Political Notebook: Milk's old camera shop
in the Castro up for grabs
by Matthew S. Bajko
The space that once housed the camera shop and campaign headquarters of the late Supervisor Harvey Milk, the city's famed gay rights pioneer, is once again up for grabs as gift store Given plans to shut its doors later this month.
Storeowner Nick Romero has decided to call it quits after three years in business due to the still flat-lining economy and a drastic fall off in Castro tourists. When Romero first opened in 2007 he said sales could top $700 a weekday. Now he is lucky to pull in $50 in a day.
"Maybe six people come in during the day. The street is dead," said Romero, who is still unsure what he will do for work come April. "I have been doing retail for 15 years now and I don't think we have reached the bottom yet."
The historic retail space is a must see for visitors to the gayborhood looking to find the home of one of its most famous denizens. A plaque noting the historical significance of the site is embedded in the sidewalk outside the store at 575 Castro Street. And a mural overhead depicts Harvey gazing out the window of the apartment he once lived in with his boyfriend Scott Smith.
Romero made sure to bring that history inside his shop. He worked with a local artist to paint a mural of Milk inside his store and he allowed a film crew to take over the space to recreate Milk's old camera store for the Oscar-winning film Milk.
"For me, I am deeply sad to see them go. They were the closest thing to a Harvey and Scott I had seen in the spot and I wish them the best," said local photographer Daniel Nicoletta , a confidant of Milk's who befriended Romero.
Given's shuttering is just the latest store to close in the Castro. Across the street Injeanious packed up its underwear and bathing suit shop; while several antique stores are also calling it quits. On Market Street Pottery Barn is looking to offload its lease and a plan to move Trader Joe's into a vacant shopping center has hit some snags.
"So many business owners around town are in similar boats. I am very concerned about this area," said Romero. "Just look at Union Street in the Marina. It is decimated with entire blocks that have no shops. I am worried the Castro will end up like there in a year."
Restaurants, on the other hand, seem to be doing fine in the city's gayborhood with six new eateries either already open or readying to serve their first diners. But don't expect to see one move in to Milk's old haunt.
George Johnson with West Coast Properties, which manages the building for property owner the Bansemmer Zimmer Trust, said the company is sensitive to the fact the store has a special significance to the Castro community and wants to make sure any tenant is the "right fit."
"If we don't think it is a right fit we won't put it in place. We are really open to most anything that is a mom and pop or pop and pop store," said Johnson. "We don't want to put a restaurant in there or something like that. I don't think that would work. It would be great to have a photo shop in there."
As to what may happen to the Milk mural inside the store remains a question. Romero said when he decided to close in February he called the GLBT Historical Society to let them know the retail space would be available.
"I wish they could come in here and save the mural," said Romero, whose last day in business will be Sunday, March 28. "I am very proud of what we were able to do here. It was great to be part of something and help document the historical part of the space."
Since being kicked out of its corner location at 18th and Castro streets last fall, the historical society has been looking for another space to open a satellite museum. The archival group has been in talks with Walgreens to move into a vacant coin-operated laundry space it has a long-term lease to on 18th Street.
Paul Boneberg, the society's executive director, said he is hopeful the lease negotiations will be finalized this month. The museum would take up 1,500 square feet for five years at $4,000 a month. The pharmacy would use the remaining roughly 700 square feet and cover the cost of the build out; it would require city zoning approval.
"It was nice of Nick to call us about that space. It would be remarkable if we could go in there," said Boneberg. "It seems to us very unlikely."
Nonetheless, he said the society does intend to inquire about the cost of renting Milk's old store space.
"Unless the rent in that space is significantly below market, it is quite unlikely we could afford it. The number one concern for the society is it is a sustainable space we can afford to be in for a long period of time," said Boneberg, adding that Walgreens' offer "is a very good deal."
More details about Harvey Milk Day
Most disappointing for Romero is not being open long enough to celebrate the state's inaugural Harvey Milk Day Saturday, May 22, which would have been Milk's 80th birthday. A street festival is planned for the Castro that day, and as part of the festivities, city officials want to install a larger historical marker in the sidewalk in front of the store so it is more visible to passersby.
