On September 11, 2014, a crowd of around fifty people filled the San Francisco GLBT History Museum’s exhibition room to talk about one of the most divisive political issues in the city. The opening night of The G-Spot: Gentrification, Transformation and Queer San Francisco marked the first of several community seminars and art programs planned to take place over the next six months. Co-curated by Nan Alamilla Boyd, Raquel Gutiérrez, and Don Romesburg, the series is designed to complicate the way queerness figures in the discourse on gentrification by situating contemporary debates within legacies of struggle.
The theme of the first session – “Homelands and Safe Space” – brought the politics of history to the fore. Over the past decade, the Castro has become increasingly legible as a significant site of LGBTQ history. The city-funded “Castro Street Improvement Project” recently installed commemorative plazas, plaques, and rainbow crosswalks to celebrate the neighborhood’s prideful past. At the same time, evictions in the Castro hit a 12-year high as swarms of real estate speculators purchased multi-unit rental buildings to convert into condos and sell for tremendous profits. Many non-property owning residents have been displaced, including LGBTQ seniors and people living with AIDS. In this context, how San Francisco’s LGBTQ history gets told is a vibrant point of contention. Embedded in these debates and coupled with a provocative set of readings – a primary source from the Advocate, an interview with Lenn Keller, and an academic analysis by Christina Hanhardt – the “G-Spot” curators set out to probe the history of political organizing both for and against the creation of The Castro as a neighborhood, a homeland, a commons, and a commodity.
To start, Alamilla Boyd, Gutiérrez, and Romesburg positioned this historical work as part of a shared concern over gentrification. Curators encouraged the crowd to think of both the GLBT Historical Society and the neighborhood itself as a commons, one that is produced as a vital political space through this kind of collective inhabitation and rigorous critique. They also asked us to acknowledge that the intersections of queerness and gentrification are pervasive and deeply felt by everyone in the room, regardless of how long they have lived in San Francisco. With a commitment to allow for disagreement with respect, the group discussion began. Alamilla Boyd read four questions aloud:
What are the legacies of struggle in this space?
Why is it important to remember them?
How can we problematize notions of “safety” and “homeland”?
What is the promise of freedom and how does it circulate?
The questions hung in the air for a moment. “Struggle?” one person asked, “I thought we were, like, the problem.”
Responses were tentative at first, and drew heavily from the narratives that have often framed the history of the Castro. A few members of the crowd described how gay men in the 1970s moved into an abandoned, decaying neighborhood and refurbished cheaply purchased Victorians. They recounted that owning, rather than renting, became an unprecedented source of political power, which was used to cultivate a safe, gay friendly, economically thriving neighborhood.
But this version of the story did not sit well with everyone in the room. The place that later became the Castro was not an empty container waiting to be filled and refurbished. Some people asked us to remember that “bad neighborhood” is a racialized and classed concept, and that characterizing the area as “abandoned” erases the diverse communities that were living there. Others described the conventional narratives about gentrification as frustratingly ahistorical. “It’s like life began in the 1970s,” one participant lamented, as if the forces at play did not precede or extend beyond this one particular frame.
Across the intergenerational, multiracial, and gender diverse crowd, many people shared that they did not feel at home in the predominantly white, middle-class, cisgender, gay, male spaces that dominate the Castro. Drawing from the assigned readings and personal experiences, the group discussed how the rhetoric of “safe space” had a violent history that amplified the logics of capitalism, propertied citizenship, and white supremacy. Furthermore, the crowd argued, such homogenizing notions of community also fail to account for political dissent. Alongside critiques of LGBT conservatism, participants were eager to point out that there were – and still are – queer folks working in solidarity with anticapitalist, antiracist, abolitionist, transnational, decolonial, and feminist movements. To illustrate, some recalled Hanhardt’s discussion of neighborhood politics in the 1970s, when activists with a liberationist ethos, who were suspicious of institutions and single-issue politics, split from those who were prioritizing safety.
Bringing the conversation into the present, a member of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLAC) recounted their group’s recent occupation of a Bank of America branch to protest foreclosures and predatory lending practices. Another woman shared that queer anarcha-feminists and housing justice activists had playfully and disobediently intervened in the Pride Parade last year, blockading Google’s World Cup-themed float – “to connect issues of gentrification and evictions in the Bay Area with the violent displacement of Brazilians who live in the Favelas” – and staging “die-ins” along the route. With these anecdotes, and many others, the politically diverse and amorphous “LGBTQ community” could be seen as both fostering and resisting contemporary urban transformations in complex and contradictory ways. It quickly became clear that thinking about gentrification only as either a natural part of urban change or a product of individual intention would not suffice. We could not talk about displacement without talking about systemic racism and structural issues such as regional planning, tourism, and the effects of neoliberal governing policies like corporate tax breaks and Proposition 13 Moreover, this was not a new problem, unique to the Castro, San Francisco, or California. We had to think bigger.
By routing the discussion through legacies of resistance, the “G-Spot” event cultivated space to think more complexly about how we go about narrating, negotiating, and confronting the social violence of economic transformation. Surrounded by archival objects, didactically displayed, the discussion unfolded as a collective dismembering of the scripts that have been imprinted on the Castro, on queerness, and on how we think about change over time. No single narrative was able to settle as an uncomplicated truth. Through this disarticulation of terms, gentrification emerged not as a logical inevitability but as an immanent site of struggle.
Megan Martenyi is an MA student in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University. Her research hovers around archivization, theories of difference, and the politics of interpretation. She works in the San Francisco Public Library.
The G-Spot is holding events through March of 2015:
October Programs: Queers, Redevelopment, and Racial Displacement
Thurs October 16, 7-9:00 PM
ARTS Program: “Take This Hammer” (45 mins) “Viva 16” (30 mins) with with Raquel Gutiérrez, facilitator
November Programs: Gay Tourism, Urban Development
Thurs Nov 13, 7-9:00 PM
IN CONVERSATION: Jon Ballesteros, SVP of Public Policy, San Francisco Travel Board; Brian Basinger, AIDS Housing Alliance
Thurs Nov 20, 7-9:00 PM
ARTS Program: Raquel Gutiérrez and Eric Stanley in Dialogue with Constance Hockaday
December Programs: GLBT People and the Machine
Thurs Dec 4, 7-9:00 PM
IN CONVERSATION: Gabriel Haaland, SEIU Local 1021
January 2015 Programs: Neighborhood Turf Wars and Questions of Territory
Thurs Jan 8, 7-9:00 PM
IN CONVERSATION: Anna Conda, Harvey Milk Democratic Club; Maria Poblet, Causa Justa
Sat Jan 24, 3-5:00 PM
ARTS Program: Valencia Street Was Queer: An Interactive Walking Tour: Michelle Tea, Vero Majano, others TBA
February 2015 Programs: Queers Against Gentrification
Thurs, Feb 5, 7-9:00 PM
IN CONVERSATION: Tommi Avicolli Mecca, San Francisco Housing Rights Committee; Christina Hanhardt, University of Maryland
Saturday, February 28, 4-10 PM
ARTS Program: Pop-Up Gay Bar: Ghosts of Gentrification Pub Crawl
March 2015 Closing Event: Open Forum on the GLBT Historical Society’s Role in Gentrification Issues
Thurs Mar 12, 7-9:00 PM
IN CONVERSATION: Nan Alamilla Boyd, Raquel Gutiérrez, Don Romesburg
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