, knock at your door!” up on a stage rousing the theater patrons into a frenzy of elation and song. The earthquake hits, and that brave Jeanette rises from the ruins and sings from the smoldering ashes.
That sentimental line not only gave San Francisco an affectionate endearment, but also sent out an open summons to all…and they came. The brave ones came in droves- from all walks of life, armed with nothing but visions of a better existence. San Francisco became an urban nest for artists, writers, and strange and terrible characters. Risk takers, adventurers, vagabonds, and good people who desired a fresh start in life all flocked into the bay. Perhaps, the most famous band of individuals who strolled into San Francisco was the sexual orientation refugees. From my observations, gays and lesbians have been forced to move further and further away from society. I find it cleverly canny that a great deal of them chose San Francisco, a seaport city on the shore of the mainland, which has always been progressive and liberal as their home and mecca. It appears to me that San Francisco, with all its beauty, is indeed the perfect place for society’s sexual outcasts. It will always be the modern Sodom & Gomorrah.
Streets play an important role in Babylon-by-the-Bay. Boulevards laced with London plane trees, noisy lanes mixed from one place to another with bright Victorians, boxy Edwardians, and mortar buildings constructed with iron fire escapes that crawl down their primitive facades are not only arteries for flowing traffic, speeding cyclists, colorful street cars, and whimsical pedestrians to surge through, no. They are lavish stages that position and display grandiose productions of Reality. Most importantly, they define certain neighborhoods.
Well known streets are as follows: Market, Haight, Ashbury, Mission, Folsom, Fillmore, Steiner, Parnassus Avenue, Golden Gate Avenue, Geary Boulevard, Montgomery, Battery, Kearney, California, Embarcadero, Divisadero, O’Farrell, Judah, Church, Nortega, Octavia, Masonic, Jones, Gough, Duboce, Larkin, Van Ness Boulevard, and Castro.
The pungent sharp stench of marijuana rises up out of the psychedelic Haight. The beatniks and Italians are based in North Beach which encompasses all of Telegraph Hill. Trickling on down into the cliques of the evolving urban city: debutants and socialites make their homes in the mansions of Pacific Heights and the Western Addition. The Chinese have established themselves in China Town, the country’s largest Asian community outside of China. The assiduous, persevering Latin community makes their lives in the Mission. San Francisco natives populate the Richmond and Sunset Districts, often referenced as “The Avenues”. They also intersperse themselves throughout Noe Valley and Potrero Hill. The lost souls of San Francisco roam around aimlessly in their debilitating addictions and unfortunate circumstances in the dispersing cast away arms of the Tenderloin. Students and other wealthy folks are situated in the Marina District. The leather community makes SOMA (South of Market) their abode. Lastly, all rainbows touch down in The Castro.
Castro Street is located just above Market and strategically below Twin Peaks. The neighborhood is known as “The Castro” and is nestled tightly within Eudora Valley. Locals know that the street is named after a Mexican revolutionary named Jose Castro. But the community gets its name from the great Castro Theater, which is one of America’s oldest and most loved movie palaces. It’s fashioned in the style of a large Spanish cathedral. The theater is the heart of the borough. If you look at a map of San Francisco you will see that The Castro makes up the heart of the city.
The district has gone through an eventful evolution. In the early 1900’s Scandinavians made their families there. Around the 1940’s, the quarter was altered into a working class Irish-Catholic neighborhood. Before War World II ended, the American military sailed into San Francisco Bay and began to unburden itself by discharging thousands of homosexual men into the city. Thus began the great gay exodus into San Francisco. Fast forward: 1967-The Summer of Love. Haight-Ashbury is undergoing its own metamorphosis. It had once been a blue collar neighborhood as well. The Victorians in the Castro were available for cheap rents and low down payments as the older generations were beginning to move out into the suburbs. Optimistic gays began moving in by the multitudes.
I’ve read that gay men have an additional powerful perception to aesthetic beauty. I believe that statement to be prideful in bias opinion, but there is a certain truth to it. It feels indecorous to say that straight people do not have worthy perceptions of beauty, because they do. Nonetheless, beauty is a heighted state of reality for a gay man. Its overpowering sensory overload, it shakes you like Bette Davis. It is something you will never forget because it is etched permanently in your brain. The gays rolled up their sleeves out of love and concern to remodel and preserve the Victorian architecture throughout Sodom-by-the-Sea. The houses became perkier with their thick shiny sweet smelling coats of paint. They took it upon themselves to reposition the sun motifs on the false front facades of the Queen Anne’s because, after all…the sun never set on her empire. Like hell it was going to sink below theirs. Twin Peaks, the city’s first gay bar opened its doors on the intersection of Castro and Market. In 1973 a Jew and former veteran from New York named Harvey Milk moved into The Castro and opened up a camera shop. He began involving himself in political gay activism, and eventually became the neighborhood’s most famed celebrity. He was nicknamed “The Mayor of Castro Street”. He went on to become a beacon of hope for the gay community and later, a city supervisor. Harvey Milk’s presence in The Castro is responsible for making it a gay mecca. Tragically, in 1978 he was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by their disgruntled coworker Dan White in San Francisco City Hall. Milk became a martyr. Dan White was conveyed off to prison with his new title, “The Most Hated Man in San Francisco”. After his release, he committed suicide by locking himself up in his garage and inhaling carbon monoxide. The Castro has since become America’s most famous gay neighborhood and a place of solace, protection, normalcy for the gays, and celebration of everything not “straight”.
Anne Rice, author of Interview with the Vampire describes the neighborhood perfectly in her erotic novel Belinda:
“The Castro has always had the feeling of a small town, the same families owning their homes for as long as a century. And the influx of gay men and women in recent years has only created another community within the community. There is mellowness in the Castro, a sense of people looking out for one another. And of course there is the warmth, the sun. The day-to-day San Francisco fog often dies at the top of Twin Peaks just above the Castro. You can drive out of the chill of other neighborhoods and find yourself home under a blue sky.”