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San Francisco

The Castro Street Fair: More Laid Back After All These Years

Editor's note: the following story comes from reporter Alan Toth, a student at UC Berkeley's School of Journalism. You can catch more photos of the fair in our post earlier today


Early rains cast a brief shadow on the 43rd Annual Castro Street Fair on Sunday, where thick crowds clustered at the main hub at 18th and Castro, while at the edges of the festival, revelers were scattered and overall attendance appeared lower than in earlier years, according to many who have watched the festival evolve.

The iconic San Francisco street festival, started by Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1974, has struggled with attendance for several years, said Logan Alexander, vice president of the Castro Street Fair.

Sparse revelers near the main stage at the Castro Street Fair.

“Our biggest challenge is that we’re in direct competition with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass,” said Alexander, speaking in front of a nearly empty main stage and referring to the festival in full swing at Golden Gate Park.

Alexander said that the board’s current goal is to convince people to take time out from that festival, which hundreds of thousands people attend, and spend money with the many non-profit groups and vendors who set-up shop at the Castro Street Fair.

Thick crowds at the center of the Castro Street Fair at 18th and Castro.

Though competition with Hardly Strictly has an effect, Alexander said that the real dip in attendance started during the economic downturn in 2008.

“Now things are picking up, but there’s a different demographic in the city,” said Alexander, “It’s a lot more tech savvy, so there’s a lot of new and old influences that we need to incorporate. It’s a balancing act.”

Around noon, Cheer San Francisco, a charitable cheerleading organization, performed at the corner of 18th and Castro. Their expressions were a mixture of excitement and terror as they stood on the shoulders of fellow cheerleaders, and leapt into the waiting arms of the cheerleaders below.

Topless dancers performed at “Dance Alley” in the parking lot behind Walgreens.

As Cheer San Francisco wrapped up their performance, the spitting rain started to fall in earnest, and revelers ran for cover. The intersection was nearly empty, but for one drunken reveler.

“Oh no! A little bit of rain!” shouted the man as he made a point to walk in the rain.

The lower attendance at the festival was not lost on San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents District 8, which includes the Castro. As Wiener campaigned in front of the Castro Theater, he acknowledged that the event seemed a bit smaller than when he first moved to the neighborhood in 1997.

San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener held court in front of the Castro Theater.

“The neighborhood has been under a lot of pressure,” said Wiener. “People struggle to stay here, but the heart of the neighborhood is alive and beating strongly.”

Jack Mattingly wasn’t so sure. Mattingly, a resident of the Castro, set-up shop at the fair to sell his assemblage art pieces – collage sculptures that look like cast metal. Mattingly has been attending the Castro Street Fair since the 1980’s.

“Back then, there was a lot more community in the Castro. It was like a refuge. Now it’s more of a party.” said Mattingly. “The funky is all gone.”

A handful of older men walked down Castro Street wearing nothing but flip-flops and penis rings. Drag queens staffed a few booths. Some people wore cat ears or bear suits, but elaborate costumes were the exception, and revelers with gray hair were in the majority.

Jack Mattingly, Castro resident, sold assemblage art at the Castro Street Fair.

“My early years at the street fair, I just remember it being wall-to-wall packed. It does seem like it’s a little less crowded than usual,” said Alex Harkin, a board member on the Castro Community Benefit District.

Despite the light traffic at the periphery, the center of the event was packed. There was country-western dancing in the parking lot of the Castro Theater, and topless male dancers at dance alley, behind Walgreens.

There were some young people attending the event for the first time. Numerous strollers – most containing dogs, but some with actual human children – negotiated their way through the crowds.

Compared to the Folsom Street Fair, held one week earlier, the once-edgy Castro Street Fair came off as a bit conservative, even wholesome. But as Jack Mattingly pointed out, “We just don’t need it as much anymore. Gay is mainstream. There’s a Castro everywhere.”

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