Halloween in the Castro

1st November 2006

We spent Halloween in the Castro, which is one of my favorite things to do ever. We’ve been traveling a lot, so we haven’t been in a few years, and I’m always disappointed to be away on Halloween night. This year, we went with a group of friends, and had a lot of fun, but the vibe was incredibly different.

Usually, it’s just a big block party with hordes of fun gay people in outrageous costumes, and swarms of fun straight people in outrageous costumes. Everyone’s drunk and dancing and flirting with each other, and the police are mostly there to help out if some hostile weirdo starts a bar fight or if someone falls down and cuts themselves. Boy, have things changed.

First, there were police everywhere, and you had to pass through alcohol and weapons checkpoints to even get into the neighborhood. And the cops weren’t getting into the spirit by being friendly and celebratory like usual, they were kind of grim and poised for action. Which made everyone feel, you know, grim and poised for action.

This, combined with the unusual enforcement of open container laws, made for an unexpected tension. Only about thirty percent of people were even in costume, and the crowd wasn’t gay enough, friendly enough, or fun enough to have been predominantly San Franciscans. It felt like someone flew in and air-dropped a different city right on top of Halloween.

We had a great time because we arrived early, and stuck mostly to the edges, hanging out with people who were there to have fun. For the first time, though, I felt wary all night. I attributed it to the combination of complete sobriety and protectiveness over the baby, but I realize now that it was just a different crowd.

We popped into Lucky 13 to get drinks and use the bathrooms, and left about an hour later, right as ten people were injured by gunfire a block away from where we were. Gunfire on Halloween.

I hate to say it, because Halloween in the Castro is one of the things that makes San Francisco more fun than other cities, but I don’t think I’ll go again. It’s not safe, and it’s not about hanging out with the neighbors anymore. Halloween has become the violent Fisherman’s Warf of holidays.

Next year, let’s have a hometown costume parade the Saturday before — one that starts early enough that people with guns don’t feel like getting out of bed for it. I’ll bring the Bloody Marys.

32 thoughts on “Halloween in the Castro

  1. MaggietheKat

    I went on Saturday night this year. Much smaller scale (only 1 street blocked off) and it had the feel that Halloween used to 4 years ago. EVERYONE was in costume and there was lots of gayness. My favorite costume was 10 men dressed as the women from deal or no deal. They all had on identical dresses and brief cases with numbers on them. Let’s just hope Bay to Breakers doesn’t end with bloodshed.

  2. waywardgoddess

    I grew up in Chapel Hill, NC. We had Halloween on Franklin Street. It sound a lot like what you are talking about. Growing up it was awesome. There were fun people just out to have a good time. The police closed off the street to traffic and just kinda let us do our thing.
    Anymore though, we’ve experienced the same shift. Weapons checks!?! Weapons! It’s not fun or safe anymore. I grew up on that street, and now…no way my kids would be on it after dark (and only during the day if I was with them)

  3. laurie

    Sometimes I feel really old when I say things like, “Wow, the world has changed,” but the evidence can be overwhelming. Your parade idea is a nice alternative, but too bad you have to have one!

  4. Kat

    I heard on the news this morning that they figure 90% of the people in the castro last night were not from the neighborhood and that 80% were most likely not from San Francsico. Glad I opted out.

  5. seejanemom

    I think a switch inside you gets flipped when you are pregnant. Like someone sneezing. Never bugs you when you are childless, then suddenly everyone around you must have Bird Flu.

  6. Jonathan

    Gunfire seems to have been the finale for Halloween parties the world over – there was a gunfight in London last night that started in a nightclub. Apparently some poor teenager got shot in the head.

  7. Kate

    I love the Deal or No Deal costume idea. That’s awesome!

    This is my third Halloween since moving to the Bay Area and I still haven’t made it to the Castro. My husband went the first year we were here with a bunch of his friends, and he was pretty bored by it. I guess that not being big party people might have something to do with that…

  8. halloweenlover

    The unsafeness thing makes me so sad! Growing up in sf, we used to go trick or treating in Castro when we were kids. It was the most fun, because EVERYONE dressed up. The only bad part was that occasionally we’d see a crazy naked person, and you probably want to avoid that for your 8 year old, but it was still fun.

