The end of the dream?

© 2002 by Tommi Avicolli Mecca


If you’re going to San Francisco be sure to wear a flower in your hair.1 

It was more than a cute lyric to a pop song. San Francisco was suddenly in the midst of the youth rebellion. The country’s media declared 1967 the “Summer of Love” in the streets of the Haight Ashbury area where thousands of America’s young people had come to find themselves or simply to ‘drop out’ from society, from their uptight suburban lives or from life in general. Drugs were bountiful. Men and women both sported long hair and tight jeans. They wore flowers in their hair, they painted their faces with bright colors, they decorated their clothing with political buttons and Indian ying-yang symbols. Their manner of dress defied all tradition: bell bottoms, tie dyes, tee-shirts, jeans, sandals and sneakers.

America was in the midst of a patriotic, flag-waving, anti-Communist war in southeast Asia, but these young folks declared that war immoral. They preached an America where there was racial equality, where women could express their sexuality, where the Pentagon didn’t send young men off to kill and die in a foreign land. Their choice of music: loud and raw or gentle and folky. Rock was an outgrowth of the 50s but with socially relevant lyrics it spoke to this generation of conscience. San Francisco had its rock heroes–groups like the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Santana.

Among these evangelists of this new Bible of “do your own thing” were many who defied the most sacred tradition of all: they slept with members of their own sex. They called themselves gay. They hung their own banners at be-ins, massive celebrations in Golden Gate Park of the freedom to be who they were. They were feeling free to be who they were. Gay. It was a curious word for a group that had always been characterized as anything but.

As the youth rebellion wore on, these gay men and women became more and more visible, and after a particularly rowdy night in New York’s West Village where some gay people rioted outside a bar, they took on a new identity: gay liberation. It spread like the proverbial wildfire throughout the land.

Even John Lennon, surely one of the highest priests of this youth rebellion, penned a poem for this new gay liberation: “Why make it sad to be gay?/Doing your own thing is O.K./Our bodies our own/So leave us alone/Go play with yourself–today.” 2     

The followers of gay liberation began living in a valley near the Haight, a valley that had been a working-class Irish and Latino neighborhood, a valley filled with hills and cheap old Victorians just waiting to be filled with their sexual energy. Eureka Valley. It would soon be known as the Castro.     

It would soon be filled with the sounds of partying, and with the fever and pitch of political campaigns, the most famous of which would propel a New York Jewish man to the Board of Supervisors, the City’s first queer to make it to public office. Gay liberation was on its way into the history books.

A Gay Mecca?

The party couldn’t last. 1978. Harvey Milk, the gay supervisor, was dead, felled by an assassin’s bullets. Thousands marched that night from the streets of the Castro to City Hall, led by Joan Baez, one of the youth rebellion’s enduring folk voices. She who had just come out publicly as bisexual.

Things were changing quickly in the streets of the Castro. Before his murder Harvey Milk had been evicted from his camera shop and apartment in the 500 block of Castro street when his rent tripled. He hung a sign in his window, pleadˇing for help in relocating his business and home. His wasn’t the only rent escalating in the Castro. Others were being forced out as well by the rising cost of living there. Without rent control, landlords could raise rents at will. There was certainly enough agitation to pass rent control; tenant activists were preparing to go to the ballot with their proposed measure to restrict how much a landlord could raise rents each year.

Meanwhile, a wave of gentrification, real-estate speculating and rent-gouging was displacing thousands throughout the city. The Housing Rights Group published a report, in newspaper format on newsprint, entitled, “Who’s Moving.” It took a long hard radical look at what was suddenly happening to neighborhoods in San Francisco.

In its introduction, the group wrote: “It seems that wherever you go people are talking about the drastic changes that are ‘coming down’ on the neighborhoods. We started trying to find who and what was behind the steady increase of rents and property⁄  values; renovated buildings; for-sale signs; and exodus of black and other Third World people, especially families out of the neighborhoods.”   

One of the neighborhood the paper examined was the Castro. Focusing on the new queer immigrants to the City by the Bay, the article, ‘A Queer Mecca?” said of these newcomers: “As with any new arrival, the need for employment and affordable housing become key concerns. In many instances, the desire for housing in neighborhoods with a large visible gay presence has been easily exploited by real-estate interests and absentee landlords who decide to demand high rents.”

