The city of San Francisco is built upon generations of peoples who have planted roots on unceded Ohlone land. The City and its residents realize the importance of place-making and place-keeping in ensuring that the values and traditions of these cultural communities remain in the fabric of San Francisco. Communities have been engaging their peers long before the Cultural Districts program, but as the program grew, the San Francisco community increasingly embraced and supported the program’s intentions and ability to address the communities’ needs, create long-term investments in historically marginalized communities, and build lasting community visibility in the City. Today, the Cultural Districts use festivals and celebrations, resource fairs and activation events, educational programming, and other events to preserve and strengthen the culture of their communities. We take a closer look at examples of that work being done by some the Cultural Districts.
Remembering our roots
Each year, SOMA Pilipinas hosts the Parol Lantern Festival in celebration of the holiday season, which represents resilience and renewal. In 2021, this event boasted more than 1,500 attendees. The SOMA Pilipinas Cultural District also hosts the Flores De Mayo celebration, a tradition that has been brought over from the Philippines. SOMA Pilipinas has also completed several murals that showcase Filipino families and tradition, including one at 975 Bryant Street that showcases the interconnectedness of everyday Filipino residents in SoMa with their family in the Philippines.
Similarly, the Sunset Chinese Cultural District hosts several events that hold special meaning for the community. The Lunar New Year is celebrated across Asia, and the Chinese celebration lasts 15 days focusing on renewal, happiness, health, and good fortune. Each day of the 15-day festival has traditions rooted in special meanings, from cultural foods to activities to ring in the new year.
The American Indian Cultural District has partnered with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to offer monthly Community Coalition gardening days to provide the community with an opportunity to build a traditional plant garden at Black Point Historic Gardens. They also partnered with the San Francisco Giants and Golden State Warriors for American Indian Heritage Nights. These events have increased ticket access for community members, established a land acknowledgement with both sports teams, increased partnerships, and improved community visibility.
Additionally, the American Indian Cultural District partnered with the San Francisco Unified School District’s Indian Education Program for the annual Wisdom Moving Forward cultural event. This event celebrates student successes while also providing recognition of the community’s elders. As a part of their Indigenize Project , the District focuses on honoring and celebrating American Indian culture by increasing visibility in San Francisco and beyond through videos, murals, walking tours and educational programs.
The Transgender District hosts an annual Riot Party that celebrates the history of transgender people in San Francisco and the Compton Cafeteria Riots This event also serves as a residency program for transgender and non-binary artists. As part of the Trans Empowerment initiative, the District launched the Know Our Place campaign promoting transgender visibility by featuring transgender and gender non-forming models and their stories across the city in public spaces.
Tackling today’s challenges together
As the COVID-19 pandemic reached San Francisco, it disproportionately impacted BIPOC communities. The Cultural Districts program paved the way for the City to quickly get resources to these communities by generating public awareness of the support available, providing food assistance, and distributing PPE.
The SOMA Pilipinas Cultural District, with funding from the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, launched a grocery assistance program that aided seniors and those in strict isolation from COVID-19. As the impacts of the pandemic compounded, SOMA Pilipinas launched various mental health resources, including therapy for Filipino seniors and healing circles. The American Indian Cultural District launched a community ambassadors program to deliver weekly PPE and food to over 35 families in need. Additionally, they distributed information on testing, food access, rental assistance, job placement, and other resources. The Transgender Cultural District, also known as Compton’s Transgender Cultural District, was the first LGBT nonprofit to launch a cash grant program specifically for transgender and non-binary people during the early stages of the pandemic. They successfully provided over 600 direct payments to cover the community’s basic needs, with 54% of participants self-reporting as Black transgender women living at or below the poverty line. On October 7, 202 0 the Transgender Cultural District partnered with the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the Horizons Foundation to provide food, care packages, and COVID-19 testing to over 250 people in the Tenderloin in a span of two hours.
The Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco has a large and thriving Chinese population, which first began to grow after redlining policies finally allowed Chinese residents to purchase land. It was an affordable place for working class families to purchase a home and set roots for future generations. When the COVID-19 pandemic saw a rise in xenophobia and hate crimes against the AAPI community, it grew more imperative to foster and preserve the history and culture of the Sunset’s Chinese American community. The Sunset Chinese Cultural District was officially legislated by the Board of Supervisors in 2021, establishing the first Cultural District in the city’s west side. In addition to nurturing a greater sense of togetherness and pride, the Sunset Chinese Cultural District provided much-needed resources to the community by forming a public-private partnership in early 2022 to provide free public testing for residents. They also partnered with NEMS and Chinese Hospital to distribute more than 2,000 rapid COVID-19 tests during the Lunar New Year celebration, AAPI Heritage Month, and the Autumn Moon Festival.
In 2022, when cases of Mpox – a virus that presents with flu-like symptoms and rashes that could be fatal if left untreated – were first confirmed in the U.S. and began to rise throughout the country, San Francisco knew the importance of a broad and rapid response to prevent its harmful spread. The San Francisco Department of Public Health partnered with the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District to distribute doses of vaccines at the 2022 Folsom and Bearrison Street Fairs. They also hosted four “pop-up” events throughout September and October 2022 in Eagle Plaza – a public space in Western SoMa dedicated to the Leather & LGBTQ community. The information and resources that was shared widely, with help from the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District and other community leaders and groups, ultimately prevented a huge Mpox outbreak in San Francisco.
The Cultural Districts continue to play an active role in providing crucial resources to their communities, especially in times of great need. There is no doubt that many lives have been positively impacted, if not saved, through the Districts’ ability to understand and reach those in need.
Investing in communities
Districts also serve as channels for economic investment for cultural communities and ethnic groups that have been historically discriminated against, displaced, and oppressed. They embrace an array of programs focusing on professional development and supporting culturally significant small businesses.
The American Indian Cultural District (AICD) has two student interns: one focused on public policy and historical research for the CHHESS Report and the Historical Archive Project, and a second focused on the District’s Community Voices initiative and general community outreach. To further support the community, AICD partnered with the San Francisco Office of Workforce and Economic Development (OEWD), the Native American Health Center, and several other organizations to launch the American Indian Workforce Development Initiative. This initiative provides resume-building workshops, professional development courses, opportunities for careers in tech, as well as funding for partial tuition and fees for vocational training programs.
AICD also coordinates community events to support culturally significant small businesses along the 16th Street and Mission Street corridors. One of their events is called, Calle Limpia Corazón Contento, which translates to “Clean Street Happy Heart” and was a joint effort with the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, during which volunteers clean storefront corridors and receive food from the businesses they’re assisting. AICD also partnered with Mission Loteria a ‘shop local’ initiative to support small businesses impacted by the construction of the 16th Street Improvement Project. Mission Loteria 16th street expansion also included four new icons representing the American Indian community. The artwork was developed by a local American Indian youth.
The Transgender Cultural District facilitates the Social Justice Fellowship program, providing professional development opportunities to transgender individuals who face multiple barriers to accessing long-term employment. This program offers a $3,000 monthly stipend to three individuals for six months, with six fellowship cycles per year. Throughout the fellowship, participants learn soft and hard skills while shadowing other transgender individuals in a professional setting.
Additionally, at the end of 2020, the Transgender Cultural District partnered with GoPaladin and Code Tenderloin to launch the Entrepreneurship Accelerator pilot program which provides business classes, business tax filing assistance, website creation support, and a $10,000 seed grant to support each participant’s project launch. The Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District hosts a similar entrepreneur program, which involves a nine-week training program that provides up to ten entrepreneurs with essential business skills, consultations, permitting assistance, and a $900 stipend for their business that serves the community.
The Sunset Chinese Cultural District supports its small businesses while emphasizing the importance of connecting existing merchants’ associations with Chinese-owned businesses to combat existing language barriers. In 2022, they brought back the annual Sunset Autumn Moon Festival. Instead of soliciting food vendors for the event, the Sunset Chinese Cultural District distributed more than 1,000 vouchers for 20 family-friendly small businesses along the Irving Street merchant corridor to encourage participants to spend time in the community.
Each Cultural District has its own priorities and needs, and while only a handful of highlights were mentioned here, each district continues to support the purpose of the Cultural Districts Program through countless community events and programs. Together, Cultural Districts serve residents in need, create long-term community-based investments, and build a better, healthier, safer, and more joyous San Francisco.