San Francisco slow to landmark LGBTQ sites

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday October 14, 2020
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Some are looking at designating the rainbow flag at Castro and Market streets as a San Francisco historic site. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Some are looking at designating the rainbow flag at Castro and Market streets as a San Francisco historic site. Photo: Rick Gerharter

With LGBTQ History Month underway, Castro neighborhood leaders are discussing how best to preserve the heritage of the city's most visible queer neighborhood.

Just three of the district's LGBTQ historic sites have been granted city landmark status by San Francisco officials, while local preservationists have identified a host of other properties they would like to see be added to the list.

In the adjacent neighborhood of Noe Valley, which also has a sizeable LGBTQ population, gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman is seeking to landmark the house of the late lesbian iconic activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, as the Bay Area Reporter recently reported. It will be taken up by the Board of Supervisors land use committee this month and, if passed by the full board, then sent to the city's historic preservation commission for a vote before being sent back for a final vote by the supervisors.

But efforts won't stop there. Terry Beswick, a gay man who is the executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, said that a citywide historic context statement was published five years ago that gives "the definitive survey of all of San Francisco's LGBTQ history."

A lot of sites that are not currently designated by the city "come to mind personally," Beswick said, including the rainbow flag at Castro and Market streets and "the Castro itself as a historic district." While the city recognizes the area as the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, local preservationists for years have talked about also seeing the neighborhood recognized as a local historic district.

The city has established 12 historic districts, the most recent one covering the Duboce Park neighborhood adjacent to the Castro. Such a designation provides some level of protection to historic properties within them, such as restrictions on changing their exterior appearance and greater scrutiny of development proposals at cultural sites.

The Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association said its historic consultant is now working on the historic context statement for the area.

Once this document is complete, DTNA will begin to work with the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission to gain their support for listing on the California Register of Historical Resources," an item in DTNA's newsletter stated.

"The cultural district designation by the city is not the same as a historic district," Beswick said, adding that the organization San Francisco Heritage is looking to designate the Haight as a historic district "and a lot of the research would support that designation for the Castro."

According to Beswick, other landmarked sites could include the original home of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation at 520 Castro Street, Coming Home Hospice across the street from Most Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church and the old Metropolitan Community Church-San Francisco site at 150 Eureka Street.

"We have a working group with the historical society and we are reinvigorating it to look at the Phyllis Lyon-Del Martin house in particular," Beswick said.

Pages 358-59 of the context statement include a list of 53 addresses "that may be eligible for City Landmark, California Register or National Register status" throughout San Francisco in addition to the three LGBTQ-specific sites which had been designated by the city at the time of its publication. Most of the proposed sites, however, are outside of the Castro neighborhood.

There have been efforts over the years to have sites in the Castro neighborhood designated by governments as historic sites, which would offer them some level of protection.

As the B.A.R. previously reported, city planning officials determined earlier this year that Harvey Milk Plaza was historically important.

Last year, Mayor London Breed signed legislation designating 524 Union Street in North Beach as the city's fourth LGBTQ historic site, following Twin Peaks Tavern at Market and Castro streets, Harvey Milk's Castro Camera shop at 573 Castro Street, and the former Names Project Building at 2362 Market Street, all three of which are located in the Castro.

While Manhattan's Stonewall Inn is a United States national monument, it is the only place so designated due to its importance to the LGBTQ rights movement. In the past there has been some discussion of seeking federal recognition of the Castro as a national historic district but the talks never progressed to any formal requests.

When asked about greater recognition of historic sites in the Castro, Castro LGBTQ Cultural district manager Tina Valentin Aguirre deferred to the historical society, which has studied the issue. Aguirre is chair of the historical society's board.

"I'm not an expert in that," Aguirre said. "I want to defer to those experts."

Carnell Freeman, Corey Fusco, Levi Maxwell, and U. Sacred Mitchell — who were elected to round out the cultural district's advisory board September 19 — told the B.A.R. how they plan to help preserve the neighborhood's history.

Fusco wrote that "working on making sites historical landmarks is a step in the right direction," but is not enough.

"I feel we need to put more pressure on the city to work beside preservation organizations to close [loopholes] and make these places more protected," Fusco stated. Mitchell wrote that collaborating with Mandelman to bring about legislation stronger in protecting historic sites is the "best pathway."

Maxwell wrote that "as someone who lectures on various histories and speaks at length — much to the chagrin of my friends — on historic figures and spaces in the neighborhood, the most important step in historicizing a place is informing those around it."

Recognizing queer history will help the community show resiliency in an uncertain time, Maxwell stated.

"At a time when the position of the LGBTQ community is precarious nationally, to be able to look back and see how individuals, coalitions and communities came together to build resistance and showcase resiliency is beautiful but also in this moment, in this [Trump] administration: climacteric," Maxwell wrote. "When we have neighbors, party promoters, drag performers, and the every-day person able to just walk to a storefront and think and feel just a sliver of ownership to a history, it becomes much more easy to mobilize folks to ask supervisors, representatives and the mayor to honor, say, Harvey's camera store because it no longer is just about the store, it becomes about honoring 'us.'"

Freeman expressed support for preserving the Castro's history, but had a more forward-looking vision.

"How do we do that? I cannot answer that at this time," Freeman wrote. "What I do know is that if we do not work toward transforming the Castro into the community I believe it can be, there is a danger that it will no longer be the popular gay destination it once was."

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