by Ellen Hall
The Castro district in San Francisco is known for its sizeable gay and lesbian population, its historic Castro Theatre, and its rows of restored Victorian homes.
The Castro is located just south of San Francisco's Market Street, at the foot of the two tall hills known as Twin Peaks.
Originally known as Eureka Valley, this area was once part of a large rancho owned by Jose de Jesus Noe, a Mexican land baron. He began selling it off in 1852, after the American conquest of California.
In the 1880s, German, Irish and Scandinavian immigrants began settling in Eureka Valley and building handsome Victorian row houses for their big families.
The Market Street Cable Railway connected Eureka Valley with the rest of San Francisco in 1887, creating a housing boom and turning the village into a thriving working-class neighborhood. The F-line opened on Market Street in 1995 with historic 1928-vintage cars from Milan, Italy added for the Embarcadero Extension in 2000.
Eureka Valley remained largely unchanged until after World War II, when many residents migrated to the suburbs. In the 1970's and 1980's, white-collar gay men discovered the inexpensive Victorians and began renovating them. The area soon became home to a large and vibrant gay community.
The Castro gets its current name from its main thoroughfare, Castro Street. Named for a prominent general in the Mexican army, this street is now lined with bars, restaurants, and shops. One prominent landmark is the Castro Theatre, built in 1922 and one of the few movie palaces from that era still in operation.
Designed by influential local architect Timothy Pfleuger, the Castro Theatre's dramatic interior features Spanish and Oriental influences and rare scraffitto wall murals.
Another historic Castro District building, the Swedish American Hall, was built in 1907 and used as a meeting place for generations of Swedish Americans. Located at the corner of Market and Sanchez Streets the hall was designed by Architect August Nordin who is credited with the design of over 300 buildings in San Francisco.
Directly below is Café du Nord, a former speakeasy and now a popular music venue.
Many Castro landmarks recall milestones in the gay community. The Twin Peaks Tavern, founded in 1972, was the first gay bar to offer floor-to-ceiling windows, a symbol of emerging gay pride.
The storefront at 575 Castro Street was once a camera shop owned by Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to a prominent public office.
Milk was assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White in 1978, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone. At the trial, White's lawyer introduced the now-infamousTwinkie Defense, which blamed his actions on an excess of junk food.
The intersection of Market, Castro and 17th Streets was named Harvey Milk Plaza by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The story of Harvey Milk, and his struggles as an American gay activist were made into the movie "Milk" released in 2008.
The Elephant Walk (now Harvey's) at Castro and 18th Street was the site of a major incident in the White Night riots, which broke out after White was given a light sentence.
Aside from a few bustling commercial blocks, the Castro is largely residential and features a number of parks and playgrounds. Mission Dolores Park, a 13.7-acre swath of green between the Mission and Castro districts, offers great people-watching and panoramic views of downtown.
At the top of 20th Street is the Seward Street mini-park, with its fast, curved concrete slide designed by 14 year-old neighborhood kid Kim Clark. Nearby, the Douglass Street steps lead to the small but cherished Kite Hill Open Space overlooking the City.
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