“Walking down a city street, a casual visitor cannot perceive the ghosts that inhabit various sites as businesses change and buildings are razed. Preservation confronts development, and queer history in particular has long been ephemeral. Urban neighborhoods form organic geographic entities, their demographics and social characteristics shifting over time. Economic, gender and ethnic diversity, as well as density and functionality, are subject to continual change for a variety of reasons.”
I wrote the above for “Gayborhoods: Lost Queer Landscapes,” an exhibit I’ve curated as part of all new “Queer Past Becomes Present,” opening in mid-May at the GLBT Historical Society Museum at 18th and Castro. Across the large wall dominating the rear of the gallery I investigate once vibrant, now disappeared neighborhoods of North Beach, the Tenderloin, and the Valencia Street Corridor.
I am fascinated by lost urban environment, constantly curious about what used to be. On a trip to New Mexico many years ago, I became obsessed with Route 66, much to the dismay of my boyfriend. Now, whenever I wonder aloud what the history of a building or site might have been, he teases me by saying “It was part of Route 66!”
One of my favorite books is Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. Published in 1997, Brian Ladd’s thoughtful meditation confronts Germany’s controversial past as it engages in the process of reunification. How have specific buildings been used, how best to acknowledge those uses, mark the memories?
Shimon Attie found a brilliant way to acknowledge the past in his “Writing on the Wall” series of slide projections of pre-war photographs of Jewish establishments onto the same or nearby addresses in 1992. “Fragments of the past were introduced into the visual field of the present. Thus parts of long destroyed Jewish community life were visually stimulated, momentarily recreated.”
Having lived and worked in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood, I am fascinated by its rich history. The African American community, though largely wiped out by “Urban Renewal” is commemorated by the Historic Fillmore Jazz Preservation District, a mere echo of when the neighborhood was known as the “Harlem of the West.” The Japanese community, decimated by removal to relocation camps, is represented by a historic walking tour, Japantown businesses as well as by the Japan Center, constructed in 1968.
I am surprised that nowhere is there any mention of the Jewish community that thrived in the early decades of the 20th Century. The bakeries, delis, schools and synagogues are long gone. A temporary exhibit in 2009 paid homage to the heritage, but even the cell-phone walking tour was short-lived. What would it take to somehow mark this important aspect of this neighborhood’s rich community?
As San Francisco continues to evolve, most recently due to the impact of the technology industry in “Silicon Valley,” it is simplistic to identify these changes merely as “gentrification.” It is important to remember the neighborhoods which remain haunted by the memories of what once was.