Editorial: Lesbian tech confab has outgrown Castro

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday November 1, 2023
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The bare windows of Harvey's at 18th and Castro streets still had the Lesbians Who Tech organization's tagline in the corner, but not the historic photos that Castro Street Seen had installed earlier this year. Photo: Cynthia Laird
The bare windows of Harvey's at 18th and Castro streets still had the Lesbians Who Tech organization's tagline in the corner, but not the historic photos that Castro Street Seen had installed earlier this year. Photo: Cynthia Laird

The Lesbians Who Tech & Allies Summit has come and gone, and organizers have only themselves to blame for the bitter feelings they've left with many Castro business owners. No, this is not about lesbians and others not being welcome in the LGBTQ neighborhood — they are. In fact, most businesses that saw an uptick in foot traffic thanks to the confab report that conference attendees were great. The problem is that Leanne Pittsford, CEO and founder of the conference, and her team reneged on every promise they made to the Castro Merchants Association, which was already deeply disappointed with last year's version of the gathering.

Chief among those complaints was that the fencing with tarps that was erected last year be replaced with less invasive barricades this year. (Spoiler alert: that didn't happen.)

The merchants group is expected to vote at its meeting Thursday morning on whether to continue supporting Lesbians Who Tech, which just celebrated the summit's 10th anniversary. At this juncture, after two consecutive years of failing to work with the neighborhood, we urge the merchants' association to give it the boot.

Last year's fencing drew howls of protest at the November 2022 Castro Merchants Association meeting, where even the executive director of LYRIC, the queer youth organization, said that some of their clients felt uncomfortable seeing Castro Street fenced off. It also prevented deliveries from taking place.

So the merchants decided this year that they would support the conference but with conditions, as in barricades instead of fencing. It was suggested that the crew behind Castro Street Seen could add some historic images to the barriers to make them even more welcoming. (The group works to beautify vacant storefronts by adding large reproductions of historic photos.)

But when the conference started setting up in mid-October, the fences with green tarps were back. Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is president of the merchants' group, wrote in her president's letter that as of early October, she did not have a good feeling about the conference organizers adhering to the conditions agreed to in the spring.

"Unfortunately, I do not get to stand before you all and say I was wrong," she wrote. "We asked them to make the barrier fun and joyous as not to make the community feel excluded and look like the back end of a carnival. We gave them suggestions on how to make that happen; they took none of the suggestions and did not improve the barrier."

Bennett noted that the merchants had also asked that delivery points be created and outreach done to the delivery companies. "They told us they created delivery points, but none actually existed. There was no signage, and there were SFMTA parking enforcement officers preventing anyone from stopping to make deliveries," Bennett wrote, referring to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

The merchants asked that the city's trash contractor Recology be looped in to make sure that garbage and recycling were picked up from the businesses. "This did not go well and many of us, particularly on the 400 block, had many days where our garbage or recycling was not picked up," Bennett wrote, referring to the business she co-owns, Cliff's Variety, at 479 Castro Street.

And the complaints go on from there. Bus rerouting signs were nonexistent; outreach to residents about late night construction for the conference didn't happen.

In fact, we suspect that the sole reason conference organizers worked to get the merchants' approval in March was to help secure its permit from the SFMTA's Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation. The committee, known as ISCOTT, is responsible for deciding upon street closures in the city.

Initially, LWT officials said they had a meeting before ISCOTT on March 15. But that turned out to be inaccurate. In fact, ISCOTT didn't have a meeting that day and there was no LWT item on the March 9 agenda. ISCOTT approved the tech confab's street closure request for Castro Street on July 13, as we previously reported. (Thank goodness ISCOTT officials listened to staff and declined to approve closure of Jane Warner Plaza for the confab — that would have been a disaster.)

As it is, the neighborhood is already worse off now that LWT has packed up and moved on. Earlier this year, Castro Street Seen put some of those historic pictures on the windows of the old Harvey's bar and restaurant at 18th and Castro streets. LWT utilized the inside of the space and removed the photos. So now, there's the vacant storefront with no lovely historic pictures.

In short, the privately-run conference supported itself but did not support the community. That's the bottom line and that's why LWT needs to find somewhere else to hold its next gathering.

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