Art project seeks to bridge Castro's past, present

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 16, 2023
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The former Harvey's space at 18th and Castro streets has been enlivened with old photos of the LGBTQ neighborhood by Castro Street Seen. Photo: John Ferrannini<br>
The former Harvey's space at 18th and Castro streets has been enlivened with old photos of the LGBTQ neighborhood by Castro Street Seen. Photo: John Ferrannini

A new art installation in the Castro is seeking to bring the LGBTQ neighborhood's history alive while at the same time enliven empty storefront spaces.

Pete Betancourt, a gay San Francisco man, is the co-founder and creative director of Castro Street Seen. He put up the new group's first installation in the old Harvey's space at 500 Castro Street on June 17.

Betancourt told the Bay Area Reporter on August 7 that initially he'd been planning a documentary on the Castro's history through photography — which he still hopes to do — and that the physical installations were conceived as a way to raise awareness about it.

"We still want to do a documentary; that's something we're exploring, but it just felt like it [a physical installation] was much more immediate and something we could do quickly as opposed to the pre-production and fundraising that's needed to produce a documentary," Betancourt said.

Harvey's was shuttered in January, as the B.A.R.reported. A new bar and nightclub is set to open next summer in the old restaurant space, which will undergo a complete overhaul and expansion into a vacant adjacent retail space, as the B.A.R. subsequently reported. The new ownership group does plan to find a way to honor slain LGBTQ rights pioneer and San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk in their nightlife venue.

Betancourt said that the Harvey's location was "incredibly symbolic to be our very first installation, for so many reasons, not just the name itself but it being Castro and 18th [streets], the heart of the Castro, and with so many windows, so much visibility, it was a beautiful starting point to launch this project."

He initiated the project with the intention of beautifying empty storefronts; the Paul Langley Co., which owns the space, agreed just in time for Pride 2023 and installation began forthwith. The Langley company did not return a request for comment for this article.

"I try not to use this term, but it was a series of miracles for this project to have happened," Betancourt said. "I was taking pictures of the Harvey's location to do a mockup and I ran into one of the [real estate] agents and quickly pitched them the concept. I think everyone on that team loved it."

That agent, Steven "Stu" Gerry, told the B.A.R. that "nothing happens unless it goes through me." He said the pictures will remain up as long as possible until work must begin for the next use of the 500 Castro Street space — the aforementioned bar and nightclub to be operated by a new ownership group from Beaux, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

"The Paul Langley Co. is absolutely invested in getting the community involved, and that's why the pictures went up during the construction period," Gerry said. "We are going to keep it up as long as we can."

Gerry said they support anything to make the neighborhood more "visually pleasing."

Betancourt has obtained the photos being used under an arrangement with the GLBT Historical Society, which operates the nearby LGBTQ museum space on 18th Street, through the "standard licensing process," according to Andrew Shaffer, director of development and communications for the society.

Photo reproductions

The project consists of life-size reproductions of photos taken in the heady days of gay liberation in the Castro in the 1970s, such as the 1977 photo "A Kiss on Castro Street" by the late Crawford Barton, whose work appeared in the B.A.R. The iconic photo shows two men kissing, with an older man and woman sitting next to them, but looking forward. The photo has been used to illustrate the change from the Irish Catholic and Scandinavian hamlet of Eureka Valley to the LGBTQ Castro district that people know today.

"That image of the kiss is one of the most iconic images," Betancourt said. "If you're going to show a Crawford Barton collection, it's important to show that one."

Betancourt said that Barton's photos are the focus of this first installation, which centers on the "exuberant" joy of the early Castro. Many of the photos come from the 1978 Castro Street Fair, which was the last one before Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated at City Hall on November 27 of that year.

Another picture Betancourt discovered through research at the historical society's archives, housed in downtown San Francisco, is of the late disco icon Sylvester James Jr., known professionally by his first name. Sylvester recorded the 1978 disco classic "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real);" he died of AIDS-related complications a decade later at the age of 41 on December 16, 1988.

"I found undiscovered new images," Betancourt said. "I was going through a folder marked 'unidentified Black males' and I pulled out the images and it was Sylvester. ... I was just blown away and thought 'This is incredible,' so it easily became one of the ones for the first installation."

San Francisco Democratic Party Chair Honey Mahogany, a Black, queer trans person, chose to pose with the Sylvester photo.

"We were really humbled when Honey Mahogany posted a portrait of herself with our installation and, as we expand to more sites, we hope to bring in more of the community and for this to be a collaboration that helps us revitalize and engage the community while helping to inform, inspire and educate the world," said Betancourt.

Mahogany, who is the district director for Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco), told the B.A.R. that "San Francisco's queer history is foundational to the culture of our city and has had a global impact that deserves to be recognized.

"While I would first and foremost love to see these storefronts filled, I do love the idea of honoring the history of the Castro and many of the figures who helped make it so legendary," Mahogany continued.

Shaffer spoke positively of the project.

"Castro Street Seen beautifully connects past and present by providing a first-hand look into the neighborhood's history," Shaffer told the B.A.R. "Our incredible archival holdings are used by artists, historians, and researchers from around the world who bring our vast queer past to life. The GLBT Historical Society is proud to be able to enable the creation of innumerable pieces of queer art and culture."

Future installations will focus on the rise of Milk and the AIDS epidemic, Betancourt said. He's been in touch with others who've expressed interest in installations in their storefronts, but Betancourt isn't willing to disclose who has.

"I don't wish to disclose specifically which ones they are at this time because it's a lot of relationship management and trust, but really what we're trying to do is raise awareness and fundraise," Betancourt said. "We're still paying off some of the costs from the original installation, which is something we did out of our own pocket. We did not get any grant money, we did receive some donations."

Betancourt and Jonathan Deason, another San Francisco gay man who is the co-founder of Castro Street Seen, as well as its executive producer, didn't answer a question August 15 about how much the project has cost, but Deason did state people can donate on the website

"As you might suspect, printing and production at this scale is quite expensive. So far, we have mostly self-funded the project, because we love the Castro and want to see it come back to life," Deason stated. "We are very grateful to have received several donations from members of our community, but not nearly enough to support the costs expended to date. We have not received any support from grants, and we are asking for the community's help to keep this project going and continue to expand. We have some exciting plans in the works to roll out more installations, but we do need community support!"

Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who is the executive director of the Castro Community Benefit District, has been a leading advocate for the beautification of the neighborhood, as well as filling vacant storefronts. The art installation has generated "nothing but positive comments from merchants and residents," she told the B.A.R.

"I am really impressed with the high quality of the work, and his intention to put location-specific images up is genius," Aiello stated to the B.A.R. "I appreciate Pete's effort to include images of women and people of color in the images he displays. I understand finding these images can be a lot of work; I know he is committed to this, and I look forward to seeing more diversity in the images displayed."

Deason works by the Harvey's location, at Vanguard Properties.

"Pete and I have known each other for more than a decade as Castro-area residents," Deason told the B.A.R. "My background in college was in art history and I have sold real estate for the last 15 years in San Francisco," adding that he's "very arts oriented, and my office is across the street from Harvey's, so it was a very natural partnership."

Betancourt said hopefully remembering the neighborhood's past will help reinvigorate its future as it deals with storefront vacancies and other issues.

"I was so inspired by the community of the 1970s and 1980s — how people came together, and how activists such as Harvey Milk were able to transform the world," he said. "We're hoping this project is a rebirth of the Castro by bringing in the community today by elevating and showcasing our history."

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