SAN FRANCISCO — Cleve Jones has lived in the Castro neighborhood for nearly 50 years, almost since the day he graduated from high school in Phoenix and hitchhiked in California.
He was a political and cultural leader, organizing gays and lesbians when the AIDS epidemic devastated these streets in the early 1980s. He created the nationally recognized AIDS Memorial Quilt from a storefront on Market Street. He was a face of the anger and grief that swept through the Castro in 1978 after the assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to the Board of Supervisors.
Mr Jones helped define the Castro, dancing in his gay bars seven nights a week when he was younger, getting together with friends for drinks and chat as he got older. To this day, he is recognized when he walks his sidewalks. “Hi Cleve – I know who you are,” San Francisco Police Department Lt. Amy Hurwitz said after Mr Jones began introducing himself.
But in May, Mr Jones, 67, moved to a small house with a garden and apple and peach trees 75 miles away in Sonoma County after the monthly cost of his one-bedroom apartment rose from $2,400 to $5,200.
His story is not just another story of a longtime resident out of a gentrified real estate market. Across the country, LGBTQ neighborhoods in big cities – New York, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco among them – are experiencing a confluence of social, cultural and economic factors, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which is diluting their influence and influence. visibility . In a few cases, say some LGBTQ leaders, the very existence of neighborhoods is threatened.
“I walk through the neighborhood that has encouraged me for so many decades, and I see the reminders of Harvey and the Rainbow Honor Walk, celebrating famous queer and trans people,” Jones said as he led a visitor through a tour of his old neighborhood, pointing to empty storefronts and sidewalks. “I can’t help but think that soon there will be a time when people walking down the street will have no idea what this is all about.”
Housing costs are one of the main reasons. But there are also other factors.
LGBTQ couples, especially younger ones, are starting families and considering more traditional features — public schools, parks, and larger homes — when deciding where they want to live. The appeal of “gay neighborhoods” as a refuge for past generations seeking to escape discrimination and harassment is less imperative today, reflecting the growing acceptance of gay and lesbian people. And dating apps have, for many, replaced the gay bar as the place that leads to a sexual relationship or encounter.
Many gay and lesbian leaders have said this may well be a long-lasting realignment, an unexpected product of the success of a gay rights movement, including the Supreme Court’s 2015 recognition of same-sex marriage, which has pushed for equal rights and integration into mainstream society.
There are few places where this transformation is more visible than in the Castro, long a barometer of the evolution of gay and lesbian life in America. It’s a place where same-sex couples crowded the streets, sidewalks, bars and restaurants in defiance and celebration while LGBTQ people in other cities lived cloistered lives.
It was the scene of some of the first glimmers of the modern gay rights movement in the late 1960s; the rise to the political establishment with the election of openly gay officials like Mr. Milk; and the powerful community response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
“Gayborhoods are disappearing,” Mr. Jones said. “People have to be careful about that. When people are dispersed, when they no longer live in geographic concentrations, when they no longer inhabit specific neighborhoods, we lose a lot. We are losing political power. We lose the ability to elect our own and defeat our enemies.
Cynthia Laird, editor of The Bay Area Reporter, a San Francisco-based LGBTQ newspaper, said she remembers this transformation every time she walks through the neighborhood.
“I wanted to take a picture of people walking down the rainbow crosswalk at the corner of Castro and 18th Street and there was no one walking,” she said. “The Castro and San Francisco have changed a lot over the past 25 years. We’ve seen a lot of LGBTQ people move from San Francisco to Oakland – where I live – and even further into the East Bay.
Mr Jones’ departure has caused tremors in gay neighborhoods across the country, especially as it came amid annual Pride celebrations marking advances in the LGBTQ movement since New York police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, in June 1969.
“What I see in Houston is that we’re losing our history,” said Tammi Wallace, president of the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, who lives in Montrose, the city’s gay neighborhood. “A lot of individuals and couples say, ‘We can move to different parts of town and know we’re going to be accepted. “”
Daniel B. Hess, a professor of urban planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo and co-author of a book on the evolution of gay neighborhoods, said U.S. Census data over the past three decades have shown a decline in density. of same-sex couples in Chelsea and Greenwich Village in New York, Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., West Hollywood in Los Angeles County, and the Castro, which he called “America’s first gay neighborhood.”