  9. Jill

    In my neighborhood of Commercial Drive in Vancouver they block of the street and have a parade at night. AKA: The parade of lost souls. http://www.publicdreams.org/event_details.html?day=28&month=10&year=2006

    It used to be really small and snake down the back alleys and last year they cancelled it because 20 000 people showed up, but this year it was on and the Drive was blocked off for it.

    It is sad how the bad apple can spoil the whole barrel though. Or a pack of bad apples.

  10. Kung Foodie

    It was actually about four years ago that things started getting bad for Castro Halloween. That was the year I went and there were multiple stabbings, people throwing bottles at fire engines and police, etc, etc. It was such a bad vibe and it was quite obvious to my friends and I that most of the people there were young kids from other cities. Riot swat teams ended up having to clear the streets.

    Until I hear things have drastically changed I won’t go back. It was that horrible and uncomfortable. I think things would be a lot more chill if there was an early evening parade and no street entertainers.

    Thankfully there are still a lot of other wonderful SF events that still have the neighborhood feel.

  11. amy.leblanc

    yeah, the REAL “halloween in the castro” is always the saturday before or closest to halloween, regardless of date. when 10/31 falls on a tuesday all you get are tourists. i read somewhere that they estimated 80% of the people last night were B&Ts and not residents, although i have no idea where they get those numbers. it’s really sad that such a friendly community event is now marred by violence. the greater SF Bay Area is growing rapidly, and i think this is a sign of the times an the end of the “smaller city” feel that SF used to have.

  12. April

    That’s a bummer. I had a similar bummed feeling last night in Athens, GA when I went out to Krush Girls, a long-standing dance party here. It’s not that I didn’t feel safe–on the contrary, town feels a bit cleaned-up–but the crowd was just so young! I think the college freshmen still feel self-conscious when they go out, and the dancing suffered as a result. Nobody was bringing it. I barely worked up a sweat. Lame.

    Happy Halloween anyway!

  13. Phc

    Aw, next year you can hit up one of the neighborhoods (Noe or Potrero, to name a few- I’m sure there’s more) with your munchkin for the kid parade. The kids are so freakishly cute that it makes you forget all about the Castro…

  14. Nancy

    Yup, the outer reaches of Toronto suburbia erupted in gunfire last night as well. Five teenagers were wounded.

    This world makes less and less sense every day.

  15. bellacantare

    Glad I had my Castro fun while I was in college. The last year I went was the year after I graduate when the stabbings happened. Very scary, and now will never go again.

    But, OH, what FUN (drunken, blurry) memories of Halloween in the Castro!

  16. Joe

    I sat in a chair on our front entry with a glass of beer and listened to the chatter ot hundreds of little kids frantically searching for candy. I’ll always miss living in the city but at that moment I felt very fortunate to be raising our family in a safe neighborhood.

  17. Alena

    That’s so sad.. I, too, have exceedingly fond memories of partying in the Castro on Halloween. Totally fun atmosphere, crazy costumes.. it was definitely the place to be!

  18. jen

    i heard about the shootings – glad you are safe and sound…what a ride it used to be there, wasn’t it? i can’t find the same magic anymore and i miss that.

  19. Elimona

    Glad to know I’m not the only one who had a negative experience in the Castro on Halloweens present and past. I went when I was a teenager (with my entire family, actually!) and had a wonderful time, but the last time I went was 5 years ago – had an experience similar to what people are talking about here (enormous, oppressive crowds, violence, drunken straight people taking off their clothes, tourists galore) and have not gone back since. I look forward to going on a Saturday some year in the future now that I know that’s the “real” party. Glad that some traditions can still live on, even if they change a little bit.

  20. Dea

    I was there last night too, and it was surreal. I’ve never been before, (seeing as I have just moved here from Calgary) but it reminded me of the Red Mile when The Flames were trying to get the Cup in ’04, except last night there were costumes… and people were shot….

