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The Castro: One Neighborhood, Many Names

by Sean Timberlake

Among San Francisco's rich tapestry of neighborhoods, one particularly colorful patch stands out. Today we commonly refer to it as The Castro, but over the years this chameleon of a community has had many monikers.

For centuries, the gentle slopes leading up to Twin Peaks proved a fertile foraging ground for indigenous Ohlone Indians based in the diminutive village of Chutchui on the shores of a lagoon. In 1776, the de Anza expedition arrived and established the site of the first Mission de San Francisco de Asis, or Mission Dolores, as well as the Presidio. The Mission Trail, which connected the two encampments, intersected existing Ohlone hunting trails at what is now Castro and Market Streets.

In 1846, Jose de Jesus Noe, the last Mexican Alcalde of San Francisco, received as a land grant the sprawling Rancho San Miguel.

Encompassing one-sixth of the current city, it spread more than 4,000 acres down from Twin Peaks and all the way to Daly City. Were his home standing today, it would be near the corner of Eureka and 22nd Streets, straddling the border between The Castro and Noe Valley.



Less than a decade later, ambitious Mormon John Meirs Horner arrived and purchased a broad swath of the rancho. Bounded by Valencia Street on the east, 18th Street on the north, 30th Street on the south, and Castro Street on the west, the parcel became known as Horner's Addition and retains that name today in the city assessor's office. Horner laid out the grid of streets and named many of them after significant Spanish figures and former landowners: JosÈ Castro, JosÈ Antonio Sanchez and, of course, NoÈ himself.

By the 1880s, the city had begun to encroach on the dairy farms that covered the slopes of Twin Peaks. Irish, Scandinavian and German families had begun to buy up the land and build homes, and when the Castro Street segment of the Market Street Cable Railway opened in 1887, Eureka Valley's presence as a true urban neighborhood had been secured. (The valley allegedly gets its name from the north peak of Twin Peaks; the other is named Noe, hence Noe Valley to the south.) By the time the streetcar tunnel opened connecting the western half of the city, the burgeoning scene on Castro Street had become known as "Little Downtown."

Throughout the majority of the 20th century, Eureka Valley remained a quiet, working-class

area. But more often than not, locals referred to their location by parish, so you'd more likely hear that they lived in Most Holy Redeemer. In the '60s and '70s, as blue collar families fled the cities to the suburbs, many gays and lesbians filtered in, buying up property at relatively low prices. The complexion of the neighborhood changed rapidly, and the strip of businesses along Castro became known as Castro Village -- establishing itself as a counterpart to New York's Greenwich Village -- and eventually just The Castro.

An area this broad and rich of course has more than one identity. Duboce Triangle, Mission Dolores, and Dolores Heights all either overlap or lie within the boundaries of the district. Other unofficial, tongue-in-cheek names include Safeway Heights, referencing the ubiquitously visible landmark sign; and the Swish Alps, inspired by the density of gay and lesbian denizens in the slopes above Castro Street.

Historic photo reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library

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Work crew posing for a picture at 250 Douglass Street, home of Alfred "Nobby" Clarke. You can still see this building on City Guides Castro: Tales of the Village tour.

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