An overview of the San Francisco Cultural Districts program

The rich history and cultural communities of San Francisco (the “City”) make it the world-class city and county that it is today. The City serves as a homeplace for sanctuary and cultural pride, where justice and innovation are born.

Cultural heritage conservation in Western societies focuses on extending the life of cultural narratives, values, and significance by preserving historical artifacts and property and integrating them into contemporary life. More recently, cultural heritage conservation efforts have expanded to include intangible elements such as traditional practices, cuisine, art forms, and events that make an area culturally significant. This also means being inclusive of marginalized communities whose cultural contributions were not previously recognized by the City.

In 2018, following widespread community support and advocacy, the Board of Supervisors adopted legislation establishing the San Francisco Cultural Districts program. They defined a Cultural District as “a geographic area of location within the City and County of San Francisco that embodies a unique cultural heritage because it contains a concentration of cultural and historic assets and culturally significant enterprise, arts, services, or businesses and because a significant portion of its residents or people who spend time in the area or location are members of a specific cultural, community, or ethnic group that historically has been discriminated against, displaced, and oppressed.” The program reflects the holistic nature of what makes an area culturally significant.

As with any City program, it is important to have a clear vision and function. The purpose of the Cultural Districts program, as outlined in the legislation, is to formalize a collaborative partnership between the City and communities. Through the Cultural Districts, the program aims to bring resources and other support to stabilize vulnerable communities facing or at risk of displacement or gentrification. It also works to preserve, strengthen, and promote cultural assets and diverse communities so that individuals, families, businesses that serve and employ them, nonprofit organizations, community arts, and educational institutions are able to live, work, and prosper within the City. To accomplish this, the program focuses on three goals:

  • To preserve, strengthen and promote diverse communities’ cultural and neighborhood assets, events, and activities.
  • To celebrate, amplify and support the community’s cultural strengths to ensure immediate and long-term resilience.
  • To streamline City and community partnerships to coordinate resources that stabilize communities facing displacement.

Following the Board of Supervisors’ 2018 ordinance, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition E by a 75 percent majority, allocating approximately $3 million annually from the City’s Hotel Tax Fund to support the Cultural Districts program. The City’s voters recognized the implications of the growing hospitality industry on gentrification and affordability, and voted to preserve the City’s diversity and cultural identities through this strategic stabilization program by providing a resource for sustained funding.

The program coordinates municipal resources between the Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD), Planning Department, the Arts Commission, and the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD). MOHCD’s approach to community development focuses on supporting active, local leadership to maintain the community’s social fabric by and for the people who live, visit, and work there. This framework encourages and enables participatory planning, community building activation, and the strengthening of infrastructure and culture of a community and neighborhood. Importantly, the Cultural Districts program is driven by the idea that solutions developed by the people most impacted by the social inequities are often the most viable and impactful. MOHCD’s approach supports communities in keeping their cultural neighborhoods alive, while letting the Cultural Districts take the lead.

Roadmap for a Shared Community Vision:

Each Cultural District within the City works to address societal issues that span the past, present, and future.

  • The past, by acknowledging and rectifying history by allowing each community to tell its own narrative, and by supporting their leaders and reinforcing cultural traditions.
  • The present, by engaging in landscape analysis, maintaining community cohesion, and responding to the needs of the community while also building out mechanisms for distributing information and resources.
  • The future, by proposing culturally informed recommendations and collaborating with City governmental stakeholders to help strategize, prepare, and implement innovating strategies.

Each Cultural District’s initiating legislation specifically outlines key issues and strategy areas that intersect with place-based cultural stabilization. The departmental partnership and connection to community, as well as community-proposed strategies and recommendations are organized into six primary Policy Strategy Areas which allows to each community to prioritize and interpret which methodologies will be most culturally responsive to their unique situation.

  1. Historic and Cultural Preservation
  2. Tenant Protections
  3. Arts and Culture
  4. Economic and Workforce Development
  5. Place-Keeping and Place Making
  6. Cultural Competency.

One of the first tasks for a Cultural District and City partners is the Cultural History, Housing, and Economic Sustainability Strategies Report (CHHESS). The CHHESS is a legislatively mandated document that provides a shared understanding and strategic vision for the City and community. Each CHHESS Report includes a profile of the neighborhood (past, present, and future), areas of concern/challenges, a community engagement process resulting in a prioritized set of strategies that support the cultural community and cultural district, and a recorded cultural legacy and heritage. The CHHESS report process provides a comprehensive vision for the District based on a set of strategies and recommendations that hundreds of community members report will stabilize and promote their culture.

While the Cultural Districts program is still relatively new in the City, these communities have long existed in San Francisco and have persisted despite changing landscapes and challenges. The City is committed to supporting its Cultural Districts to ensure that San Francisco remains the diverse, culturally rich city that it is. Currently, the Cultural Districts program consists of ten Districts. Those Districts, in order of official recognition by the Board of Supervisors are:

  1. Japantown Cultural District (2013)
  2. Calle 24 Cultural District (2014)
  3. SoMa Pilipinas – Filipino Cultural District (2016) 
  4. Transgender Cultural District (2017)
  5. Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District (2018)
  6. African American Arts & Cultural District (2018)
  7. Castro LGBTQ Cultural District (2019)
  8. American Indian Cultural District (2020)
  9. Sunset Chinese Cultural District (2022)
  10. Pacific Islander Cultural District (2022)
Last updated March 9, 2023