“For example, in areas like Castro/Eureka Valley rents have risen so fast that gay people who do not have a lot of money are now finding it difficult to rent in that area…Recently this played into the hands of real-estate profiteers who are ‘referring’ gay people in need of housing to low-rent minority neighborhoods. With the shortage of housing in SanŒ Francisco, gay people find themselves in competition with other people especially Third-World families who seek decent, reasonably-priced housing.This situation is often the underlying cause of tension and hostility between gay people and their neighbors.”3

Even the very trendy After Dark, a now-defunct arts and entertainment magazine that appealed heavily to gay men, acknowledged the high rents and gentrification threatening the Castro and forcing some tenants out.

“The area already has become too slick for some, and it is getting expensive. Real-estate values are soaring all over ‘everybody’s favorite city’; San Francisco runs a close second to Los Angeles as having the nation’s most expensive housing. But the prices of houses in Eureka Valley are escalating especially fast, and rents aren’t lagging behind selling prices any longer, according to Rob Tackes, president of Langley-Tackes Real Estate.”4

The article quoted Tackes as saying, “Castro is hot. It’s been hot for two or three years. And it’s going to get many degrees hotter before it begins to cool off.”

As for merchants, After Dark reported that, “Likewise, many merchants are being priced out of the neighborhood. Rents have tripled or even quadrupled for some proprietors in the last year or so.” 5

A watered down version of rent control was passed by the Board of Supervisors in June, 1979 (under the leadership of Dianne Feinstein) to keep tenant activists from going to the ballot with their stronger measure. The first AIDS cases were diagnosed two years later. 

Living in the Castro

I arrived in San Francisco from my hometown of Philadelphia on an extremely warm October afternoon in 1991. The City was in the midst of a heat wave and a drought. I stayed with my good friend Winchester, whom I met in Philadelphia in the late 80s when we lived in the same apartment building. Being originally from the Bay Area, she moved back to San Francisco the year before, renting a room in a lesbian household in the heart of the Castro. She found me that fall afternoon after my flight on her front steps on Hartford street playing my guitar and watching the beautiful men walk by. 

I was shell-shocked from the AIDS war. I had lost many of my friends and both of my parents. Many more friends were sick. I had also put my 14-year-old cat to sleep because she was filled with cancer. Philadelphia felt like a graveyard.

It was a new life I was anticipating in this city by the bay and the promise of a rest from 20 years of unrelenting queer activism. I came out in April 1971 at Temple University where I was then a student. The Gay Liberation Front. We were a rowdy, radical bunch. We succeeded in stopping the university from referring queer students to an aversion-therapy program at a local psychiatric institution where they were strapped to electrodes and zapped with electricity when shown pictures of naked men. We ran a man for homecoming queen. We spoke in classrooms. We held dances. We made headlines regularly because we were visible and defiant.     

But those were the times.

Most of the guys from that GLF chapter were gone. I thought of them often. I found an apartment in two days (there were lots available then), a place on a hill with a patio to gırow plants. I moved in the next day, taking a taxi up the hill with Winchester to set up my new home. 

I was living in the Castro. I would be working there, too, since Rachel Pepper, a freelance writer for the Philadelphia Gay News, where I was managing editor before coming to San Francisco, had arranged a job for me at A Different Light Bookstore. She was the store’s magazine buyer. I would eventually inherit her job when she opened her own Bernal Books a few years later. It took a few days to track down Richard Labonté, manager of the store. Within a week I was on-call and working shifts.  

The Castro seemed like a dream. There was constant political activity in the streets. Flyers on poles. Chalk messages on the sidewalks. Rallies. Jesse Jackson made an appearance at 18th & Castro one Sunday afternoon shortly after I arrived. Out/Look, a radical queer magazine that I read regularly in Philadelphia, had its offices on Castro, as did many other groups. At the center of all this was A Different Light, which featured readings and performances both inside its tiny space and out in its yard. Big names mixed with local aspiring writers. Dorothy Allison ran a writing group in the upstairs room; she hadn’t published Bastard Out of Carolina yet. ACT UP kept its table and literature in our yard. Activists poured in daily to drop off flyers or chat with staff about the hot political topic of the day. It felt like queer central. It was.

