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Fresh ideas bandied at Castro fair meeting

by David-Elijah Nahmod

Fred Lopez, executive director of the Castro Street Fair, discussed some of the operations for the event at an April 21 community meeting to talk about changes for the event. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Fred Lopez, executive director of the Castro Street Fair, discussed some of the operations for the event at an April 21 community meeting to talk about changes for the event. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Incorporating slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk's message of hope, separating family activities from adult-focused ones, and relocating booths off Castro Street were some of the ideas floated by attendees at a meeting last weekend to discuss this year's Castro Street Fair.

The fair, which was started by Milk in 1974 and is held the first Sunday in October, has seen a dip in attendance and enthusiasm in recent years, leading the all-volunteer board to hold a community meeting April 21 at the Eureka Valley Recreation Center. About 50 people showed up.

"We want to have an open dialogue," said Castro Street Fair board Co-President Jon Murray. "We want your feedback and will try to implement them into the fair. This is a way to engage new volunteer energy and potential new board members. It's a way to discover new fundraising and sponsorship opportunities."

Longtime gay activist Cleve Jones, who has sought community engagement, also addressed the crowd.

"I go back to the first fair," said Jones. "I have a personal stake in the fair - some of the proceeds from the fair goes toward keeping the rainbow flag flying above Harvey Milk Plaza."

Jones, who knew Milk, added that he wanted the fair to celebrate the businesses in the neighborhood.

"I want to see more art, more drag, more diversity," he said. "But we can't just complain about it."

Jones noted the loss of other Castro Street events such as Halloween and Pink Saturday due to violence.

Castro Street Fair Executive Director Fred Lopez spoke about how the fair is run.

"It's a recognized 501(c)3," he said. "We have no office. We have a P.O. box and a storage space. Planning for the event is year round - we meet monthly. Our primary goal is to produce this event and to raise money for 20 local nonprofits. Every year we have over 250 volunteers. We gave back $55,000 in 2017."

Lopez said that there's been a steady decline in booth rentals. "We want to increase the amount of revenue we get from booths," he said.

Among the other challenges faced by the fair is competition from the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which happens in Golden Gate Park the same weekend.

Two charts were displayed that referenced 2017 expenses and revenue sources. They showed that the fair takes in $63,999.33 from exhibitor registration, $46,421 from gate donations, $42,325 in grants from the city, $41,215.96 from beverage sales, and $39,500 from sponsorship.

Listed as expenses were $55,089.17 for donations awarded, $26,890.61 for public services, which includes portable toilets, and $20,939.06 for equipment rental.

Attendees broke up into small groups to discuss ways to improve the fair. Ideas included taking booths off of Castro Street and relocating them on 18th or Market streets so that Castro could be for gathering and entertainment. Another suggestion was to network with a ride share company to make it easy for people to get from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass to the Castro. One person noted that fairs are the same all over the city, while several said that more artists were needed. It was also stated that the fair needs to appeal to a wide range of people.

Other ideas included having more family-focused events that would be separate from the adult activities, to incorporate Milk's message of hope into the fair, and that more political engagement was needed. It was also suggested that Castro Street restaurants should have booths, and that there could be tables and chairs where people could eat - this included installing bleachers by the stage so that people could watch the performances while they ate. Youth and trans people need to be more involved, people said.

"This being the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk, it will be important this year to have an open space to remember Harvey and the camera store, and to allow people to visit the camera store," said fair board Co-President Javier Suazo. "The camera store won't be covered up with booths and fencing."

Suazo was referring to the camera store Milk operated during the 1970s, out of which he ran his campaigns for supervisor. He made history when he became the first out gay person to win elected office in San Francisco and California with his 1977 victory, and was assassinated, along with then-mayor George Moscone, in 1978 by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White. The store, located at 575 Castro Street, is now a gift shop and action center run by the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT rights organization.

After the meeting, several attendees expressed their satisfaction.

"I like the board's receptivity," said Emma Marie Gabriel, a transgender woman.

"It was a great event in that they wanted to listen to other voices from the community," said Bruce Beaudette, a gay man. "This is my first time being asked for my input - cool. And to hear other people's ideas."

Drag queen and Bay Area Reporter nightlife columnist Juanita MORE!, who's working with Jones to help create new energy at the street fair, said she wants it to be "fun."

"San Francisco is rapidly changing, and after 44 years the fair has changed, too," MORE! told the B.A.R. "I want it to be fun, successful, and feel fresh again. So this year, instead of sitting back and bitching about it, I've reached out to the fair board and offered my assistance. I throw a lot of parties and events and know what a daunting task it is to organize an event of that size, especially when you are relying on volunteers."

MORE! noted that she had not attended the fair in several years because "the sparkle was starting to fade."

"There are many people out there who want to keep it alive," she said. "I'm happy to use my voice to hopefully bring people together to help preserve a piece of queer history."

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