“Cultural districts” aim to curb the city’s monstrous gentrification—well-meaning, but are they ultimately powerless?
Downtown San Francisco, loved by cameras, postcards, and blossoming startups alike. It’s all too easy to get swept up by the steep hills, the ringing cable cars, the biting winds from the Pacific. The stark blue sky forces our gaze ever upwards, the seagull’s call. Feet step around the occasional beggar, the thousands on the floor cowering from the year-round cold, and head straight into the shiniest eight-dollar-a-cup coffee shop.
For decades, San Francisco has been sung as the queerest city in the United States. People who identify as LGBTQ flee from their repressive hometowns all over the country in hopes of finding acceptance in this city. But coming here, many find that gender is not the only thing that unjustly marks them. They are also disproportionately marked by one of the nation’s worst homelessness crises.
Aria Said, A black transgender San Franciscan woman says, “As a Black, trans woman as a teenager in San Francisco, I learned very quickly that while San Francisco affirmed me legislatively, socially, I had walked into job interviews and been laughed at. I had been spit on in the street.”
For a city famous for its queer history, little is publicly known about the Compton Cafeteria Riots, the first recorded trans/queer uprising in the U.S. By the time the police came to harass the women at the locals’ favorite Compton Cafeteria in the Tenderloin district, people had long had enough. It started with someone’s coffee being thrown at the police’s face. Then the cafeteria “erupted,” with cutlery, sugar shakers, and entire tables sent flying. A police car was destroyed and a newsstand set on fire. The Riots in San Francisco happened three years before the Stonewall Riots in New York City, despite the latter being more well-known nowadays.
Since then, the Tenderloin has gone through decades of challenge bringing LGBTQ people to the center of public consciousness. While anti-trans discrimination remained strong, living costs steadily went up. Year after year, big tech and small startups expand their bases in the Bay Area, making it near-impossible for anybody with a less-than-software-engineer salary to continue living in their neighborhoods which have been passed down through generations. Currently, San Francisco suffers one of the worst cases of gentrification in the U.S.
Cultural districts in San Francisco operate as geographic microcosms aimed to counteract gentrification. Each district is anointed a legislative supervisor and is granted a fund every year. The district has the full say in how they use their own funding, which amounts to several million dollars annually, covering a total of ten cultural districts.
Many cultural districts fall into the trap of focusing primarily on economic development—this can lead to excessive gentrification rather than tempering it. But “ need to be really able to serve the members of those communities,” says Brian Cheu from San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. To really allow the districts to thrive, activists should focus on “those small businesses, where the owners come from that community, where the employees come from that community.”
Trans activists Aria Said, Honey Mahogany, and Janetta Johnson, alarmed at the rate of gentrification experienced especially in the Tenderloin district, pushed for the establishment of the world’s first cultural district for transgender people. Their work involves “making sure that we are providing them with the opportunities to succeed,” according to Mahogany. Currently, the Transgender District offers housing support for trans people, an accelerator for those who want to start a business, and more.
Last year, the city underwent a tumultuous process of redistricting—a redrawing of district boundaries to ensure each one has a roughly similar population, so that the Board of Supervisors can proportionately represent the city’s population. The most recent redistricting in 2022 was bafflingly controversial for many, not in the least for the Transgender Cultural District, which got split cleanly in two.
Intentionally or not, this “ the door to further cultural erasure and displacement,” explains Jupiter Peraza, director of social justice initiatives at the Transgender District. San Francisco’s “complex bureaucracy” makes it so that “operating within one district makes working with various city departments and agencies easier for small nonprofits.” The road to queer equity is long, still; just as one example, transgender people in San Francisco are 18 times more likely to be homeless than the general population.
Downtown San Francisco is barely reflected in the glamor of the Golden Gate Bridge floating in the fog. Many may be familiar with the 2006 film, The Pursuit of Happyness, which followed the rags-to-riches story of one Salesman portrayed by Will Smith and the city’s honest horrors of “falling through the cracks.” In San Francisco, LGBTQ discrimination is part and parcel of a broader, cruel condition—the disregard for human wellbeing. While grassroots activism grows stronger, its exposure relies on the rest of us looking to our feet.