A diversity breakfast is also planned for that morning. But noticeably absent is any big event for Saturday night. An awards show and dance will be held Friday night, May 21 at the Masonic Auditorium on Nob Hill.
The reason is that San Francisco Symphony officials asked organizers of the Harvey Milk Day observances not to counterprogram anything against their big fundraiser that night. Known as the Black and White Ball, the charity event happens every other year and just so happens to fall on the first Milk state holiday.
"This is kind of a unique year. We are bumping into the Black and White Ball, which is a biennial event," said openly gay Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who is working with the Harvey Milk Foundation to help plan the various Milk celebrations. "We talked to the symphony about this. They are also looking at how they can recognize Harvey."
It would be a fitting tribute. For while it is well known that Milk was a devoted opera lover, he was also a fan of the symphony. Nicolleta recalled that Milk would go to a performance anytime he received complimentary tickets from then-Mayor George Moscone, who along with Milk was assassinated inside City Hall in November of 1978.
"I know first hand he loved going. Moscone would give him tickets now and then," said Nicoletta, who accompanied Milk to one performance. "I am pretty sure the record collection was full of symphonic recordings as well as opera. He loved all kinds of music."
This year's symphony concert features Tony Bennett and k.d. lang, while the after party will present Kool and The Gang and other special guest performers. The proceeds from the night go toward the San Francisco Symphony's Adventures in Music program, which pays for music instruction for grades 1 through 5 in the San Francisco Unified School District.
Oliver Theil, director of public relations for the symphony, would not characterize the symphony's position "as a request" that the Milk awards show not be held the same night as the ball. He told the Bay Area Reporter this week, "I don't know the specifics of what made them decide to move it. You would have to talk to them."
"The Black and White Ball is a very important music education fundraiser," added Theil. "We have been planning the ball for two years."
He did acknowledge that symphony officials have been in contact with Milk celebration organizers about plans for the holiday. But as of this week, Theil said he had no details about how the symphony would acknowledge the gay rights hero at its event.
"Yes we found out it was Harvey Milk's birthday and we have had some discussions with that group," said Theil. "We are looking for the most appropriate way to mark this important day."
District 8 campaign updates
Meanwhile, in the campaign to succeed Dufty in his District 8 supervisorial seat, which Milk held back in his day, local attorney Rafael Mandelman announced this week that openly gay District 9 Supervisor David Campos had endorsed him in the race.
"Rafael was raised in San Francisco and understands the real-world struggles and choices that San Franciscans face during these tough times. He is the kind of progressive that understands the importance of making government work and focusing on the nuts and bolts of government, the basic things that government does that make a difference in the life of a neighborhood," stated Campos in announcing his pick.
Mandelman, himself a gay man, boasted that the backing from Campos brings to five the number of endorsements from members of the Board of Supervisors, more than any other candidate in the race. Progressive Supervisors John Avalos, Chris Daly , Eric Mar and Ross Mirkarimi had all already lined up behind Mandelman's campaign.
Openly gay Deputy City Attorney Scott Wiener , another frontrunner in the District 8 race, disclosed this week that he had left the national board of the Human Rights Campaign after a decade of service. While loathed by more left-leaning LGBT activists for its poor track record on transgender rights, HRC likely would not have proved to be an albatross for Wiener as he is running in a fairly moderate district.
And as locally owned stores struggle to remain in business, a third District 8 candidate is making their survival a key part of her campaign. Out lesbian Rebecca Prozan, an assistant district attorney, released a small business plan this week that details what she would do if elected to help merchants thrive. To read Prozan's plan, visit www.rebeccaprozan.com/economy.
Tonight the District 8 candidates will turn their attention to school issues as they debate from 6 to 8 p.m. at Alvarado Elementary School, 625 Douglass Street in Noe Valley.
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reports on a protest against budget cuts students at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy held last week.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.