ST Life!: Colourful Castro centre

23 June 2009
Straits Times Life!

Colourful Castro centre
By yong shu hoong, in san francisco

castro_life1Acclaimed film-maker Alfred Hitchcock once described San Francisco as ‘a good location for a murder mystery’.

So it is no wonder he set several of his famous thrillers, such as Vertigo (1958) and The Birds (1963), in San Francisco and its Bay Area.

More recently, San Francisco’s iconic landmarks, in particular, the Golden Gate Bridge, have popped up in Hollywood movies, such as the animated feature Monsters Vs Aliens and the fantasy film Land Of The Lost.

On a more serious note, the 2008 Oscar winner Milk, director Gus Van Sant’s biopic of slain politician Harvey Milk, was also filmed on location in San Francisco.

In the film, lead actor Sean Penn turned in an Oscar-winning performance as the first openly gay man in the United States to be elected into public office.

castro_inset1In 1978, within the same year of being sworn in as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Milk was assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White.

Popularly known as ‘the Mayor of Castro Street’, his name is linked irrevocably with the neighbourhood where he once lived and worked.

The Castro District is one of the best-known gay neighbourhoods in the world. The area, which has been gentrified over the years, also attracts tourists because of its Spanish colonial architecture and thriving nightlife, which includes bars and restaurants.

Easily accessible by public transport from other parts of San Francisco, this lively area is centred around Castro Street, lodged between Twin Peaks and the Mission District.

castro_inset2From the Union Square vicinity or Fisherman’s Wharf, the best way to get there is to take the historic streetcar service’s F line.

Running on rails and powered by electricity, these brightly painted vintage cars charge US$1.50 (S$2.20) for adults. Effective from July 1, this will be increased to US$2 – still a bargain, compared to US$5 per ride on the touristy cable cars.

If you are lucky, you will find yourself in a particularly charming streetcar model, adorned with dainty ceiling lamps and polished wooden benches.

While the route along Market Street may not be entirely picturesque, the trip is certainly filled with character as the streetcar passes by the ornate Orpheum Theatre, the Beaux Arts style City Hall and the Mission District, which is home to residents of predominantly Mexican or Latin American descent.

You will not miss the Castro as it is the last stop on the line. Also, you will begin to see rainbow flags (a symbol of pride for the gay community) fluttering from lamp-posts, restored Victorian homes and storefronts as you approach your destination.

And you definitely will not miss the giant rainbow flag flying high over the neighbourhood atop a 21m-tall pole erected at the Castro Street station of the Muni Metro light-rail system.

castro_life2A small plaza, near the southern entrance of the subway station, was renamed Harvey Milk Plaza in 1985. Its lower level has a small exhibition of photos and information about the politician’s life and achievements.

Built in 1922, the Castro Theatre (429 Castro Street) is another famous landmark, with its prominent neon signage and a baroque facade inspired by a Mexican cathedral.

The theatre, which can seat about 1,400 people, features a diverse programme of film festivals, revival classics such as Black Narcissus (1947), as well as more contemporary fare such as the new Pixar animated feature, Up. A minor institution at this popular arthouse venue are sing-along screenings of musical films such as Mama Mia!, which attract an enthusiastic audience who will dress to the theme and belt out songs lustily.

Another historically significant address to check out is 575 Castro Street. This is the original site of Castro Camera, a shop that Milk and his partner, Scott Smith (played in the movie by James Franco), opened in 1972.

The same space is now occupied by Given, a gift shop that has been selling a trendy selection of furniture, fashion accessories, books and home decor items since 2007.

For a brief period in January and February last year, the space morphed into its former Castro Camera incarnation for the filming of Milk.

According to Given’s owner Nick Romero, a 20-man crew took only 48 hours to redecorate the space and recreate 1970s Castro Camera.

Given is decorated with Milk murals. Near the main entrance is one, accompanied by his poignant quotation, ‘If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door.’

Another mural of him has been painted on the external wall above the shop where Milk’s apartment was located. His smiling image leans out of a window, clad in a T-shirt printed with his line: ‘You gotta give ’em hope!’

Another attraction is Harvey’s (500 Castro Street), a bar and restaurant tastefully decorated with old photographs of Milk. It serves lunch specials such as chicken sandwiches and turkey burgers.

Today, the Castro is no longer a hotbed of political activism. Its main stretch along Castro Street between 17th and 19th Streets is lined with boutiques, gift shops and restaurants.

And you will also find ordinary people buying groceries, strolling with their dogs and going about their daily lives.

If you want to stay the night in this district, the Parker Guest House at 520 Church Street ( is a bed and breakfast where regular rates for a double room start from US$139 per night and at Inn On Castro on 321 Castro Street (, rates start from US$125.

A better bet is to stay elsewhere in San Francisco, since public transport is convenient and there are more accommodation choices and deals in other parts of the city.

A comfortable yet centrally located hotel to consider is Hotel Vertigo at 940 Sutter Street (, which opened in February after a US$5-million revamp.

Nestled in lower Nob Hill, it is near theatres and Union Square shops.

castro_inset3What is more intriguing: This 1920s building is the site of Empire Hotel, which was immortalised by Hitchcock when he chose it as the place of residence for Kim Novak’s on-screen persona in Vertigo.

With online rates starting at around US$100, the boutique hotel boasts 102 guestrooms featuring wall art that pays tribute to designer Saul Bass’ signature ‘swirl’ symbol on the movie’s poster.


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