Milk trolley hit with graffiti
by Matthew S. Bajko
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency pulled out of service this week a trolley car dedicated to Harvey Milk, the city's first openly gay elected official, due to anti-gay graffiti someone tagged on placards inside the historic vehicle sometime in late June.
Muni officials did not learn of the homophobic graffiti, however, until this week. The news came just days prior to President Barack Obama posthumously awarding Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony Wednesday, August 12.
Following calls by the Bay Area Reporter inquiring about the graffiti, Muni officials removed trolley car #1051 from the F-line late in the afternoon of Monday, August 10. Transportation officials said they had ordered the car to return to a storage yard so it could be inspected.
"It is disturbing to see that the panels had the slurs for some time without us removing it. We will do what we can to see what happened to try to make sure it doesn't happen again," said Judson True, spokesman for the SFMTA. "Especially in this historic week we want to be sure to honor Milk's legacy on this streetcar so we will do everything we can to remove any graffiti and get the dedication panels back in place as quickly as possible."
Tom Nolan, the transit agency's openly gay chairman, called Muni executives as soon as he learned about the graffiti from the B.A.R. He said he finds it concerning that no one reported the homophobic graffiti and that it was allowed to remain in public view for the last six weeks.
"Graffiti itself is not extraordinary over there. In fact there is a great deal of it and it costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove it. But I would think if there are homophobic slurs they would let the chairman of the board who is gay know about it," said Nolan, the executive director of Project Open Hand and a former San Mateo County supervisor.
Openly gay Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who chairs the countywide San Francisco Transportation Authority, also expressed disappointment this week at learning the placards had been left aboard the trolley car.
"I will certainly pursue it with Muni. It shouldn't be that difficult to get something removed, repaired, and replaced. You don't leave this stuff up or leave it unaddressed," said Dufty, who joined a delegation of San Franciscans that traveled to Washington D.C. this week to see Stuart Milk, the former supervisor's openly gay nephew, accept the presidential honor on behalf of his family.
Images uploaded to the photo-sharing site Flickr show that someone wrote homophobic slurs on several signs installed in the trolley car that explain Milk's legacy of breaking political barriers for the LGBT community as well as his devotion to public transit. During his time in office in 1978, Milk would take the trolley cars from the Castro down to City Hall in the Civic Center, as he was the only city supervisor who used public transit on a daily basis.
Sometime during Pride Month a tagger wrote the word "fag" on Milk's chin and blackened out one of his front teeth on a photo of the late politician on one of the panels, while on a different sign they wrote the word "faggot." Jamison Wieser, a gay man who is a director of the nonprofit Market Street Railway that helps restore and care for the fleet of historic trolley cars, uploaded the photos to his Flickr account on June 29, the Wednesday following Pride weekend.
But city officials did not learn about the anti-gay graffiti until this month, when Wieser attended the August 6 meeting of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro, where he asked for financial assistance in replacing the damaged signs. It is the first time someone has marred the placards since they were installed last October, a month prior to the opening of the Oscar-winning movie Milk about the trailblazing gay politico's life up to his assassination by a former board colleague in November 1978.
Trolley car #1051 has a cameo role in the film. In service on the F-line since 1992, the green PCC model vehicle was built in 1948 and was employed on the streets of Philadelphia until 1989.
In an interview with the B.A.R. Wieser, who pushed to see the trolley car be dedicated to Milk, said he had ridden the vehicle a week prior to Pride and had not noticed any damage to the eight placards installed inside it. He said he only learned about the anti-gay damage when he boarded the car one weekday following Pride.
"No one had told us about it for at least a week. I did not know about it until I got on the F-line car," said Wieser, who is also a mayoral appointee to the SFMTA Citizens Advisory Council. "I had to pull most of it down."
Of the eight placards inside the trolley car, one was missing and three were damaged, said Wieser. He said the driver of the car told him he had used a sign advertising Muni's new fair rates, which kicked in July 1, to cover up a portion of the homophobic slurs on one placard.
"The drivers should be reporting things like that," he said.
Wieser said he rearranged the other signs to obscure the rest of the anti-gay damage and said he reported it to the president of the nonprofit railway group, whom he assumed would relay the report to Muni officials.
"I never called it into 311 so partially it is my bad," said Wieser this week, referring to the city's hotline the public can use to report problems or damage to city property. "We spent hundreds of dollars on them and I was afraid Muni would take them down and throw them out. I was afraid they were going to see them as just advertising and not realize they are special."
Nolan said that the manager who inspects the trolley cars at the storage yard also rearranged the placards to hide the hate speech but did not report the anti-gay taggings to superiors. This week he issued a memo to all senior Muni managers informing them to immediately remove any homophobic or racist graffiti and to report it directly to him.
"It may just be that whoever saw them didn't think anything of it and tried to clean it up but couldn't. I am just trying to bring more sensitivity to it," said Nolan. "Some things should arise to a much greater level. Now that it is elevated to the executive office, I think we will see faster action in the future."
The SFMTA's True said drivers should be reporting such damage they find on their vehicles to their superiors. He also encouraged the public to call 311 to report any problems they encounter on a Muni vehicle.
By Tuesday the Milk trolley car was back in service, sans its defaced placards, said the SFMTA's True. Drivers should be reporting such damage they find on their vehicles to their superiors, he said. He also encouraged the public to call 311 to report any problems they encounter on a Muni vehicle.
Each of the Milk car placards costs upwards of $200, estimated Wieser. He is hopeful the community will chip in the $800 needed to replace the four damaged signs.
Anyone interested in making a donation should call the Market Street Railway at (415) 956-0472 or e-mail mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.