The Castro Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Cultural District will be one of three LGBTQ-focused cultural districts formd by The City, including the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District and the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF to form Castro cultural district to protect LGBTQ heritage

Plan calls for preserving area as one of the most important queer neighborhoods in the world

In time for San Francisco Pride, San Francisco officials this week were set to approve the formation of a cultural district in the Castro to preserve the neighborhood’s LGBTQ heritage.

The Castro Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Cultural District adds to the other LGBTQ-focused cultural districts previously adopted, including the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District and the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District.

It would also be the seventh one formed as one way to counter the impacts of the rising costs amid the ongoing tech boom.

“I thought it was important to try and get it done in time for this year’s Pride,” Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said at a recent board Rules Committee hearing.

Mandelman said the effort to form the cultural district began in 2017 “when members of the community expressed to my predecessor Jeff Sheehy a desire to ensure that the Castro’s past and present as one of the most important queer neighborhoods in the world be preserved and that a cultural district be formed to protect the future of the neighborhood’s LGBTQ cultural identity.”

“The Castro has been recognized worldwide for half a century as a symbol of queer liberation and an enclave for queer people to find safety, acceptance and chosen family,” he said.

Cultural districts create city-funded strategies and allocate grants to preserve the unique history of a neighborhood. Voters embraced the idea by passing in November 2018 Proposition E, Hotel Tax For the Arts, which repurposed existing hotel tax revenue to various art programs, including an estimated $3 million annually for cultural districts.

The funding is distributed through grants by the Mayor’s Office of Housing, which is also tasked with drafting the cultural preservation strategy plans. In April, for example, the Mayor’s Office of Housing offered up to $230,000 in grants per the six existing cultural districts, which includes the Japantown Cultural District, African American Arts and Cultural District in the Bayview, SoMa Pilipinas – Filipino Cultural District in the South of Market and the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District in the Mission.

Under the legislation, the Mayor’s Office of Housing has until June 30, 2021 to submit a Cultural, History, Housing, and Economic Sustainability Strategy Report identifying the heritage of the district as well as economic and legislative proposals to the Board of Supervisors and the mayor.

Jesse Oliver Sanford, who has lived in a queer co-op at the corner of 18th and Castro streets for 15 years, spent the past year as chair of the working group’s governance committee to form the cultural district.

Sanford said he hoped the cultural district would empower those who are often unheard.

“Not heard are the voices of the many cultural users of the neighborhood, younger and more often of color than the residents and business owners, pilgrims from around this city, the Bay Area and the world who come to the Castro because it is the densest and longest-standing LGBT neighborhood in a major city,” Sanford said.

He emphasized that city funding for the cultural district should largely come as small grants.

“We need the bulk of the hotel tax funds to go to a significant new annual grants program of small grants in the $15,000 or less range to cultural producers who would not otherwise get funded,” Sanford said. “This could help address the retail vacancy issue in the neighborhood through pop-ups, it could provide direct housing subsides to folks who are doing intentional communal living and it could provide a variety of other programs.”

Andrea Aiello, executive director of the Castro and Upper Market community benefit district, said that the soaring cost of living has taken its toll on the Castro’s vibrancy but small grants could restore it.

“Before San Francisco became so expensive and people have to work one job that is 80 hours a week or two or three jobs, there were lots of people who had extra time on their hands who would come into the Castro and be artists of a variety of different kinds of art, whether it was writing or painting or creative drama,” Aiello said. “They were able to do that because they could afford to live in the neighborhood and had extra time on their hands.”

Aiello said that small grants would help “stimulate and revive an arts community which would then in turn help revive our economic situation in the neighborhood.”

“The Castro still remains a mecca for LGBT visitors from around the globe,” Aiello said. “People come to the Castro expecting to see this incredibly vibrant LGBT community and often times, too often, it’s a little disappointing. There is not the vibrancy that they expected.”

This story was updated to clarify Jesse Oliver Sanford’s role in the working group.

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