Members of the the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club and other community activists gathered on Mon/18, MLK Day, at the area on the southeast corner of Castro and 18th Street, to post several memorials for recent LGBTQ people who had passed.
The group converged after the traditional sacred mourning space was threatened, when the adjacent Bank of America branch posted signs forbidding the erection of memorials on the site, which had been used for decades to commemorate deaths in the community. (After local reporting from 48 Hills and Hoodline and being contacted by city officials, Bank of America removed the signs, promising to “ensure it remains a memorial.”)
Lee Hepner, treasurer of the Milk Club and legislative aide to Supervisor Aaron Peskin described the action:
On Monday at 3pm, about a dozen Milk Club Members and community leaders including [historian] Gerard Koskovich and [activist] Alex U Inn gathered at Hibernia Beach to defend the site’s historic use by the community against Bank of America’s attempt to privatize and police it. This was accomplished principally by affixing the attached context statement to the angled wall facing the intersection of 18th and Castro.
We also affixed a large banner commemorating the life and legacy of Ken Jones, and tributes. Several folks mused that there should be a permanent plaque marking the significance of this site to the gay liberation movement, the AIDS crisis, and as a living cultural heritage site.
While I think there are better community groups to steward maintenance of the site, I personally can’t think of a better way for the Castro Community Benefit District to use its funds, a good chunk of which come from an annual special property tax assessment against Bank of America.
Senator Scott Wiener and Supervisor Raphael Mandelman both told us that they were working on a solution to the bank’s concerns about regular maintenance of the site, which the branch manager has informally taken on for years. (The bank is closed during the pandemic for a $1.3 million remodel into a “financial center.”)
Besides Ken Jones, a groundbreaking African American queer activist who passed last week, memorials included those to photographer and lesbian archivist H. Lenn Keller, spiritual teacher Shahara Godfrey, and musician Jeffrey Tice, among others. (The Milk Club lost co-founder Terry Henderling in December.)
The posted context statement reads as follows:
This corner of 18th and Castro, with its angled facade and wide sidewalk, has long been used by the LGBTQ community and the Castro neighborhood as a site for civic engagement, cruising, street performance and posting information and informal memorials. Over the decades, the site became known to many as “the center of the gay universe.”
The building standing at 501 Castro St. was built in 1928–1929 as a branch for Hibernia Bank, a financial institution founded to serve San Francisco’s Irish diaspora community in what was then a working-class district. The main entrance to the bank was on the angle facing the corner. Next door on Castro Street was a parking lot.
In 1978–1979, the Hibernia Bank building was extensively remodeled and expanded. In the former parking lot, an addition was constructed with a small plaza leading to the new main entrance. As part of the makeover, a low wall and windows with an ironwork grill replaced the original entrance on the angled corner of the building.
With its highly visible location, the corner became a favorite cruising hangout for gay men on sunny days, earning it the nickname “Hibernia Beach.” The newly enclosed, angled façade became a space where the burgeoning gay community of the Castro posted notices.
The emergence of AIDS in the mid-1980s prompted a further use of the space: displaying informal memorials to those lost to the epidemic. The practice continued as a neighborhood tradition after Bank of America took over the building in 1992. In the subsequent decades, folk memorials in this location have commemorated hundreds of LGBTQ people, as well as significant allies such as Princess Diana in 1997.
Memorials at the site also have marked queer participation in profoundly felt moments of national mourning, including honoring the memory of Matthew Shepard, murdered in an antigay hate crime in Wyoming in 1998, and the victims of the mass killing at the Pulse nightclub in Florida in 2016.
At the same time, both the building façade and the adjacent sidewalk have continued serving as a key site for community outreach. From the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to ACT UP to Queer Nation and beyond, LGBTQ activist organizations have used the site on an ongoing basis for self-expression, information- sharing, protest and celebration.
These significant forms of LGBTQ living cultural heritage merit the strongest protection from erasure by corporate interests. Places are given meaning by the people who gather in them to build and sustain the culture that ties us all together. Such meaning- making is of far greater value than any profit-making. We hereby reclaim this site for the LGBTQ community and our allies.
THIS IS COMMUNITY SPACE.