  21. Regina Clare Jane

    What is it with people and guns?! I hate that… it’s a holiday, you weirdos! No wonder the cops were tense. I am sorry it wasn’t what it used to be but then again, nothing is…

  22. Trasi

    I think that’s happening everywhere – I live in Austin, and our “6th Street” was always blocked off and everyone came out in outlandish costumes, most especially the gay crowd, they are so creative (not to generalize, but just sayin’). Straight people are creative too, get off me. :-)
    But, I have heard of the same sort of police lock-down scene here too – due to riotous behavior and so on. I haven’t been in about 5 years either, due to pregnancy and child, but just knowing it was down there and how fun my town was gave me a sense of rightness with the world. Now that it’s gotten so micro-managed out of necessity, I don’t feel that anymore. Thankfully we went trick-or-treating in a South Austin neighborhood with friends and it was just as I remembered it as a child. Except people decorated the shit out of their homes, which they didn’t do when I was a kid. But I didn’t worry about poisonings or any of that garbage. The strangest thing we received was a ziploc bag with a tiny plastic cross in it, and a little message from the Bible. I guess that was someone’s personal statement about the heathen nature of Halloween! REPENT you little girl dressed up as a fairy shouting “trick or treat!”

  23. Ariel

    Check out Halloween on Belvedere Street next year with the wee one. It’s kid-friendly and hilarious for adults (even those of us without kids), and I guarantee there will be no gunfire. Just thousands of kids roaming the street enjoying elaborately decorated garages, spooky sound effects, front-window puppet shows, and movies being projected into the street. FUN! Not a lot of drunken dancing, though, if that’s what you’re looking for.

  24. CrankMama

    Nothing that exciting happening up here in wee Bellingham…

    But perhaps next year you can take around your new little pumpkin? That will be fun (esp if you get some Bloody Marys first)

  25. Pamela

    All those nice, intelligent police officers grim, poised and ready for action, couldn’t even pat down the gun-wielding, bad-guy partiers well enough to prevent guns past the checkpoints. How effective was that? Could it mean that grim, poised-for-action police officers may sometimes actually incite violence?

  26. Mary Tsao

    Glad you didn’t find yourself in the middle of something awful, although the realization that your city (The City) is changing can also be awful.

    It sounds like you’ve been in the past and had a lot of fun, and I have, too. I’m glad that my memories of Halloween in the Castro aren’t tainted by the current issues of violence and hatred(?) I don’t know the story or details behind what occurred other than the typical “they say it was gang related” excuse. It does seem a shame that something that once was so wonderful and beautiful might end up just a memory or the subject of a documentary.

  27. Nora

    The Castro Halween this year was odd. I live in the neighborhood, and once I’d submitted myself to search on the way in and dodged crowds of rowdy teens (who seem to be around a lot this year, not just on major holidays) and tourists, I just wanted to stay in. Plus the vegan candy corn I ate at work made me sick.

    But Saturday! My favorite costume was probably the ten-or-so men dressed up as a 1960’s airplane crew — pilots, ground crew, and a leigion of stewies calling, “buh bye now, buh bye,” into the night.

  28. Anna

    The same thing started happening here in Madison, Wisconsin (yes, the heartland, and one of the most liberal cities in the Midwest) with the annual Halloween fun on State Street.

    About five years ago, the rioting started after the bars closed, and the drunken idiots started getting belligerent, breaking windows and starting fires. For a few years, the city has been trying to figure out a “safe” way to celebrate Halloween, and this year’s answer was to completely block off the street from cross-traffic and sell tickets to keep out the riff-raff. In a sense, it worked, but it still isn’t the same as it used to be–just fun, with people enjoying everyone else’s costumes.

    And I completely resent the pregnancy comment. It doesn’t take pregnancy to realize things aren’t safe.

  29. whitney

    Hi Maggie, you don’t know me but I own your book – and I write rookiemoms.com. I have been using the book as inspiration and recently posted about missing the pre-baby Castro days… as a confession.

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