Today is a dark day in San Francisco history. Thirty-two years ago, openly gay city supervisor Harvey Milk was cut short when Dan White, who had recently resigned his post as supervisor, entered City Hall through an open window with a loaded gun. White first killed then Mayor George Moscone, then went down the hall to Milk’s office and fatally shot him.
On May 21, 1979, 31 years ago today, White was given an exceedingly light sentence for his crimes. The defense’s argument was that depression due to a diet of sugary foods left him in a state of diminished mental capacity. The media dubbed this the “Twinkie Defense.” The jury found him guilty of first-degree manslaughter rather than murder. Castro denizens flooded into the streets, marched downtown and rioted at city hall. Air-powered sirens wailed at varying pitches as police cars burned. These became known as the White Night Riots.
The story of the rise and fall of Harvey Milk was recently laid out in the Gus Van Sant film Milk. During the filming, many spots along Castro Street were restored to their appearance in the late ’70s; remarkably, many business remain extant today from that time.
Chief among them is the grand Castro Theatre. This deco masterpiece is one of the last great movie palaces remaining in business in San Francisco, and was where Milk premiered. First-run films are a relative rarity here, as the Castro is home to art and foreign films. It also houses many film festivals in the city, including the upcoming Frameline San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, in its 34th year. The Castro’s facade and marquee were redone to the way they looked in 1978 for the film, and the theatre has decided to retain its new-old look going forward.
Further up Castro Street, 575 Castro is the site of Harvey’s former camera store, from which he built his political career. A mural of Harvey peers benignly down from an open window on the second floor, reminding us of his mantra, “You gotta give ‘em hope.” While the storefront was redone for the purposes of the film, neighboring Anchor Oyster Bar remains more or less as it was more than 30 years ago.
At the bustling corner where Castro and Market intersect, Twin Peaks Tavern has been there since well before the Castro became a gay mecca. But when new owners took it over and made it a gay bar, they blew out the walls and put in tremendous sheet glass windows overlooking the intersection. This made a big statement. No longer would gay bars hide behind closed doors. Twin Peaks seemed to say: We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.
Ironically, the day after the White Night Riots would have been Harvey’s birthday, and this year he would have turned 80. Saturday, May 22, 2010, marks the inaugural Harvey Milk Day, with events throughout the Castro including a free screening of Milk at the Castro Theatre, a street fair along 19th Street and the dedication of a new plaque in front of the camera store. The former camera store will feature a display presented by the GLBT Historical Society. And be sure to drop by the LGBT Center for a free taste of gourmet creamery Humphrey Slocombe‘s commemorative ice cream flavor, Harvey Milk & Honey Graham Cracker. Harvey would have approved.
[Photo: Kevin Goebel]