“Gay men are leaving gay neighborhoods,” he said. “They settle in other urban neighborhoods and in the nearby suburbs. And non-LGBTQ people are moving in and bringing down the concentration in gay neighborhoods.
Dr Hess said part of this was generational. The men and women who created these neighborhoods “wanted to segregate and be around gay people,” he said. “On the other hand, when you ask young people today what they want, they would prefer an inclusive café. They don’t want anyone to feel unwanted.
Some gay leaders argued that the instinct to live in communities of like-minded people remained a strong draw and that there would always be some version of a gay neighborhood, just perhaps not as focused and powerful.
“I say this as a gay man: It’s nice to live in a community where there are lots of other gay people, where I can go out and walk down the street to a gay bar,” said Scott Wiener, a California state. senator who lives in the Castro. “Where I can walk two blocks to get tested for HIV and STDs at a clinic that won’t judge me.”
“We have to be very intentional about protecting these neighborhoods — and keeping them gay,” he said. “Having said that, I also believe the Castro is very strong and has very deep LGBTQ roots.”
These changes follow a comparable pattern in American history: immigrants establish ethnic neighborhoods to escape discrimination and build community bonds, but these enclaves lose their distinction and energy as later generations move to suburbs that have become more welcoming.
In this case, it is also a story of gentrification, economic cycles and social change. Gay men and women moved into relatively downtrodden neighborhoods, like Castro and Montrose, to fix them. Once housing costs became too high, residents and younger generations moved to another poor neighborhood.
In New York, that meant a move from Greenwich Village to Chelsea to Hell’s Kitchen; in the Los Angeles area, a migration from West Hollywood to neighborhoods like Silver Lake. But the relocations this time were more distant.
“I know a lot of new gay dads who live in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill,” two neighborhoods in Brooklyn, said Corey Johnson, a former New York City Council president who is gay and lives in Greenwich Village. “These are not traditional gay neighborhoods. The schools are better. It’s more affordable. And you have more space.
Mr Johnson argued that this had in fact led to an increase in the number of openly gay and lesbian members of the city council. But other LGBTQ leaders said there was a real danger in this type of diaspora.
“I think it’s important that we have spaces where we walk around, hold hands and maybe share a quick kiss and not worry too much,” said Tina Aguirre, Castro LGBTQ cultural district manager. “We need to live in queer neighborhoods. It’s just not as pressing as it was in the 80s and 90s.”
On a bright June afternoon, cheerful rainbow flags flew down Castro Street as Mr Jones walked past reminders of an earlier era. The Castro Theater, historic backdrop for parades and protests for decades, is reopening after a long closure forced by Covid-19. Most men drank in bars and some sex shops were open. At one point, a completely naked man walked casually down the sidewalk.
“I guess he’s also trying to keep the neighborhood gay,” Mr Jones said.
Mr. Jones stopped in front of the window where Mr. Milk had a camera store. In 1979, Mr Jones was living two houses away and watching from his flat when police moved in on protesters on Castro Street following lenient verdicts given to Dan White, a former supervisor, for the murders of Mr Milk and George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco. “The night of the Nuit Blanche riots, when the police fought back, we were up there on the fire escape watching the chaos,” Mr Jones said.
Mr Milk, evicted from his Castro Street storefront, had then moved his camera shop to Market Street. This was the space that Mr. Jones used for the AIDS Quilt Project. It is now a restaurant.
Mr Jones is not happy to leave this corner of San Francisco, but said he had little choice. He had lived in his Castro apartment for 11 years before his landlord claimed he lost his rent control protections by living in Sonoma County, forcing him out by doubling his rent. He said he loved having the getaway of his home in Guerneville, but had considered himself a city dweller from the day he arrived here as a teenager from Phoenix.
“Everything good in my life came out of this neighborhood,” he said.