'Hell no! This is the Castro:' Merchants seek to burnish LGBTQ neighborhood's nightlife image

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday May 2, 2024
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People gathered at Badlands bar in the LGBTQ Castro district for its reopening October 4, 2023. Photo: John Ferrannini
People gathered at Badlands bar in the LGBTQ Castro district for its reopening October 4, 2023. Photo: John Ferrannini

Business leaders in the Castro are working to put a new shine on the LGBTQ neighborhood's nightlife reputation amid concerns it is losing out to the South of Market area.

Merchants also discussed upcoming daytime events, including the observance of Harvey Milk Day, the Pulse nightclub tragedy, and Juneteenth.

In terms of the nightlife scene, SOMA's LGBTQ-owned Oasis nightclub remains popular and, last month, the Stud bar reopened in a new location at 1123 Folsom Street after having shuttered its former home at Ninth and Harrison streets. Add to that other gay bars in the area, the popular weekend beer busts at the SF Eagle, and nearby in the Mission queer-women focused bars Jolene's and Mother on 16th Street, and it often results in people spending their leisure time and dollars outside of the Castro.

At the May 2 meeting of the Castro Merchants Association, President Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally, said the neighborhood's reputation needs burnishing.

"One of the things we're hearing is we're losing a lot of nightlife to SOMA because people hear it's more fun," she said. "Hell no! This is the Castro."

In one attempt to address that, Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who is executive director of the Castro Community Benefit District, announced a new event to bring the rhythm of the night back to the streets of the neighborhood — Brite Nite, which will be Saturday, May 25, at 8 p.m., anchored in Harvey Milk Plaza at Castro and Market streets.

That night partygoers are invited to come dressed in clothing that glows in the dark along with neon accessories, such as that which can be bought at Knobs at 432 Castro Street. The event is a fundraiser for LYRIC, a San Francisco LGBTQ youth organization.

"Cash people will walk around with buckets" to collect donations, according to Aiello.

The event is being put on in consultation with Comfort and Joy — the queer Burning Man group that produces popular parties several times a year, including at SOMA's Club Six. It's being funded by the Civic Joy Fund — which seeks to revitalize San Francisco post-COVID.

Manny Yekutiel, a gay man who is co-founder of Civic Joy Fund, told the Bay Area Reporter that "we're just helping to fund it. The CBD is organizing it." Civic Joy Fund provided $5,000, Yekutiel said.

"Everything we're doing is all about activating the streets of San Francisco to help revive the city and recover, so every single thing is about activating the streets," Yekutiel said. "Art, music, performance, drag, partying, activations, beautification, cleanups: those are all the things we're funding, and I'm really proud to fund it. I live on Castro Street, so I'm excited to enjoy it myself."

CBD board member Paul Miller said, "the desire is to be a neighborhood party."

"We do have packages for merchants who want to be involved," he said. "Glow sticks and so forth" will be made available to merchants upon request.

Added Aiello, "For anyone who's interested, we have a grant of $100 toward a dancer or entertainer, as well as glow-in-the-dark stuff."

Even businesses that are closed during the event hours can still participate.

"Philz [Coffee, on Castro Street] is closed but they told me they are going to decorate their window," Aiello said.

Another reason for the event is to liven up the neighborhood for Memorial Day weekend, when more locals than usual leave the city.

Anyone with further interest in participating can contact Aiello at [email protected]

Kompass(ion), board president of Comfort and Joy, stated to the B.A.R., "Comfort & Joy has been an early pioneer in reviving Halloween festivities in the Castro with our signature event, Glow in the Streets. When the Castro business district invited us back for Brite Nite, we were thrilled to bring the vibrant Day-Glo art created by our resident artists to this celebration.

"We look forward to creating an immersive neon underwater oasis, bringing the joy of the open sea to the comfort of the Castro," Kompass(ion) added.

LYRIC Executive Director Gael Lala-Chávez told the B.A.R. May 7, "I've been involved with the Castro Merchants for quite some time. They've been so supportive and I'd been going to meetings and they reached out to me and said we can have LYRIC be the beneficiary. I was so overwhelmed. We're really looking forward to it."

Castro Stroll offers daytime fun

Diana Brito of Art Walk SF came to share details of another new event, the Castro Stroll, which will start on Sunday, May 19, and continue every third Sunday henceforth from noon to 5 p.m. Participation is free.

