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Milk

castromilk.jpg milk2.jpgmilkplaza.jpg

One rainy morning I was thrilled to walk on Castro Street that was undergoing a 1970s makeover. The film crew, which rents out the space that was once Tower Records next to Cafe Flore as a staging area, is redecorating the strip between Market Street and 19th Street for a Hollywood film about the life and death of San Francisco Supervisor, Harvey Milk (1930-1978), a gay activist. He was the first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office in the history of the United States. As the self-described “Mayor of Castro Street” he was active during a time of substantial change in San Francisco politics and increasing visibility of gay and lesbian people in American society. He was assassinated in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, by then recently-resigned supervisor Dan White, whose relatively minor conviction for the crime led to the White Night Riots in San Francisco.

The film, which stars Sean Penn as Milk, Josh Brolin as White, Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, and James Franco as Smith, is currently filming in San Francisco. The crew has has changed storefronts, stapled up fliers indicative of the era, including a post-bill of a music party dated 1968, and even redecorated the garbage bins, to approximate the historical setting. Castro residents, while admiring these almost true-to-life makeover, take a bit of time to acclimatize to the fake storefronts, like that of a florist which is really Wells Fargo Bank, and the beautiful vintage blue awning that houses Thai House Express. For old-timers, the filming and the restoration of the neighborhood to the 70s milieu inevitably provoke memories and emotions in the Castro. People like some of my friends who lived through the era are revisiting the turbulence and exhilaration of Milk’s rise to prominence as one of the first openly gay people in the country to hold a major elective office, as well as the horrifying dark days that followed his assassination.

As I quietly watch the extras, all dressed in the 70s costumes like cloth coat and crocheted hat, trudging up and down the block, I have mixed feelings, about how much the gay community has come a long way and it seems many of us have taken things for granted. For those of us who didn’t live through that period of history, I’m grateful the film has at least re-introduced the atmosphere that would serve a history lesson. That they decide to film in actual locations has more than a historical meaning, it evokes that spirit of being gay, and being proud. The fictitious storefronts, which delicately replicate period details as the psychedelic Aquarius Records storefront, the repainted Castro movie theater marquee and the flickering neon window sign for liquor shops will stay until filming wraps up in mid March.

7 Responses

  1. It’s good that the younger generation know what struggles the older people had to face.

    This was a good change, to let the rest of the country know what rights gay people needed.

    The US still has a long way to go as compared to Europe. Same sex marriages need to be recognized.

    On a related topic of a struggle.

    I get sad when young African-American males don’t realize how different their lives would have been if the Civil Rights Movement would have failed. Many of these young men are not taking advantage of the society today and just killing each other for drug turf.

  2. I was a kid when it all happened, but I was living in the Bay Area, and I still think of the murders as a horrific tragedy. I have the really interesting book “The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk” by Randy Shilts, who also wrote “And The Band Played On”, about the AIDS epidemic, which was a real page-turner, too–both stories that needed to be told.

  3. Wow the filming crew will be here until next month. That will give me plenty of time to take some pictures. Thanks for writing such a wonderful piece Matt. I just moved to SF during that time and I remembered all the horrifying times after Harvey Milk’s assassination. Thank you gentle reader for the books, I need to go get them at the store. Living is about learning one’s past. I’ll have to explore this portion of history.

  4. It’s a dream of mine to go to SF. I would adore the relaxed and open environment there, plus I’ve heard such wonderful things about the place.

    It’s great to catch up on all your posts – so much to get my teeth into! I just wish I had access to book shops and cafes and had time on week-ends to amble slowly through the aisles in bookstores. Sadly not in Kabul! However your wonderful book meme got me dreaming earlier when I should have been working, and I had great fun filling it out, thanks so much!

    x

  5. The name Harvey Milk conjures up some very dark and very emotional memories. His assassination was just a year after Anita Bryant’s anti gay campaign which set off a train of of anti-gay ballot measures here in Oregon. I still remember that time vividly and the deep concern with which I awaited the election results. So, It’s heartening to realize, even with the ferment still bubbling in the political and religious sphere, how far we’ve managed to come.

    I’m delighted to be able to see the results of the repainting of the Castro Theater Marquee. During my last trip to S. F. I visited the Castro, camera in hand, because I had heard of the impending changes for that filming. As it turned out, virtually nothing of the theater spiff-up was yet evident. I did, quite fortuitously, and almost across the street from the theater, run into someone I very much wanted to see, so the disappointment had its compensation. Anyway, Matt, if you happen to garner some other photos related to the transformation, they would be very interesting to see.

  6. A most beautiful post, very observant and thoughtful. Funny I couldn’t find Wells Fargo and only to realize later that it was hidden under the disguise of a florist’s awning!

  7. Matt, what boggles me is the name of Olivia Hussey on the Marquee thing!
    I LOVE HER!
    I was just talking about her with my reading partner TODAY…. because I bought the ancient-old Zefferelli DVD which has her as Juliet, in Shakespeare’s play.
    She is more beautiful than ten sparrows in that movie!

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