The Castro Theatre: A lesson on how to save Main Street

San Francisco's Castro Theatre is not just a classic cinema house. It's proof that even as the current of tastes and technology flow elsewhere, your local, single-screen movie theater can still be the center of your neighborhood.

Though the advent of multiplexes and DVDs has caused similar beautiful movie palaces to be flattened into parking lots or converted into chain stores, the Castro Theatre in San Francisco remains a center for community activity.

The Castro is proof that you don't always have to build anew in order to move on. Your area can economize by giving its old buildings new life, too. To start, you must remember how to make them important to your neighborhoods again.

The Castro isn't floated by a corporation with deep pockets. It's a mom-and-pop business, having been in the same family since it was built in 1922. Back then, the area was a nondescript Irish-German-Scandinavian neighborhood and the center of nothing in particular. Gradually, by the 1960s, the district's affordable housing was snapped up by forward thinking gay settlers, and it became the attractive, well-preserved upper middle-class enclave it is today.

Still, the Castro Theatre lagged behind, a relic of a time when entertainment came through few channels. As land values rose, it made little real estate sense. There were bad tenants who let the building go to pot. There was an uncertain period when it was a prime candidate for destruction.

If you look at the roster of beautiful buildings we've foolishly destroyed, you'll see a theme: Buildings are usually perceived as useful for a generation, maybe two, but after that, they're a whisker away from the wrecking ball. If a lovely piece of architecture can survive that second generation, it has a much better chance of being embraced and preserved. We are liable to destroy what our fathers built, but treasure what our grandfathers made.

In the Castro's case, the owners rescued her with a savvy mix of popular revival screenings and live performance from comics and other acts. It capitalized on its public transportation links. Then, in 2008, the makers of the Oscar-winning movie Milk chose to film in the very location in which its true-life story was set, and the production gave Castro Street south of Market, including the Castro Theatre, a long-overdue face lift to bring it back to its late-'70s glory.

Now, against the odds, what was once just another neighborhood cinema has been cemented into the landscape as an icon of San Francisco.

Is it the prettiest theater, or the largest, or the most upscale? No, none of that. But it serves the neighborhood and its specific needs, and such community-minded programming, it turns out, is the way to turn an obsolete old building into the gem it never was before.

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