The Castro

Summary: The Castro is the central gay neighborhood in SF, with a fabulously vibrant heart centered around Castro and Market and three highly coveted residential areas that stretch out from it to the east, west and north.

The Castro (or Castro), largely considered the center of the gay universe, was the first openly and unabashedly gay neighborhood in the country back in the seventies when an influx of gay men permanently changed the character of Eureka Valley and of San Francisco as a whole. This is the home district of Harvey Milk, the slain city counsel representative who was the first openly gay government official ever elected to office in the United States. (A photo memorial can be found to him in Harvey’s [A1], a bar-and-grill named for Milk.)

The Castro is a roughly (and appropriately) triangle-shaped neighborhood bordered sharply by Noe Valley on the south at 22nd street, and by Mission District on the east at Church Street. To the north and west, Market St. from its border except where the Duboce Triangle extends north at Castro Street to Duboce Avenue.

The throbbing heart of the neighborhood is at Market and Castro Street where you will find the Castro Theatre [A2], a 1920’s movie palace where live piano music entertains audiences before features. A number of film festivals and an eclectic blend of films are the staple of the Castro Theatre. You will find events including Sing-Along-Night, the LGBT Film Festival, the SF Independent Film Festival and, on occasion, the Jewish Film Festival—to name just a few. The surrounding area both along Castro Street to 20th street and down Market Street are packed with restaurants, specialized stores, and gay bars. A campy sensibility pervades the area and manifests in the ironic names of establishments like Moby Dick [A3] (a famous local bar with an aquarium over the bar) or the Sit and Spin [A4] (where you can eat and wash your clothes at the same time). With sex aid stores and S & M clothing boutiques, this is definitely an adult rated section of the Castro.

Until recently, the Castro had not been known for its restaurants. It used to be mainly pizza and burrito places. These remain, but a more cosmopolitan blend of restaurants have slowly started to take advantage of the unique attraction the Castro holds. So now, you are more likely to find Sushi places or upscale bistros in the Castro. All, of course, with a gay friendly, almost invariably male, wait staffs.

On most weekday mornings, the Castro is much like any other neighborhood in the city. Few are the Castro jobs that can pay for the high rents in the area, so a steady stream of suited professionals takes to the local MUNI lines that fairy them to jobs in the financial district or the BART stations. Some drive, but even with city issued parking permits, finding parking in the Castro is notoriously difficult unless your apartment has a garage. Because the Castro is so well served by three separate MUNI lines however, a car is unnecessary for most residents and it is not unusual to find twenty-somethings who have never learned to drive.

As people get off work, however, and as the sun drops behind the hills, the Castro comes alive in its nightly celebration of gay lifestyles. Just about any night of the week, but especially on the weekends, the corner of Castro and Market fills with throngs of guys—a virtual army of gay men looking to party with other gay men. If you are a female and want to go somewhere where you won’t be bothered, this is definitely the place. You will find some lesbians here, but demographics show that almost 4 of 5 residents are men.

Finding a place to live in the Castro is very, very difficult. Its unique status as the gay neighborhood to top all gay neighborhoods means that each room, floor, and home--no matter how humble--is coveted by dozens of would-be tenants who want to call themselves Castro residents.

As you get away from this epicenter of gayness at the Castro/Market corner, you find residential areas much like those of the Mission and Noe Valley. The homes are a mix of nicely kept, older Victorians--often with multiple stories and tenants--and newer condominium-like buildings. Most of the blocks in the Castro have leafy interior tree-filled courtyards, usually fenced off into individual yards, but occasionally sharing space with neighbors.

You can roughly divide the Castro’s residential areas into three sections: a western and eastern section divided by Castro Street, and Duboce Triangle sitting atop to the north. The Western section of Castro is hilly, and tends to be more in the character of Castro’s southern neighbor, Noe Valley. You get more multistory buildings in this section with rents and home prices rising accordingly. Average rents throughout the Castro push two grand as a starting point, and average home sales top $1 million.

To the east of Castro Street, you have flatter streets that are more in the character of the Mission. Along Church Street, which forms the eastern border of the Castro, you will find Dolores Park [A5], a popular hang out for young people and worshippers of the sun. On weekends, it fills with college students, whacky hipsters from the Mission, and gay couples from Castro. BiRite Creamery [A6] takes advantage of the beach-like atmosphere, selling ice cream to the Dolores sunbathers.

Duboce Triangle which is a satellite neighborhood extending north of Market along Castro Street and Duboce Avenue, is the up and coming neighborhood at the edge of the Castro (often considered a neighborhood onto itself). Many little restaurants and stores have recently taken up residence there and the neighborhood seems to be undergoing the sort of gentrifying changes that transformed Noe Valley in the 90’s. It is currently an eclectic mix of gay and straight, young and married.

Crime rates in the Castro are comparable to the rest of the city, which, in general, is lower than for most cities of its size. Castro no longer suffers from its traditional antipathies with the SF Police, thanks greatly to the attempts by the department to incorporate more diversity (including diversity of sexual orientation) into the rank-and-file. In fact, a substantive portion of the neighborhood’s residents could be considered “square” family types with mainstream jobs, adopted kids, and longtime companions with whom they have shared their lives for decades—a definite sign of the times.