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Changes come anew to San Francisco Castro District, for better or worse

Changes come anew to San Francisco Castro District
Changes come anew to San Francisco Castro District 03:58

SAN FRANCISCO -- The neighborhood is a symbol of gay freedom known around the world, but like the city of San Francisco, the Castro is changing. Again. 

"If you look, you just see a whole different thing from what the 80's were," observed Harry Breaux, looking at the historical photos just outside the Castro Muni station. "It was kind of a leftover of the hippies. They even have a Volkswagen in this picture."

Castro District
A photo of the Castro District in San Francisco. CBS

In the small plaza that honors Harvey Milk, Breaux can look back on the time when his search for a home landed him in San Francisco. He knew what was unfolding in this neighborhood would change everything.

"That was the symbol of gay freedom to a lot of people," Breaux said. "I mean, you can go anywhere in the world, literally, anywhere in the world, and talk about the Castro in San Francisco. They know what you're talking about."

Almost as quickly as the neighborhood became a global symbol, tragedy followed with an assassination and an epidemic.

"It just wiped us out," Breaux said of the AIDS crisis. There's no way to describe the change that happened during the 80s."

"It must be odd to have the neighborhood literally change out from underneath you," said Brian Springfield, Vice President of Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza. "It is still an LGBTQ neighborhood. But it's not necessarily for the people that live in this neighborhood, it's the people that come to this neighborhood."

Springfield and the Friends are organizing a redesign of Harvey Milk Plaza. They'd like to transform it into a space that better honors the legacy and connects with the site's role as a community gathering space, one thing that has not changed in the past 50 years.

"I think you are seeing the Castro becoming more gentrified," writer Scott James said in a column in 2011, when neighborhood shifts prompted discussion around the country.  "More mixed than it was before," he said.

"This neighborhood is changing," Springfield agreed, more than a decade later. "And sometimes things can change more than is good."

All the change is an endless source of discussion and debate, but there are also countless efforts to keep the neighborhood connected to the past. The Castro is, itself, history.

"I think there are parts of the Castro that are always going to stay the same," offered Terry Asten Bennett, co-owner of Cliff's Variety and longtime neighborhood fixture. "I think it's a place where people come to celebrate and to protest, and to be who they are. But at the same time, some things are going to change. Some for the good, sometimes for the bad."

"Now, a lot of LGBTQ people that come to the Castro don't necessarily live here," Springfield said. "But they still consider it their home, and their safe space. You know, be their authentic selves, and that's what we need because there is work to be done."

"Like, I'm not opposed to straight people," Breaux said of the discussion. "But I do feel a sadness seeing more and more heterosexual couples come in, gentrification of the Castro. But also I realize that gay people don't have to come here anymore because of what we did in the 70s. It was big. It was major."

Breaux likes to stop puzzled-looking tourists and answer questions about the neighborhood's history. As for its future.

"It's going to be what it is," Breaux said of the Castro. "Just like that's what it was then. It wasn't that in the 60s. There was a moment in time, one moment in time, where we got together and said  'No more of what was, we are only going to have what is, and what's going to be.'"

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