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Voices

How San Francisco's queer history can inspire the future of downtowns

VOICES Downtown SF Partnership Drag Me Downtown show
Courtesy Downtown SF Partnership

Learn how celebrating diversity and inclusivity can transform downtown areas into vibrant, welcoming communities, reshaping neighborhoods and fostering connections through events and programming that support local artists and businesses.

San Francisco is known for its diverse and inclusive spirit. Embodied in the idea of "if you build it, they will come," this spirit should guide our efforts to revitalize urban centers. In the wake of COVID-19, with many downtowns facing empty offices and shuttered retail, a silver lining emerges: investing in queer spaces to foster community can breathe new life into these areas. San Francisco exemplifies how creating room for queer communities to express joy and honor their heritage revitalizes downtowns, drawing people back with energy and diversity.

As cities reimagine their urban landscapes, we have a unique chance to embed inclusivity into their design, celebrating a broader spectrum of identities. By centering the needs and stories of diverse communities, we can implement changes that lead to a thoughtful, authentic transformation. This approach will usher in a new era of vibrant, welcoming downtowns ready to thrive in the future.

Recognizing the historical roots of a neighborhood or city is crucial to any revival effort, ensuring that its evolution pays tribute to those who forged its identity and created enduringly safe, inclusive spaces, especially in urban downtowns.

New York City’s Meatpacking District and West Hollywood are some of the most well-known queer-identified neighborhoods on national and international scales. The evolution of districts like Meatpacking – from an open-air produce market in the late-nineteenth century to an industrial meatpacking district in the early twentieth century to a queer club scene in the 1970s – the neighborhood now offers a mix of high-end retail alongside meatpacking plants and thriving queer bars. It’s a prime example of how neighborhoods can transform while still staying true to their roots.

VOICES Downtown SF Partnership Drag Me Downtown showCourtesy Downtown SF Partnership

While celebrating these iconic locales is crucial, it’s equally important to uplift districts with rich, often hidden, queer histories that have long existed but are awaiting greater recognition.

San Francisco’s legacy of embracing queer artists and culture is often epitomized by neighborhoods like The Castro and The Mission. However, lesser-known areas, such as the Financial District and historic Jackson Square, also harbor rich queer histories that deserve recognition. These seemingly conventional districts have long been hidden enclaves for queer creativity, with figures like Frida Kahlo and Allen Ginsberg contributing to their artistic legacy. Downtown San Francisco, often overlooked in this context, has quietly served as a sanctuary for queer expression and innovation.

Acknowledging the long-standing LGBTQIA+ community in downtown San Francisco, which has exerted significant influence not just locally, but also on broader American culture, is essential. Credit is due as the neighborhood navigates recent challenges to reemerge as a destination that welcomes everyone, regardless of their identity.

Establishing a welcoming environment goes beyond just ‘building’ physical spaces. It involves fostering connections through events and programming that bolster local artists and businesses, crucial for nurturing and maintaining a thriving community. Downtown San Francisco is a prime example of how cooperation and collaboration among businesses, nonprofits, and local government can catalyze a transformation, reshaping perceptions of downtown activities.

This month, the Downtown SF Partnership is hosting its second annual free drag show series, Drag Me Downtown, at locations across the district to celebrate Pride Month while supporting the local business community. This year’s series is benefiting San Francisco’s Transgender District, the first legally recognized transgender district in the world. Last year, businesses reported a 40% increase in sales during Drag Me Downtown. The event is a fabulous reminder that all are welcome in downtown San Francisco.

These events highlight the unique venues, establishments, and people that make downtown and San Francisco at large so incredibly special. It truly feels like we are on the brink of a renaissance, with so much potential and creativity waiting to be unleashed. San Francisco has a rich queer history that is woven into the fabric of the city, and even after all these years, we’re still discovering its potential.

VOICES Downtown SF Partnership Drag Me Downtown showCourtesy Downtown SF Partnership

Art and cultural celebrations play a pivotal role in reshaping neighborhood perceptions through accessible, lived experiences. The success of Drag Me Downtown, along with similar well-attended events like Dyke Night in Chicago, demonstrates how investing in queer-centric and coded activities that center marginalized communities is necessary a tactic to revive urban spaces.

Collaboration between businesses, nonprofits and local governments is instrumental in rethinking how to use public space. According to a recent report from Arup and the University of Westminster about queering public space, designing neighborhoods with increased variance and color in mind can contribute to building a sense of belonging while allowing room for natural growth and expression – evident in spaces like The Gayborhood in Philadelphia and Westport in Kansas City.

Local business owners, like Michael Burnes of Kansas City’s Missie B’s, provide invaluable insights into neighborhood dynamics and community needs. Since 1994, Burnes has nurtured Missie B’s as a vital queer safe space, offering everything from energetic dance nights to free meals for the LGBTQIA+ community and support for queer nonprofits. Such contributions are essential for modernizing outdoor spaces that encourage regular community engagement.

The expansion of Portland’s The Sports Bra also underscores the demand for safe, queer-friendly environments, setting a precedent for welcoming similar establishments. As downtown areas evolve from traditional office hubs to lively community hubs, it becomes crucial to create inclusive environments that support both business and community activities. Such neighborhoods must accommodate diverse gatherings and cater to evolving uses to foster broader community engagement.

Bringing life and energy to our workspaces during the day creates opportunities for everyone to come together and celebrate. It underscores the significance of integrating PRIDE throughout our city, ensuring downtown becomes a genuinely inclusive and inviting space for everyone. Organizations like the Downtown SF Partnership, along with community partners and the City, are at the forefront of this transformation, infusing exciting energy into our neighborhood.

San Francisco's leadership in celebrating diversity can set a powerful example for cities nationwide, showing how thoughtful urban planning can create welcoming environments that honor heritage and promote unity. These investments ripple beyond neighborhood borders, weaving a city’s unique culture into a rich, year-round tapestry of experiences for residents and visitors alike.

Robbie Silver is the Executive Director of the Downtown SF Partnership, the community benefit district that encompasses the 43-block Financial District and Jackson Square neighborhood.

D'Arcy Drollingeris San Francisco’s first Drag Laureate and a writer, director, producer and choreographer.

Voices is dedicated to featuring a wide range of inspiring personal stories and impactful opinions from the LGBTQ+ community and its allies. Visit out.com/submit to learn more about submission guidelines. We welcome your thoughts and feedback on any of our stories. Email us at voices@equalpride.com. Views expressed in Voices stories are those of the guest writers, columnists and editors, and do not directly represent the views of Out or our parent company, equalpride.

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