I took a job as a reporter at the SF Bay Times to supplement my income. One day Richard Labonté received a call from a publisher seeking a writer for a book on Bill Clinton and the queer community. He was doing a series on Clinton and various communities. It’s how I wound up writing Between Little Rock and a Hard Place in two weeks on the store’s back computer after hours and well into the night. The title came from a piece I had done during the presidential campaign for SF Bay Times; it focused on the newly elected president’s record on queer rights.

˘Politically, I helped organize within the queer community against two state initiatives, 187 and 209. The former would have denied social services to so-called illegal immigrants; the latter would have done away with affirmative action. Unfortunately, both passed, though they would be challenged and dismantled in the courts. 

Then I heard about a plan to eliminate rent control on two- and four-unit apartment buildings. I became scared, real scared. Something was happening in San Francisco. Rent control was how I and many others afforded to stay here. Why would anyone try and repeal it?

The Dream is Over

I made a phone call to Robert Haaland, then an organizer at the San Francisco Tenants Union. A friend had referred me to Robert, saying that he was the expert in tenant and rent-control issues. Robert got me involved with the struggle against Prop. E, put forth by a small property owners’ group, to repeal rent control on two- and four-unit buildings in the City. It went down in defeat.‹

That phone call started my involvement in the tenants’ movement. I spent many a Saturday afternoon on the corner of 18th and Castro with Robert and others, getting petitions signed for various tenant causes and drumming up the votes for progressive candidates who were supportive of affordable housing issues. From that corner we started the Tom Ammiano for mayor campaign in 1999 that rocked City politics like no other campaign for public office had done in a long time. 

What we couldn’t know when we started the fight against Prop. E in 1998 was that the boom to the south of San Francisco in Silicon Valley was already changing the City forever. Was it too late? Hordes of workers from the internet industry were pouring into San Francisco looking for apartments. Having more money to spend, they could bid more for a place than those who lived here; in fact, they outbid people all the time. Rumor had it that dot-comers were offering landlords a half-year to a yearÙ’s rent in advance. Who could compete with that? As the vacancy rate fell, landlords began jacking up rents. They also looked for ways to evict long-term tenants so that they could bring their units to market value, which was soaring.

In the Castro, many long-term tenants with AIDS were the first to go. Those who came here in the 70s and survived a terrible disease, only to become victims of the new computer economy. By December, 2000, the San José Mercury News was reporting that twenty percent of PWAs in San Francisco were homeless.

“A housing waiting list for low-income people with AIDS has more than doubled in the past six years to 3,800 people. It’s become so crowded that city officials this summer closed the list to new entries, and it could be 20 years or more before people now on the list have their numbers called.”

Shops along Castro faced astronomical rent hikes. Without commercial rent control, the sky’s the limit on what a landlord can charge for space.

The other casualty was the nonprofit organization. No longer could queer organizations afford to stay in the Castro. Many relocated to the Mission. Young queer kids, fleeing here from all over the world as they had for decades, found that rents were prohibitive, even with a job. Some ended up on the streets, spending days at a special program at the Eureka Valley Recreation Center (EVRC) for homeless kids.

As the homeless population grew more and more visible, merchants and neighbors in the Castro reacted with fear and reprisal. MUMC (Merchants of Upper Market and Castro) distributed signs to store owners that urged people not to give money to folks on the street. “Create Change, Don’t Give It Out,” these signs advised. A Different Light was the first shop on the block to refuse to put up the sign.

Supervisor Tom, Ammiano, an out queer member of the Board of Supervisors, convened a series of meetings in the Castro about homelessness. When it petered out, I convened a community group that advocated for a homeless shelter for queer youth, who were often beaten or raped in the City’s shelter system. The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the Castro queer congregation, became active in this call for a shelter. Its then-pastor, Jim Mitulski, was an integral part of the meetings.

When an emergency drop-in shelter was proposed for the EVRC by the three queer board members–Ammiano, Mark Leno and Leslie Katz–neighbors reacted with horror. Despite the vocal opposition, that shelter operated for three months in the winter of 1998. Every subsequent attempt to provide shelter for youth in the Castro provoked a similar negative reaction from neighbors. 

One homeless youth, Jon Paul, 23,  told Out magazine (June 2000), “You see that all over: no drop-in centers in our neighborhood, no this, no that. Even in this diverse neighborhood, the compassion stops when it comes to us.” The new pariahs, lepers in their own community.

