(Castro, by Edward Rong, 2012)
In this visual analysis, I attempt to compare the differences in perceptions and representations of homosexuality in two of the “symbolic gay neighborhoods”: Castro district of San Francisco and Greenwhich Village of lower Manhattan, New York City. The urban neighborhood of Greenwich Village and Castro represents “a vision and a directive to people in pursuit of the gay imaginary”1. These places are the most desirable destinations for gay and lesbians in the country, who are looking for “others who occupy the categories ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’” and “the escape from surveillance into freedom” 2.
The development of the Castro started in the 1940s. During World War II, thousands of gay soldiers were discharged by the military for homosexuality and released to San Francisco. Rather than going back to where they were originally from, a lot of them chose to stay. As gay culture became more accepted among people, tens of thousands of lesbians and gay men moved to major urban areas across the nation, among other metropolitan areas “San Francisco was the premier destination”3. Castro District, an old, quiet Irish working-class neighborhood, was transformed into not only the “unquestionable center of local gay politics”4 (Rubin, p. 107) but also an internationally famous gay enclave in the 1970s, by what Kath Weston called “the Great Gay Migration.”
Castro presents its status in an explicit and visible way, giving people direct visual impressions of the culture in the district. The above image was a snapshot I took in March 2012. The highlighted areas of the image are the two posters of upcoming events. The image is laid out in a symmetrical way. In the back of the image, there is a restaurant. As we can see, rainbow banners are being hung on the lampposts along the street. The rainbow banners along the streets have become the symbolic characteristics of the district.
Imagine walking down 18th street from Castro, gay bars are to be seen along the way, the “Midnight Sun” with its post-modern metallic exterior; “Moby Dick” all kinds of different condoms are put in candy containers. Most of them are closed in the calm and quiet daytime, as if they were storing energy for the wild night. Encountering gay couples with punk or hipster outfits is not strange. Right across the street from Mission High School is the Mission-Dolores Park, where a vast outdoor space is offered to people. It is the most desirable place for gay couples to enjoy the sunshine half-naked.
(Fall at Washington Square Park, Yewen Jin, 2011)
Greenwich Village, referred as the Village by New Yorkers, is the iconic outsider neighborhood between midtown and the financial district. It has been New York’s home for counter-culture, gay liberation, and artistic inspiration. Greenwich Village is the center of gay and lesbian culture in the city. It inhabits famous gay bars such as the “Stonewall” and “Alex in Wonderland.” During the 1960s, the Stonewall riots and the following protests were seen as the “catalyst of the Gay Rights movement in the United States”5; the role of NYU’s Weinstein hall in response to the discriminatory polices the school held toward gay, attracted famous activists such as Sylvia Rivera to come and hold public teach-ins.6
The above image features fall at the heart of Greenwich Village, the Washington Square Park. The image portrays a sense of peacefulness, which signals the coming of winter. The image displays different levels of perspectives: in the front is a circle at the center of the park; further in the middle captures people walking on the path paved with yellow leaves under the tree shade; buildings in Beaux-Arts style are seen in the back of the image. The yellow and brown from the trees enhances the presence of fall. Compared to the explicit visual demonstrations of Castro, Greenwich Village does not exhibit any symbolic or indicative element of homosexuality, rather, it presents a scene of conservative, fast-pace metropolitan life.
Exploring Washington Square Park and its surrounding neighborhoods is a different experience. White and purple flags of NYU are hanging in the air. Cars are honking and cutting in order to get their ways around the concrete jungle. People in suits and ties walking in and out of Astor Palace Station on their phone holding a cup of Starbucks are the most common scene.
I conclude that the difference in the representation of homosexuality between the two neighborhoods is generated by the cultural differences between the locations. The leisure and more opened homosexual culture at Castro are related to its physical position, which Rubin describes as “far away from the centers of retail power, finance and redevelopment”7. With a relatively slow pace of life, gay and lesbian are able to develop and pursuit lifestyles that are more casual and self-oriented. It is rather hard for gay and lesbian to live in Manhattan. The fast and competitive rhythm of living is putting different kinds of pressures on them. The fear of being judged also plays a role in the environment where business-professional is the dominant culture.
1. Kath Weston, Get Thee to a Big City: Sexual Imaginary and the Great Gay
Migration, (GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1995), 262
2. Ibid., 265.
3. Ibid., 255.
4. Gayle S. Rubin, Elegy for the Valley of the Kings: AIDS and the Leather
Community in San Francisco, 1981-1996, (The University of Chicago Press, 1997), 107.
5. The Legacy of Stonewall, WordPress.com, Oct 2nd, 2012,
6. Maggie Schreiner, An Army of Lovers Cannot Lose: The Occupation of
NYU’s Weinstein Hall, Dec, 14th, 2011,https://greenwichvillagehistory.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/an-army-of-lovers-cannot-lose-the-occupation-of-nyus-weinstein-hall/
7. Gayle S. Rubin, Elegy for the Valley of the Kings: AIDS and the Leather
Community in San Francisco, 1981-1996, (The University of Chicago Press, 1997), 120.