Wednesday, February 08, 2017

AS THE WORLD TURNS -- THE CASTRO


In the Fifties in Portland, OR, when I first began to be old enough to travel around the city alone via bus, I was always careful to sit on the side of the bus where I could see the old warehouses where gypsies lived.  The doorways were draped so it was impossible to see in, but the women often sat on chairs along the sidewalk.  Darkly beautiful, wearing bright flowing gowns, they might have been up to something nefarious since they were in the shady part of town, but to me they only represented glamour in the original sense of magic.

Our house was near the corners of NE 15th and Alberta.  In my childhood it was a European immigrant neighborhood: Swedish bakery, Scots doctor, Greek grocery store, and so on.  Alberta, of course, was named for Queen Victoria’s daughter.  After I had grown up and left, the neighborhood turned black and the street I had walked to elementary school, Sumner, was considered a gang street where cops went carefully.  At night there was shooting.  The shops and the apartments on top of them deteriorated.  

Then gays and hispanics moved in.  Now Alberta is an arts and bodega street.  My mother lived in the same house until 1999.  A cousin of mine lives up 15th a few blocks, across the street from the doctor’s house my paternal grandparents bought when they came back to the States from Manitoba.

So when doing research for another project, I came across the history of the Castro District in San Francisco, less well-known than the “hippie” Haight-Asbury, I was intrigued.  I’ve always been interested in enclaves and bubbles of culture, where they come from, how they morph, and where they go.  This applies to both Valier and the Blackfeet Rez — it’s part of their charm, their historical flavor.

All-male Miners' Ball

I was surprised to learn that in the 18th century the area was Russian.  In 1809-1917 Finland, then a satellite of Russia, used the settlement to serve merchant and naval fleets with a heavy Finnish participation.  Finns are tough, practical, and free-thinking, with the liberal wing of the Lutheran church overlapping enough with Unitarians that the clergy serving Montana’s Finn communities hired Unitarian ministers.  Many Finns settled in SF during the Gold Rush.  Finnish Club No. 1 was established in the Castro District in 1882.  A bathhouse was built about 1910.  After the disastrous 1906 earthquake and fire, many Finns moved to Berkeley.

A decade or so after WWII when many families had left because of prosperity that produced suburbs, two new concentrations formed.  I’ll directly quote from Wikipedia:  “The U.S. military dishonorably discharged thousands of gay servicemen from the Pacific theater in San Francisco during World War II (early 1940s) because of their sexuality. Many settled in the bay area, San Francisco and Sausalito. In San Francisco an established gay community had begun in numerous areas including Polk Street, the Tenderloin and south of Market Street. The 1950s saw large amounts of families moving out of the Castro to the suburbs in what became known as the "White flight", leaving open large amounts of real estate and creating attractive locations for gay purchasers. By 1963, the Castro's first gay bar was opened called the "Missouri Mule”.

This is one of the unintended and rather unacknowledged consequences of WWII, another attempt on the part of government to control the nature of populations.  The Navy’s failure to understand that gays can be tough enlisted men meant that when were surprised by individual examples, the gay men were pushed out.  Since they were clustered on the mid-California coast, they magnetized into a functional community.  

A parallel example might be the Native Americans who formed communities along the coast in order to work in the factories that supported the war effort.  A second set of Native Americans arrived in cities when Eisenhower tried to extinguish the reservations by sending the people to cities, but not supporting them there, so that they ended up in ghettos, making common cause with blacks and hispanics who had also come to build ships and planes, but were at loose ends when the war ended.  The groups had been mostly rural, which made them sympathetic to each other.  And they were all stigmatized.  Black Power taught Red Power.

“Beat culture erupted in San Francisco in the 1950s with a rebellion against middle class values and thus became aligned with homosexuality and other lifestyles not part of mainstream culture. The beat poets who relocated to San Francisco from New York flourished in San Francisco's permissive atmosphere, and some like Allen Ginsberg were openly gay.”  This literary dimension easily merged with academic study of gays, called “queer studies”.

Being gay was neither rural nor urban, and not related to skin color, but, in addition to natural sexual preference, came out of military background, working-class.  Not so much the officer elites.  Wikipedia:  “Some of the culture of the late 1970s included what was termed the "Castro clone", a mode of dress and personal grooming that exemplified butchness and masculinity of the working-class men in construction—tight denim jeans, black or sand combat boots, tight T-shirt or, often, an Izod crocodile shirt, possibly a red plaid flannel outer shirt, and usually sporting a mustache or full beard—in vogue with the gay male population at the time. . .”

Cross-dressing exploded into a show biz performance art that might or might not signal trans-sexuality.  Presentation as advertising was the idea, in the sense of big birds with splendid plumage.  Today people can change physical gender.

Alfred Lalibert√©'s "Les petits Baigneurs," 1915 restored 1992 at Maisonneuve public baths, MontrealQuebec

“Public” baths exist where people have no bathrooms at home, as in immigrant tenements, and were meant as a public health measure.  Urchins were made to bath naked to so they could be checked for sores and bugs.  With an all-male gay community used to communal showers, baths were a natural venue.


Then came HIV/AIDS and a new kind of war, just as deadly as combat.  The men rallied to comfort each other, but despair and terror crept through lives.  Still, it didn’t extinguish the identity of the area as a special community that has now expanded to LGBTX, people who are in solidarity to defend their right to be different.  But then they had to defend their right to be the same, as in marriage and raising children.

The next challenge is upon them now: a form of “gentrification” which is not focused on reclaiming the graciousness of the housing, but rather on crowding in tech workers for the cyber-industry.  The world is based on change, each new phase displacing the old.


I watch all this from my celibate redoubt much in the way that I watched the gypsies from the bus, a kind of sympathetic outsider.  Unitarian congregations often share buildings with the Metropolitan Church.  They are not monsters to me.  But they do have a bit of a dark edge.  Like military people.  Or rez folks.

No comments: