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Castro District, San Francisco facts for kids

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Castro District
Castro Street and its namesake neighborhood, the Castro
Castro Street and its namesake neighborhood, the Castro
The Castro
Country  United States
State  California
City-county San Francisco
Named for José Castro
 • Total 1.36 km2 (0.526 sq mi)
 • Land 1.36 km2 (0.526 sq mi)
 • Total 12,064
 • Density 8,855/km2 (22,935/sq mi)
Time zone UTC-8 (PST)
 • Summer (DST) UTC-7 (PDT)
ZIP codes
94110, 94114
Area codes 415/628
Castro Street Pedcrossing with Rainbow Flag Colour
Castro Street Pedcrossing with Rainbow Flag Color
Corner of 20th Street and Castro

The Castro District, commonly referenced as The Castro, is a neighborhood in Eureka Valley in San Francisco. The Castro was one of the first gay neighborhoods in the United States. Having transformed from a working-class neighborhood through the 1960s and 1970s, the Castro remains one of the most prominent symbols of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activism and events in the world.


San Francisco's gay village is mostly concentrated in the business district that is located on Castro Street from Market Street to 19th Street. It extends down Market Street toward Church Street and on both sides of the Castro neighborhood from Church Street to Eureka Street. Although the greater gay community was, and is, concentrated in the Castro, many gay people live in the surrounding residential areas bordered by Corona Heights, the Mission District, Noe Valley, Twin Peaks, and Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods. Some consider it to include Duboce Triangle and Dolores Heights, which both have a strong LGBT presence.

Castro Street, which originates a few blocks north at the intersection of Divisadero and Waller Streets, runs south through Noe Valley, crossing the 24th Street business district and ending as a continuous street a few blocks farther south as it moves toward the Glen Park neighborhood. It reappears in several discontinuous sections before ultimately terminating at Chenery Street, in the heart of Glen Park.


Castro Street was named for José Castro (1808–1860), a Californian leader of Mexican opposition to U.S. rule in California in the 19th century, and alcalde of Alta California from 1835 to 1836. The neighborhood now known as the Castro was created in 1887 when the Market Street Railway Company built a line linking Eureka Valley to downtown.

In 1891, Alfred E. Clarke built his mansion at the corner of Douglass and Caselli Avenue at 250 Douglass which is commonly referenced as the Caselli Mansion. It survived the 1906 earthquake and fire which destroyed a large portion of San Francisco.

Finn Town

Early years

Up to the 19th century, the areal possession of the Russian Empire in North America included the modern-day U.S. State of Alaska and settlements in the modern-day U.S. states of California (1 settlement) and Hawaii (3 settlements, starting in 1817). These Russian possessions were collectively and officially referred to by the name Russian America from 1733 to 1867. Formal incorporation of the possessions by Russia did not take place until the establishment of the Russian-American Company (RAC) in 1799.

In 1809–1917, Finland was an autonomous part of the Russian Empire, a Grand Duchy, during which time the operations of both Russian merchant and naval fleets, as well as the building of naval vessels, relied heavily on Finnish know-how and Finnish seamen and officers. At the time, Russia was a relatively young naval power, gaining gradually access to the Baltic Sea only after the city of Saint Petersburg was founded on its coast in 1703.

In 1839, Sitka Lutheran Church, the first Protestant congregation on the west coast of the Americas and the first Lutheran congregation on the entire Pacific Rim was founded in Sitka, Alaska by Finns, and also other Lutherans who worked for the Russian-American Company. From the start, in 1840–1865, three consecutive Finnish pastors served this pastorate: Uno Cygnaeus (1840–1845), Gabriel Plathán (1845–1852) and Georg Gustaf Winter (1852–1865). The Finns Aaron Sjöstrom and Otto Reinhold Rehn served as the parish organists/sextons during the same period.

In 1841, under the governorship of Russian America by Finnish Arvid Adolf Etholén (1840–1845) (promoted to rear admiral in 1847), the Russian-American area of Fort Ross in Bodega Bay, California, was sold to Johann Sutter. On January 24, 1848, the first California gold was discovered on Sutter's land in Coloma, California, leading to the California Gold Rush, after news of this were spread abroad, mainly by the seamen serving for the Russian-American Company.

During the final three decades of the existence of Russian America, Finnish Chief Managers ("governors") of Russian America included Arvid Adolf Etholén (a.k.a. Etolin) in 1840–1845 and Johan Hampus Furuhjelm in 1859–1864. A third Finn, Johan Joachim von Bartram, declined the offer for the five-year term between 1850 and 1855. All three were high ranking Imperial naval officers.

Late 19th century

During the California Gold Rush and in its aftermath, a substantial Finnish population had settled in San Francisco. In addition to Etholén, Furuhjelm and Niebaum, a number of Finns had become household names in the social circles of San Francisco by the time when the Finnish corvette Kalevala, anchored in San Francisco on November 14, 1861. Accordingly, Kalevala's visit in the city received a very warm welcome and created much attention.

Calevala - Union Hall, San Francisco 1863
A festive dinner party arranged in honor of Admiral Popoff and the naval officers of the Russian Pacific Fleet visiting San Francisco in 1863.

In 1863, a six-vessel Russian Imperial Navy squadron, a part of the Russian Pacific Fleet, sailed via Vladivostok to the West Coast of the United States, to help defend the waters there against a possible attack by the United Kingdom or France, during the American Civil War (April 12, 1861 – May 10, 1865). In addition to the Finnish-built corvette Kalevala now returning to the U.S. West Coast, this squadron included three other corvettes, Bogatyr, Rynda and Novik (Russian: "Новик"), as well as two Finnish-built clippers, the sister-ships Abrek (Russian: "Абрек") and Vsadnik (Russian: "Всадник"), both built in the southwestern Finnish town of Pori and launched in 1860. Finnish officers serving in the squadron included Theodor Kristian Avellan, who later became the Minister of Naval Affairs of the Russian Empire (similar role to Great Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty). Among Finnish officers participating in the expedition were also Mr. Enqvist and Mr. Etholén (not Governor Etholén of Russian America).

At the time when Finnish Sea Captain Gustave Niebaum, the founder of Inglenook Winery (1879) in Rutherford, California, was busy conducting business in the San Francisco Bay Area and Alaska – from the late 19th to the early 20th century -, both places had considerably large Finnish settlements. As the Governor of Russian America from 1858 to 1864, Finnish Johan Hampus Furuhjelm helped pave way for the American Alaska purchase, just like Gustave Niebaum did as the Consul of Russia for the United States in San Francisco in 1867 (at the time Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia), when Alaska became a part of the United States of America.

During his governorship of Russian America, Furuhjelm put an end to the hostilities involving groups of the native peoples of Alaska, and he succeeded in abolishing the Alaskan Ice Treaty with San Francisco. According to a contract which had been signed, Russian America had to deliver a certain amount of ice to San Francisco at a fixed price. The problem was that the product melted down on the way to the warmer climates. The ice contract became very awkward for the Russian colony. Furuhjelm arranged for a new contract to sell ice to San Francisco: 3,000 tons at $25.00 a ton.

Officially registered Finnish Club No. 1 was established in the Castro District of San Francisco in 1882. Soon after, two "Finnish Halls" were erected nearby. One was located at the corner of 24th Street and Hoffman Street. The other hall was located on Flint Street, on the "Rocky Hill" above Castro, an area densely populated by Finns at the time, consequently nicknamed Finn Town. Before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, nearly all the kids attending the McKinley school (now McKinley Elementary School) at 1025 14th Street (at Castro) were Finnish. Following the earthquake, a large amount of Finns of San Francisco and Finns from elsewhere alike moved to Berkeley, where a Finnish community had been established already before the earthquake. A large part of the early Berkeley population was Finnish.

A bathhouse called Finnila's Finnish Baths began serving customers in the Castro District in c. 1910 at 9 Douglass Street, and opened as an official business in 1913. The business moved to 4032 17th Street in 1919, a half block west from the busy Castro Street. The business moved again in 1932 to 2284 Market Street; and finally in 1986 – after having been stationed in the Castro District for over seven decades – continued as Finnila's Health Club at 465 Taraval Street in San Francisco's Sunset District. Despite public outcry and attempts to prevent the closing of the popular Finnila's Market Street bathhouse, the old bathhouse building was demolished by Alfred Finnila soon after the farewell party held in the end of December, 1985. Today, the Finnila family still owns the new Market & Noe Center building attached to Cafe Flore, in the corner of Market and Noe Streets.

In 1906, St. Francis Lutheran Church St. Francis Lutheran Church was erected at 152 Church Street, between Market Street and Duboce Avenue. The construction work was completed by immigrants from the Nordic countries, where Lutheranism is the largest religious group. The project overseen primarily by Danes took place in the heart of what was then the Nordic-dominated Duboce-Market neighborhood of San Francisco. Facing the backside of St. Francis Lutheran Church, a small and light-colored Finnish church served Finnish-speaking church-goers on the one-block-long side street.

Change of character

From 1910 on, the Castro District of San Francisco and some of the surrounding areas was known by the term Little Scandinavia, because of the large number of the residents in the area originating from Finnish, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish ancestry.

The 1943 novel Mama's Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes focused on a Norwegian family living in the area in the 1910s. Forbes' book served as the inspiration for John Van Druten's 1944 play I Remember Mama. The play was adapted to a Broadway theater production in 1944; to a movie in 1948; to a CBS Mama television series running from 1949 until 1957; to a Lux Radio Theater play in the late 1950s; and to a Broadway musical in 1979. "Mama's Bank Account" reflected a (then) Eureka Valley neighborhood, where for generations Norwegians worshiped at the Norwegian Lutheran Church at 19th and Dolores streets, and met for fraternal, social events, and Saturday night dances at Dovre Hall, 3543 18th Street, now the Women's Building.

The Cove on Castro used to be called The Norse Cove at the time. The Scandinavian Seamen's Mission operated for a long time on 15th Street, off Market Street, just around the corner from the Swedish-American Hall, which remains in the district. In the 1920s – during prohibition – the downstairs of the Swedish-American Hall served as a speak-easy, one of many in the area. "Unlicensed saloons" were known as speak-easies, according to an 1889 newspaper. They were "so called because of the practice of speaking quietly about such a place in public, or when inside it, so as not to alert the police or neighbors".

Scandinavian-style "half-timber" construction can still be seen in some of the buildings along Market Street, between Castro and Church Streets. A restaurant called Scandinavian Deli operated for decades on Market Street, between Noe and Sanchez Streets, almost directly across the street from Finnila's.

Receiving an influx of Irish, Italian and other immigrants in the 1930s, the Castro gradually became an ethnically mixed working-class neighborhood, and it remained so until the mid-1960s. There was originally a cable car line with large double-ended cable cars that ran along Castro Street from Market Street to 29th St., until the tracks were dismantled in 1941 and the cable car line was replaced by the 24 MUNI bus. The Castro is at the end of the straight portion of the Market Street thoroughfare, and a mostly residential area follows Market Street as it curves and rises up and around the Twin Peaks mountains.

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 gay community created an upscale, fashionable urban center in the Castro District in the 1970s.

Harvey Milk with Audrey Milk 1973
Harvey Milk, here with his sister-in-law in front of Castro Camera in 1973, had been changed by his experience with the counterculture of the 1960s. His store was used as his campaign headquarters and remains a tourist destination to date.

By 1973, Harvey Milk, who would become the most famous resident of the neighborhood, opened a camera store, Castro Camera, and began political involvement as a gay activist, further contributing to the notion of the Castro as a gay destination.


Stores on Castro near the intersection with 18th Street. Rainbow flags, which are commonly associated with gay pride, are hung as banners on streetlights along the road.

One of the more notable features of the neighborhood is Castro Theatre, a movie palace built in 1922 and one of San Francisco's premier movie houses.

18th and Castro is a major intersection in the Castro, where many historic events, marches, protests have taken and continue to take place.

A major cultural destination in the neighborhood is the GLBT History Museum, which opened for previews on Dec. 10, 2010, at 4127 18th St. The first full-scale, stand-alone museum of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history in the United States (and only the second in the world after the Schwules Museum in Berlin), The GLBT History Museum is a project of the GLBT Historical Society.

The flag at the corner of Market, Castro, and 17th Street

The F Market heritage streetcar line turnaround at Market and 17th-streets where the Jane Warner city park let sits. Across Castro street is the Harvey Milk Plaza in honor of its most famous resident with its iconic giant flag pole with an oversized rainbow flag, symbol of the LGBT community. Below street level is the main entrance to the Castro Street Station, a Muni Metro subway station and a multitiered park. Milk's camera store and campaign headquarters which were at 575 Castro has a memorial plaque and mural on the inside of the store, now housing the Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store. There is a smaller mural above the sidewalk on the building showing Milk looking down on the street fondly.

A LGBT Walk of Fame was installed in August 2014 with an inaugural 20 sidewalk plaques representing past LGBT icons in their field, who continue to serve as inspirations. The walk is originally planned to coincide with the business district of the Castro and eventually include 500 bronze plaques.

The main business section of Castro St from Market to 19th street were under reconstruction and repaving in 2014 to address a number of neighborhood concerns. The area has heavy vehicular traffic as well as many visitors. As part of the work the sidewalks were widened and new trees were planted. Additionally 20 historical cement etchings covering from the inception to the area being settled to the 2010s sweeping gay marriage movement victories will be installed in September 2014.

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