Preserving Queer Culture in District 8

by Tommi Avicolli Mecca on October 19, 2006

“Affordable housing” has emerged as a key issue in the District 8 race for supervisor, and it’s appropriate that it has. But I believe there’s an even more crucial issue: the survival of the Castro as a center of queer culture. No one can deny that the world’s most infamous queer ghetto has changed a lot since Harvey Milk called it home. Back then, it was undeniably a place where queers gathered from all over the country. They were refugees from the American Dream. The Castro afforded them a place to let their hair, and their pants, down.

When the realtors and landlords realized how the former Irish/American neighborhood had been transformed, they wanted a piece of the action. Rents skyrocketed. Many people were pushed out. Harvey lost his camera store and the apartment he occupied above it when his rent shot from $400 to $1,200/mo.

The same scenario was repeated in the mid-90s when scores of enterprising young people with lots of disposal income came flooding into the City to rent anything that had a roof over it. In the Castro, they stood in line and outbid each other for apartments. Landlords and realtors used every trick in the book to get rid of long-term tenants paying low rent. It didn’t matter if the person had AIDS. Anyone who could be gotten out of his/her rent-controlled apartments was sent packing.

There was a time when flats in the Castro rented for $1,000/mo. Young people could pile into them, utilizing every room as a bedroom. They got jobs in the neighborhood shops. They organized demos and set up tables on Saturday mornings at 18th and Castro. Queer organizations rented office space in the top floors of the shops. Halloween was as much about parading around in costumes as it was about celebrating queer sexuality. Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint provided a nightly spot for emerging and established artists. Demonstrations occurred regularly, and many times spontaneously, at Harvey Milk Plaza. It was an exciting time to live in the hood.

After the dot-com bust, realtors hit upon another get-rich-quick scheme: tenancies in common (TICs). They starting using the state Ellis Act to evict all of the tenants in a rent-controlled building. They sold their units as pseudo condos, with all of the buyers sharing a single mortgage. People with AIDS who managed to stay in their apartments during the dot-com boom suddenly found themselves with Ellis notices.

Nowadays, there’s not a lot of political activity on the corner of 18th and Castro on Saturday mornings. Josie’s Cabaret is closed. The queer organizations atop the shops are either defunct or renting space in a cheaper neighborhood. There aren’t a lot of protests at Harvey Milk Plaza. Newcomer parents to the Castro complain about pictures of naked men or dildoes in the shop windows. Merchants oppose Halloween because it cuts into their profits. Clean streets and no posters on utility poles are among the shopkeepers’ biggest concerns. As is sweeping the homeless queer kids off the sidewalks so that the tourists don’t see them. If we have to have poor folks, let them go hang in the Tenderloin. The Castro is for the tourists and its new upscale inhabitants, some of whom are straight. Is the neighborhood being de-gayed? More and more straights are finding the Castro a desirable place to live.

Some people think that the Castro can be returned to its former glory simply by creating a few units of affordable housing. The Castro needs much more. For starters, it needs a moratorium on market rate housing and condo conversions. It needs community land trusts to preserve the rental stock as permanently affordable. It needs free or cheap office space for LGBT community nonprofits and activist organizations. It needs an arts space that nurtures new talent. It needs LGBT senior housing that is affordable for those on SSI and fixed incomes. It needs affordable apartments for young people. It needs a neighborhood service center where homeless kids can get help, where meth users can obtain drug rehab, where a lot of needy people can access services.

The question is: Is it already too late?

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical southern Italian working class queer performer, activist and writer.

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