The aim is to bring an art festival, entertainment, shopping, dining, and music to Castro Street, between Market and 19th streets, and 18th Street, between Hartford and Collingwood streets, Brito said. All merchants are invited to offer promotions and discounts, as well as to host their own artists and live music at their venues.

"There'll be activities, and what we really want to do, and the goal of this, is to drive business into different stores and restaurants," Brito said. "We do not bring in food trucks; we encourage people to eat local."

Milk, Coors boycott, Pulse, and Juneteenth to be commemorated

The first Castro Stroll will coincide with the observance of Harvey Milk Day, according to Tina Aguirre, a genderqueer Latinx person who is the manager of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District.

Though officially May 22, the cultural district will be commemorating Milk — the first openly gay man elected to office in the Golden State when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 — beginning at 1 p.m. Sunday, May 19, in front of his old camera shop at 573 Castro Street. The San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band (San Francisco's official band) will be marching from there to Jane Warner Plaza. (Milk, who took office in January 1978, was assassinated, along with then-mayor George Moscone, 11 months later by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White.)

The observance will also include speeches, including one by Gwenn Craig, a Black lesbian and former San Francisco police commissioner who worked hand-in-hand with Milk in the heady days of 1970s queer liberation. Craig was on vacation and could not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"It really will be a great way, specifically, for people to understand Harvey Milk's legacy of coalition building, and how he was with radical lesbians, gay liberation front members, laborers, people of color, and how he affected change," Aguirre said.

One of those coalitions in those days was with the Teamsters labor union. In 1973, Milk and Castro neighbor Allan Baird, a straight ally who was a Teamsters leader, took on the Coors Brewing Company due to its anti-labor and homophobic stances.

Aguirre said a Saturday, June 22, event at Jane Warner Plaza will "commemorate what occurred in the 1970s.

"That is unfortunately still relevant, because the Coors corporation and the family who own that are still contributing to right-wing political movements, so we want to connect some of our history to the present day," continued Aguirre.

As the B.A.R. recently reported, there is currently an ongoing boycott of the Molson Coors Beverage Company (the product of a 2005 merger between the Coors Brewing Co. and Molson of Canada). Teamsters are accusing the company of not negotiating in good faith with Local 420 in Fort Worth, Texas.

That will come 10 days after a Wednesday, June 12, memorial the district is also facilitating to commemorate the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting. On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at the LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida, reportedly in retaliation for the killing of an Islamic State leader by a United States-coalition airstrike in Syria, according to multiple media reports. Mateen was killed in a shootout with police. Many of those killed or injured were LGBTQs of color.

A week later, Wednesday, June 19, is Juneteenth, which was made a federal holiday in 2021 by an act of Congress signed by President Joe Biden. Juneteenth commemorates the end of the slavery of Black Americans at the end of the Civil War.

Frameline48: the San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival starts the same day, but with the Castro Theatre closed due to renovation and construction work, the festival will be kicking off with a street party, according to Frameline's Dan Shain, who addressed the merchants.

The 400 block of Castro Street will be closed to vehicular traffic from 2 p.m. to midnight, Shain said. A program of performances and speeches will start at 7 p.m., and the film "Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero" will be screened at 8. The film will be over by 10. Chairs will not be provided.

Once again there will be no food trucks, Shain said.

As the B.A.R. reported earlier this week, Frameline's full slate of events for this year's film festival will be announced May 21. Because of the closure of the Castro Theatre, film screenings this year will be held at the Roxie Theater, the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, Herbst Theatre, the Vogue Theater, and the New Parkway Theater in Oakland.

However, Castro residents can still get a taste of the film festival in the neighborhood.

"Frameline will have a physical box office in the Castro, at the Welcome Castro store [at 525 Castro Street]," Shain said. "So if you like to buy your tickets in person, you want to buy a T-shirt, you want a mini guide, see what's playing, check out Welcome Castro."

Robert Emmons, a gay man who is the proprietor of Welcome Castro, told the B.A.R. that "we are excited to be partnering with Frameline and honored to have them set up a box office in Welcome Castro. It's going to be a fun festival this year spread out in so many different venues, and we can't wait to see this year's films."

Updated, 5/7/24: This article has been updated with comments from LYRIC.

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