San Francisco: City of Hope

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In South Florida, our LGBT claim to fame is the Wilton Manors neighborhood, boastfully the largest gay city per capita outside of San Francisco.

During a weeklong trip to the west coast, starting in Los Angeles and driving up the Pacific Coast Highway to the golden city, I had a chance to spend a few days in the city. Sure, Fisherman's Wharf, Haight-Ashbury and the Golden Gate Bridge (a major flop with all the fog) were on the itinerary, but it was important for me to explore one of its more notorious neighborhoods: The Castro.

Named for Mexican revolutionary Jose Castro, a hero of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, Raymond Castro, is also a legendary figure. The city has blossomed from an immigrant neighborhood – Little Scandinavia – to the capital city of the gay civil rights movement.

"A lot of people, especially the young ones, have no inkling what Stonewall is. They think Gay Pride is just a big party," Castro told the New York Daily News before his death in 2010. "None of this would have been possible if it wasn't for 1969."

A giant rainbow flag waves over the intersection at Castro and Market, right next to the infamous Twin Peaks Tavern. Open since 1935, it has been a gay spot since its lesbian owners took over in 1972. Most notable are the floor-to-ceiling windows, telling everyone that the clientele's homosexuality was nothing to hide from at a time when gay bars were still being cracked down on.

Pink Pink Triangle Park

Also at that major intersection, another memorial is in the quest for equal rights. The first memorial of its kind – an unassuming collection of 15 granite posts with pink marble at the top – Pink Triangle Park  remembers the 15,000 gay and lesbians killed during the Holocaust. Though many people are aware of the yellow Star of David patches forced on Jews during the war, homosexuals also had a special patch, a pink triangle. Even though it's at the busy roadway, it's a small area of calm, where pink flowers bloom and a triangle of pink stones lead visitors through the 15 posts, each representing 1,000 killed. Together, the 15 form a larger triangle on the small hillside.

National National AIDS Memorial Grove

The AIDS epidemic, still impacting us today, holds an important part of San Francisco's history and it has not been forgotten. West of the Castro and at the edge of Golden Gate Park is a peaceful grove in honor of those who lost the battle to HIV/AIDS and the heroes of the epidemic in the '80s and '90s, the National AIDS Memorial Grove. An oval pathway leads visitors through a grass clearing surrounded by large trees, purple lupines and other fragrant flowers. Stones bear the names of victims of the crisis, including a large circle filled with names and flowers left by mourners, reminding me of Lennon's memorial at Strawberry Fields in New York City. During my visit, a man sat at a bench near there, head hung low, and recounted his memories of a friend he lost long ago.

My favorite time spent in the Castro was seeing the old camera shop and home of Harvey Milk, known as the "mayor of the Castro" during the civil rights battles of the '70s and the first openly gay politician. Castro Camera has since been converted to a store for the Human Rights Campaign – a pleasant surprise as someone else had told me earlier that it was now a Thai restaurant, something I thought was an tragedy. Inside the shop the walls gave a timeline of San Francisco's tumultuous history and the story of Milk's time as politician and assassination in 1978. Over the store, where he once lived, is a painting on the window of a smiling Milk looking down on the Castro crowd with his infamous slogan on his shirt, "You've got to give 'em hope." The thought that he's still looking down on the city and egging on change is a nice one.

My trip ended in the Little Italy neighborhood at Francis Ford Coppola's restaurant, Cafe Zoetrope, with plates of pasta and glasses of wine to celebrate the end of a trip up the coast. However, long story short, we ended up missing our flight. Apparently, San Francisco wasn't ready for us to leave.

Or maybe it was just me. I'll definitely be back.Christiana Lilly