‘Hibernia Beach’ a memorial valued as an outlet for grief in the Castro

Tony Bravo January 23, 2021 Updated: January 25, 2021 (datebook.sfchronicle.com)

The Hibernia Beach memorial corner is in front of the Bank of America at Castro and 18th streets.Photo: Tony Bravo, The Chronicle

At the corner of Castro and 18th streets, I saw a picture of my neighbor Mark Beale posted on the community memorial wall in front of the Bank of America. It wasn’t just a memorial to his passing last summer, it was also a reminder of how truncated the rituals of grief have become in the past 10 months.

I didn’t know Mark well. We lived in buildings next to each other and occasionally texted each other to search for packages in our apartments’ mail areas. He was a nice guy and a beloved regular at Martuni’s piano bar. Like so many other people he was a thread in the fabric of the queer San Francisco community that helped make the cloth whole. There hadn’t been a public memorial for him, to my knowledge, because of the pandemic ban on gatherings. Seeing his smiling picture affixed to the rail on the Bank of America building at the corner gave me a moment to acknowledge his passing and thank him for his friendliness whenever we ran into each other on our sidewalk.

That’s always been one of the most beautiful, and most difficult, aspects of the “Hibernia Beach” memorial wall: It was sometimes where you learned or were reminded of the deaths of people you knew in the queer community.

A picture of Mark Beale at the Hibernia Beach memorial for members of the queer community.Photo: Tony Bravo, The Chronicle

Since the 1980s, the space below the arched window of the former Hibernia Bank has been a place for Bay Area queers to gather during times of grief. According to scholarship by Gerard Koskovich, once the former entrance to the bank was remodeled and enclosed in the late 1970s, it became a popular place where gay men cruised on sunny days, earning it the nickname Hibernia Beach. The wall and rail on the window also made it an ideal place for posting community notices and handing out political flyers. The corner took on a solemn sense in the 1980s when it became a place to post memorials of people lost to AIDS.

In 1997 Hibernia Beach was seen around the world when major networks carried footage of the memorial to Princess Diana there. Memorials to Matthew Shepard and victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting also attracted large outpourings. According to GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick, many of these memorials are now in their archives.

On Jan. 15, there was concern it would all end.

Bank of America had put up a sign at the corner reading: “Please do not post or affix materials to the fence or building surface.” It was a callous and thoughtless note that brought the ire of the Castro and LGBTQ community upon the bank. After a backlash online, the signs prohibiting posting memorials came down that Saturday. In a statement to Hoodline, Bank of America spokesperson Colleen Haggerty said the bank now knows “the significance and importance of the space and will continue working with the community to ensure it remains a memorial, as it has for decades.”

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club and other activists led an action on the corner where they posted a memorial banner to a collection of late LGBTQ notables — including activist Ken Jones, lesbian archivist H. Lenn Keller, spiritual teacher Shahara Godfrey, drag performer Peggy L’Eggs and musician Jeffrey Tice. When I was there a few days later, the photos were ringed with spider mums, daisies and carnations. Details like that have always made it feel as much like a place of celebration as a space for recognizing loss. No one ever explained Hibernia Beach’s sacred nature to me. I understood it by the way people treated it.

Placing photos of the dead in a spot at the heart of the community has long been an important part of our collective grieving. It’s a way of including the memory of those we’ve lost in the life of the neighborhood, a shouting of their names on that busy intersection where no one could miss them. During a pandemic that has required much of our mourning to be separate from other people, Hibernia Beach is one of the few places where I’ve been able to feel publicly connected to the public grief.

Following the backlash, District Eight Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and state Sen. Scott Wiener both said they are in favor of protections for the site that would allow people to continue to post there.

A distinction like landmark status would be a nice recognition of what this space means to the community, but in some ways it doesn’t matter. The community long ago decided what Hibernia Beach meant. For any plaque they could put there, the sidewalk at that corner is stained with decades of queer tears of loss, remembrance and anger that have compelled people to action. That’s the marker that counts the most.

  • Tony BravoTony Bravo’s column appears Mondays in Datebook. Email: tbravo@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @TonyBravoSF

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