The Castro just lost a big conference in the ten-year-old Lesbians Who Tech summit, but there may be no love lost, as Castro Street merchants had been bitter over how the summit shut down and gated off the neighborhood’s main corridor for five days.
There’s something of a normal script that gets followed when a tech conference leaves San Francisco: The conference announces they’re going to another city, the wealthy CEOs complain about homelessness and drugs, and the SF “doom loop” narrative fires up for another round. But there’s something very different about the just-announced loss of the ten-year-old Lesbians Who Tech Summit, which was traditionally centered at the Castro Theatre, but in recent years had also closed off and gated two blocks of Castro Street, drawing the ire of Castro Street shop owners who say their business was decimated over those five days.
And the Bay Area Reporter had the news last week that Lesbians Who Tech announced the would move the summit to New York City for 2024. That announcement follows the release of a November survey by the summit announcing “we are exploring a new location for our Summit in 2024,” and requesting feedback. That survey was released just days after the Castro Merchants Association voted against future closures of Castro Street for the event, as Hoodline reported at the time.
One one hand, the looming year-and-a-half closure of the Castro Theatre for renovations did take away the summit’s main hub for 2024. But on the other hand, neighborhood merchants made it well-known that they hated the recent gating and street takeover of the conference’s new indoor-outdoor format. Auto Erotica owner Patrick Batt told the Bay Area Reporter that the neighborhood resembled an "armed camp" when the conference was in town.
Summit organizers had taken to walling off the entirety of Castro Street between Market and 19th Street, creating a two-block footprint accessible only to conference attendees — and creating an unpleasant barrier along sidewalks and in front of storefronts.
"Issues such as unimproved barriers segregating the community, inadequate delivery points, unreliable garbage and recycling pickup, insufficient bus rerouting information, and noise disturbances from overnight construction have negatively impacted our residents, businesses, and the overall well-being of our district," Cliff’s Variety co-owner and Castro Merchants Association president Asten Bennett wrote in a letter to city officials in November. "Our members held a vote, with the majority expressing their view that the current format, which involves taking over the middle of Castro Street to host the conference, is not conducive to visitors or businesses."
Lesbians Who Tech founder and CEO Leanne Pittsford has not returned comment to multiple media outlets since the move to New York was announced last week. But Pittsford’s remarks to Hoodline in November illustrated there was little chance for a compromise.
"It's just not economically viable for us to not have the street closure," Pittsford said. "This is not Pride or Castro Street Fair," she added. "This is a three-day professional conference that costs millions of dollars to put on."
"Clearly the Castro Merchants voted that they don't want us there in the way that works for us and our event," according to Pittsford. "They are not even willing to have a conversation."
Wishing for a world where conference planners don't celebrate "badass attendees" from Raytheon, Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and Amazon#LesbianVisibilityWeek #LesbianVisibilityDay— Toshio Meronek (@tmeronek) April 27, 2022
List of companies coming to Lesbians Who Tech Pride Summit 2022: pic.twitter.com/T3VQHLBREh
Many attendees, and neighborhood locals, say that Lesbans Who Tech had “outgrown” the Castro. And that may be, in a number of ways. After all, the summit now calls itself “Lesbians Who Tech & Allies,” and the current leadership team includes a number of men. So this is perhaps no longer the niche conference it used to be, and as shown in the tweet above, it’s drawing more attendees from the Tesla and IBM set.
So “Lesbians Who Tech & Allies” has kind of grown into something else. And some San Franciscans aren’t sorry to see it grow somewhere else.
Images: Steven Bracco, Hoodline