Times were indeed changing. It was the late 70s all over again. Who would’ve imagined that a shelter for homeless queer youth would meet such opposition in the Castro, of all places? Who could believe that gay male landlords would evict other queers in the Castro just to make more money on their apartments or to be able to sell their units to a more affluent class of people via an arrangement known as tenancies-in-common? Gay and lesbian real-estate speculators, investors and others cleaned up in this new booming economy–and made no apologies for the folks they displaced.

More and more of the working and lower-income people were evicted from the Castro area. More and more upscale queer and non-queer people moved in. With the gentrification came a different attitude about street use. Whereas in the past Castro street between 18th and Market was often closed for community events, now MUMC opposed such closures because it interfered with business.

Such was the case with the 20th anniversary of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of male nuns who over the years have done much community service, including AIDS education. How strange that any queer group would object to letting them close down the street for one afternoon. MUMÛC’s refusal forced the group to seek permission from the Board of Supervisors. And the hearing before the board opened up a floodgate of public outrage. Critics characterized the Sisters as “anti-Catholic” because they satirize Catholic doctrine and rituals.

But if the Castro seemed to be slipping into conservatism, the Tom Ammiano campaign in 1999 provided a glimpse of what the neighborhood must have been in the early 70s before high rents and gentrification first took its toll. That amazing write-in campaign, which in three weeks managed to get the out queer progressive Ammiano into a runoff with incumbent Mayor Willie Brown, took the City and the nation by surprise. Nobody gave Ammiano much of a chance of making it into the runoff, let alone offering a viable challenge to a powerful incumbent who had spent over three decades in the State Assembly. 

The mayor’s popularity was low, that’s for sure, especially since he was perceived as single-handedly responsible for the City’s poor re{sponse to the housing crisis and the increasing numbers of homeless on the street. That Ammiano’s campaign began in the Castro and remained solidly entrenched there throughout the runoff as well, demonstrated that there was still a strong progressive streak in that neighborhood despite its growing upscale population.

Weekend after weekend, the streets of the Castro were alive with volunteers walking precincts, tabling, handing out literature and generally mobilizing for their candidate. After the Ammiano race, progressives began a campaign to elect a lesbian progressive, Eileen Hansen, to the board. The City had re-instituted district elections and the incumbent, Mark Leno, was not generally seen as consistently progressive.

Hansen didn’t win, but her campaign again galvanized the more radical vote in the Castro. In the midst of the Hansen campaign, A Different Light was sold, a victim, as many other independent bookstores were, of the convenience of the internet and chainstores. 

I quit, unhappy with how things were coming down at A Different Light, and went to work for the Housing Rights Committee, a nonprofit on the front lines of defending tenant rights and fighting for affordable housing. It’s the perfect place for me to be, but how I still miss the old bookstore and the crazy politics of the old neighborhood.

The fate of  the Castro seemed uncertain.

A New Light?

Despite the changes, Castro remains an enduring symbol of queer liberation, an oasis for those fleeing from oppression. Its rents are restrictive to all but a few now, its shops no longer the neighborhood businesses of yesteryear. Even the slowing of the internet economy has not halted its continuing gentrification. 

The Castro must endure. If only because it provides a magnetic north to which queers can gravitate, a spiritual Mecca. Much work needs to be done. Anti-homeless sentiments and nimbyism must be challenged. Affordable housing must be a priority. At the top of any agenda must be to ensure that those low-income and working-class folks who still live there remain in their housing. Real-estate speculation and profits over people must be s2mashed.

The Castro must be a light again, a beacon for all, not an exclusive upscale boys’ club. It must be a breeding ground for new political activists, a gathering space for organizing efforts. It must be more than it’s ever been. And perhaps it will. Perhaps the Ammiano campaign proved that it won’t succumb totally to the forces of profit and nimbyism. Perhaps that campaign showed that beneath the surface a heart and soul still rages with a yearning for economic and social justice.

As long as that heart beats, there will always be a Castro.

 1. “If You’re Going to San Francisco,” song by John Phillips, sung by Scott MacKenzie, 1967.

2. poem by John Lennon from The Gay Liberation Book, Rampars Press, SF, 1973, p. 95

3. Who’s Moving, published by the Housing Rights Group, San Francisco, circa 1978.

4. After Dark, June 1979, p.43. 

5. Op. Cit., p. 44.


originally published in Out in the Castro, edited by Winston Leyland, 2002