'Heartbroken': Harvey's closes after 27 years in apparent sign of the times

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Monday January 23, 2023
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People walked in front of Harvey's in the Castro Sunday, January 22, the day the restaurant and bar announced its closure. Photo: Sari Staver
People walked in front of Harvey's in the Castro Sunday, January 22, the day the restaurant and bar announced its closure. Photo: Sari Staver

Harvey's, the LGBTQ bar and restaurant that welcomed tourists and regulars alike to the Castro for over a quarter century, abruptly closed its doors late Sunday, striking a blow to the queer neighborhood seeing more and more empty storefronts.

The restaurant paid tribute to the late supervisor Harvey Milk, who promoted the neighborhood's LGBTQ identity and forged its businesses together 50 years ago. Sitting at the key intersection of 18th and Castro streets, and containing much Milk memorabilia in addition to bearing his name, its closure was greeted as a sad milestone.

Harvey's will be hosting "One Last Night with Friends" Saturday, January 28, beginning at 4 p.m. and lasting "all night long," to raise money for the now ex-staff members, former Harvey's General Manager David Facer stated. The bar will be open and some food options may be available, supply pending.

"Harvey's is an iconic restaurant and location in the Castro," stated gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who represented the Castro on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. "As a 25-year resident of the neighborhood, I'm heartbroken it's closing and hope it'll reopen soon as a new restaurant or bar. My office will be available to the laid off workers to help them obtain unemployment benefits."

Wiener's current successor on the board, gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, stated that Harvey's was "an anchor business and home to countless memories for so many Castro residents."

"This is a huge loss for the neighborhood and I hope to see a new gay bar or restaurant open there soon," Mandelman stated. "Rolling back the Castro's ban on new bars last year was an important step toward helping new queer entrepreneurs gain a foothold in the community, and my office is working on getting in touch with the building's owner to encourage them to offer new tenants a reasonable rent."

He was referring to legislation he spearheaded that changes bars' zoning status from not being permitted at all to being permitted conditionally in the Castro Street neighborhood commercial district, or NCD, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

In Milk's day, Harvey's was called the Elephant Walk, which first opened in 1974. The disco diva Sylvester performed there, and it was a site of reprisal early May 22, 1979, when San Francisco police officers came in and attacked patrons following the White Night Riots downtown, which were a response to Milk's killer, Dan White, receiving only a seven-year sentence for his crimes. (White ended up serving five years and later died by suicide.)

After a fire almost destroyed it in the late 1980s, the Elephant Walk required extensive remodeling. Harvey's was opened in the space in 1996 by Paul Langley, the property owner, who had refused to renew the Elephant Walk's lease.

Harvey's closure was announced to the public early January 22 via a statement written on a chalkboard on the side of the business, where happier messages had been common.

"This is our last day being open," the statement read. "What is next? We don't know, But we know we will miss all of you!"

A spokesperson for Harvey's declined to comment to the Bay Area Reporter for this report with a further statement about the closure, other than to say more will be coming soon to inform the community.

Business closures have been a persistent problem in the Castro for many years, and the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated it. Up the block from Harvey's, the Badlands nightclub shuttered in 2020 and has not reopened, and a location of El Capitan Taqueria at the intersection of 18th and Collingwood streets closed just one week before Harvey's.

Longtime gay activist Cleve Jones told the B.A.R. he visited Harvey's late Sunday, where they gave him a photo of himself and Milk at his own 24th birthday party on October 11, 1978 that'd been hanging on the wall.

"I didn't loot the building," Jones said, adding that he would be happy to return it if they want it back, or to a successor business.

"Last night was a pretty sad night for me," said Jones, who worked for Milk and founded the AIDS Memorial Quilt. "I went down to Harvey's, which still in my mind is Elephant Walk, and I can still hear Sylvester's voice echoing in there, and it makes me very sad. Then I went for a little walk. I walked past the Castro Theatre, which appears to be shuttered. I saw Cafe Flore still empty. So those were three places that were so hugely important to me and to everyone during the time this neighborhood was so important. There's going to be more to come."

(David Perry, a gay man who is a spokesperson for Another Planet Entertainment, reached out to the B.A.R. after the initial online publication of this report to clarify that the Castro Theatre is running programming. It has not been consistent, however, and sometimes the theater goes weeks without an event or screening.)

Jones said that while COVID was a "devastating and protracted mess," some businesses (he named Anchor Oyster Bar and Catch) were able to survive because "they had good, strong management, consistent quality, and a really dedicated loyal staff."

"I have been trying to sound the alarm about the death of the gayborhoods for a few years now, and I don't see anything productive in blame games but people have to realize this isn't just a phenomena in San Francisco," Jones said. "The gayborhoods are going away and with that we risk losing political power, cultural vitality and the ability to provide specialized social services for the most vulnerable."

The Castro Merchants Association did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this report.

Updated: 1/23/23: This story has been updated with comments from Cleve Jones and Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.

Updated, 1/25/23: This article has been updated with additional information.

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