Guest Opinion: Build it, and the people will come
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The Castro Muni station has meant a lot of different things to me during the past four decades: a construction site. A community rallying place. A point of entry for gay people from around the globe. And now, a workplace.
I got a call. "You want me to do what?" I asked.
The mission: to support Muni's Twin Peaks tunnel renovation from June 26 (the day after our Pride celebration) until the end of July. I worked at the entrance to the Castro Street station from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m., most weekdays and some weekends. Although I've lived in San Francisco since 1972, I don't think I'd ever seen and experienced the city like I did for this assignment: in the daytime; with all four seasons in one day.
During the 1970s, it was kinda "in" to say, "Meet me under the clock" (located at the Hotel Saint Francis on Union Square). Now we say, "Meet me at the rainbow flag." One of my first observations while working at the Castro Street Muni station was just how important, meaningful, and significant the rainbow flag is to people from all over the world. Locals almost casually take it for granted as a meeting place. For tourists, it's a different story. Visitors from all over - from Turlock and from as far away as Slovenia or South Africa - come to the Castro station just to see the rainbow flag and to see Harvey Milk Plaza, named for the slain San Francisco supervisor. They come up from the Muni station, look at the flag, and take pictures. This flag is important. Our rainbow flag has meaning across the globe. I really didn't understand until I observed this day after day, tourists yearning for a glimpse, a photo of the gay community's oversized rainbow flag in the Castro. It is THE rainbow flag, like no other.
But, I am jumping ahead. I still remember my enthusiasm and the city's excitement about the grand opening of the Castro Street Muni station in May 1980. Shuttles took us underground to the Van Ness station, where Sylvester performed and the champagne flowed freely - as did the poppers. But, what did we know except we had to boogie, oogie, oogie till we just couldn't boogie no more? The next month the Castro station opened for business.
Five years later, on September 15, 1985, Mayor Dianne Feinstein, Board of Supervisors President John L. Molinari, and Milk's successor, Supervisor Harry Britt, dedicated Harvey Milk Plaza. Previously the name was Castro Station and Plaza.
Informally known as the "Mayor of Castro Street," Milk was omnipresent in the neighborhood after he opened Castro Camera at 575 Castro Street in 1973, and was active in the neighborhood during his campaigns for supervisor, which culminated with his 1977 victory. (He was assassinated a year later, in November 1978.) The corner of Castro and Market streets became the de facto gathering place where rallies, meetings, homage, inspiration, hope, and dreams coalesce even today.
Thirty-three years ago, in 1985, none of us imagined all the changes that would come to the Castro district: more and more of us are having children and some of us are living long enough to age. As I began working at the Castro Street station, I noticed how difficult it was for seniors, the physically challenged, and the little tots to navigate the stairs down to the platform. Yes, there's an elevator, but it's located on the other side of Market Street. Yes, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency does have plans to install an elevator in the plaza in 2020, but there are other issues with the station and plaza that I soon learned about as I worked my daily shifts. Issues not necessarily about accessibility, but about our history.
It would soon become obvious (and painful) that hundreds of tourists visit the Castro every single day to see the rainbow flag and "experience" the Harvey Milk Plaza. Presently, the tribute to Milk is largely a poster-board composition that looks like the City and County of San Francisco spent a whopping $38.16 on it from Target. I've witnessed the shock and horror in visitors' eyes as they look down at the presentation, asking, "This is how you treat your heroes?"
Castro, we can do better. It is our responsibility to the LGBT movement to do better. And the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, a volunteer group of community leaders, is doing better. FHMP has been working with the community for two years to transform Harvey Milk Plaza so that it truly honors and resonates Milk and speaks to the LGBT history that took place in the Castro, all while drastically improving access and public safety, so that we can finally, proudly show the world the way we treat our heroes.
Cleve Jones understands how important it is to honor our heroes and our history. He reminds us, "Harvey understood that the LGBT community was part of something larger, and creating something special here will inspire others to carry on the global movement for peace and social justice" that began in our Castro Street transit hub.
I've been asked how this project will get funded. And, I have to tell you that, sometimes, simply asking, "Can you help?" might just touch the hearts and purse strings of people coming to the plaza looking to honor Milk, and may very well be pleased that you chose them to be an important piece of this challenge. Hope will never be silent.
Ken Jones is a longtime San Francisco resident who was portrayed in the ABC miniseries, "When We Rise." He was also an LGBT Changemaker in the Bay Area Reporter's Pride issue. For that story, go to http://www.ebar.com/news/news/261504. For more information about the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, visit https://www.friendsofharveymilkplaza.org/.