Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Project will alter Castro's iconic rainbow steps


Peter Isgro hopes the rainbow-colored steps outside his Castro Street shop can be salvaged. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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The rainbow-colored steps on the 500 block of Castro Street have long been a magnet for tourists. Countless visitors to the city's gay neighborhood have sat down on them to snap a visual remembrance of their San Francisco trip. Locals are also drawn to them, using them as a backdrop for pictures that later end up in online profiles or slipped into cards sent home to family and friends.

"It is just amazing how many people take pictures on there. It is just phenomenal," Peter Isgro said of the steps that lead to his three-year-old eponymous lighting and home decor store.

Even before the steps were coated in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple paint they held an iconic status for the city's LGBT community. Openly gay photographer Crawford Barton, whose work appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, captured the Castro's transition from a working-class neighborhood known as Eureka Valley into a gay mecca in the 1970s in a famous black and white photo of two men kissing on the steps while a heterosexual couple sit near them, seemingly unaware of the lip-lock taking place behind them.

But the wide steps that lead up to the building's two storefronts and entrances to two apartments will soon be altered to make way for new doorways to the shops that are handicap accessible. Once the project is completed, a narrower set of steps leading to the apartments will remain. The building's owner has vowed to repaint them in the rainbow colors.

"The code requires the Patio Cafe building and the adjoining building [the buildings are merged] to be ADA compliant and it is necessary to remove most of the stairs at the street level. Some stairs to the upper level will remain, and they will be painted in the rainbow colors," Les Natali, the owner of both buildings, wrote in an e-mail.

Natali is set to begin work again on the interior of the long-shuttered Patio Cafe space and as part of that project will transform the facade of the building with the rainbow steps. The plan calls for bringing the two storefronts flush with the sidewalk but recessing the entrance areas. Depending on the tenant, the stores can be combined into one large space or remain two separate entities.

To make way for work to begin later this summer, Natali gave Isgro 30-days notice in late June to vacant his store space. Isgro has put everything in the store up for sale at 50 to 60 percent in order to be out of the space by August 15.

Since opening his second San Francisco location in the Castro, Isgro has paid to repaint the steps each June at the start of Pride month. He would like to retain at least a portion of the original steps instead of seeing them discarded.

"I would like to see if part of them can be saved, not all, but a piece of them put into a gay museum as part

The iconic Crawford Barton photo of a gay couple kissing on the steps. Photo: Crawford Barton/courtesy the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.
of the Castro's history. Literally hundreds of thousands of people have had their picture taken on those steps. It would be really nice for people to save a part of it," said Isgro, who is gay and moved to the Castro area in 1979.

No one quite remembers when the steps between 535 and 541 Castro Street received their rainbow-colored hue. Several longtime Castro residents and merchants said the steps were most likely painted to resemble the gay community's symbol in the 1980s when the T-shirt store Don't Panic and retailer Condommania had outlets in the building. The rainbow flag became a gay symbol in 1978 after San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker created the original flag and it appeared in that year's Pride Parade.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the steps elicited delight from passersby, straight and gay alike. As three women exited Isgro's store, one exclaimed, "Look at the stairs." A couple with two young children stopped to admire the stairs, with the woman talking to a little girl, "Sweetie, look at the colored steps." As she and her brother stomped up and down the stairs, the girl hovered over the blue step saying, "You know what color I like best? I am sitting on it."

Not everyone places significance to the steps, which are splattered and scuffed with shoe prints. The bottom purple step is in the worst condition, with the paint already peeled off in certain portions, exposing the wood.

"There is absolutely no historical value to the painted steps. You could paint any boards the rainbow colors," said real estate agent Lee Julien, who has long focused on selling Castro properties and used to work only doors down from the steps at Herth Real Estate before moving earlier this year to Vanguard Properties' Mission Street offices.

Others said while the steps may have sentimental value, they did not shares Isgro's desire to see the steps saved for posterity.

"In my experience in excavating queer history what I am seeing is the subjectivity is constantly changing and you have to make way for the new," said Dan Nicoletta, who worked for the late Supervisor Harvey Milk in his camera shop doors away from the steps.

Gustavo Serina, a longtime Castro resident and former president of the Eureka Valley Promotion Association said, "I imagine they have a symbolic and historical importance. Perhaps that is dwarfed now by the rainbow flag flying above Harvey Milk Plaza."

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