Guest Opinion: Harvey, the merchants, and the theater

  • by Terrance Alan
  • Wednesday April 19, 2023
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The Castro Theatre, at left, is an anchor in the LGBTQ neighborhood. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The Castro Theatre, at left, is an anchor in the LGBTQ neighborhood. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The Castro Merchants Association was founded by Castro Camera business owner Harvey Milk in 1974 in response to the anti-gay Eureka Valley Merchants Association, the long-standing business group that had shunned gay members and actively worked to prevent new gay businesses from opening in the neighborhood. Then known as the Castro Village Association, the founding members met in the back room of the gay-friendly Sausage Factory and elected Milk as their first president.

Along with a young heterosexual woman photographer and co-owner of Cliff's Variety, who dropped out of the straight association to join the new gay-aligned business group, Milk canvassed the neighborhood to sign up gay- and ally-owned businesses. Soon, the membership topped over 90 businesses, and the Eureka Valley Merchants Association dissolved, many of their members having sold their businesses to new gay owners.

Breathing renewed life and vigor into the gayborhood, the new group under Milk founded the Castro Street Fair that year, and also served as the basis for Milk's nascent political career. Within a few short years, he partnered with unions on the Coors beer boycott to fight anti-gay discrimination and anti-labor practices, founded the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club, and helped defeat a statewide initiative that would have banned LGBTQ teachers and workers in schools.

And after four campaigns for public office that centered around his gay identity, Milk was finally elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, one of the first openly LGBTQ elected officials in the world. What a whirlwind! And to think what he could have done if not assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone just one year after his election.

In 2023, as the gay president of the group Milk founded almost a half-century ago, I reflect on our history with pride and a profound sense of duty. We've been through many changes in the last 49 years. We endured Harvey's tragic loss and the aftermath. We've endured AIDS and COVID. Politicians have come and gone, businesses have opened and closed, and yes, we endure, and our spirit remains strong.

These are hard times for many. In the wake of COVID, our membership has been hurting. Like other neighborhoods, virtually all our storefronts were boarded up not long ago, and too many closed permanently. As a result, our storefront vacancy rate is among the highest in the city. The reopened businesses continue to struggle, and some continue to close. Some days, it seems like a losing battle. But we are not giving up. We will never give up.

Over the last year, the Castro Merchants board has taken a strong leadership role in an effort to improve conditions in our neighborhood. We've advocated strongly for increased city services for our homeless population and increased police support for our merchants, and we've begun to see some improvements. We've sponsored dozens of events to attract shoppers back to the neighborhood, including monthly queer-positive Castro Art Marts, Art Walks, quarterly family holiday events, and the farmers market. We maintain the giant rainbow flag at Harvey Milk Plaza and will soon replace the iconic rainbow banners lining our streets. And this month, we're launching a new program to help fill vacant storefronts with small incentive grants to new businesses, starting with the LGBTQ-themed Welcome Castro gift shop and neighborhood visitor center opening in the old Levi's space.

Despite all these efforts, we continue to feel the strain of the drop off in foot traffic resulting from all the business closures — including the majestic Castro Theatre, which has been activated only occasionally since the pandemic shutdown.

Everyone knows that the Castro Theatre has historically been an economic driver for the neighborhood, an anchor that, prior to the pandemic, drew crowds for film, concerts, and events on a daily basis. While filmgoing audiences have declined in recent years, the Castro has adapted and needs to continue to do so. For the last 50-plus years, it has also been a bedrock foundation of LGBTQ culture, which is the main driver of tourism in our internationally renowned neighborhood.

And this is why — despite all the controversy amid community concerns about the displacement of film and LGBTQ culture — Castro Merchants has been hopeful that Another Planet Entertainment will bring our treasured theater back to life. Balancing the interests of our members who are as concerned for their businesses as I am, we would love to be able to offer APE our full-throated support. And indeed, while still only promising programming on average every other night once their proposed remodeling is complete in a couple of years, this would certainly be an improvement over the last 15 months.

We'd love to see APE renovate and program our iconic movie palace with diverse film and music, and LGBTQ programming every day and night of the year. Clearly, this would be a badly needed shot in the arm for the neighborhood and the city, and who wouldn't like to see the 101-year-old theater cleaned up and restored to her former glory, made more accessible, safer, and as beautiful as she deserves?

Nevertheless, we are concerned.

On Monday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' Land Use and Transportation Committee voted to fully landmark the interior of the Castro Theatre, which could prevent the theater from being converted to a multi-purpose concert hall as APE proposes. Specifically, an amendment proposed by District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston would require fixed seating in the orchestra level.

Earlier this month, the Castro Merchants membership voted that we will endorse APE's plans for the Castro Theatre — but only once it produces an economic report that evaluates the likely impacts of its business plan on the neighborhood. And it must agree to participate in good faith negotiations with community groups that wish to protect the theater, and expand and diversify their planned film and LGBTQ programming.

We wait, with hope, for a response.

Castro Merchants has always been on the side of our small business members, and in the spirit of Harvey Milk, we will continue to work for an inclusive, diverse, and prosperous gayborhood that lifts everyone up to their full potential under that rainbow flag.

"You gotta give 'em hope!" — Harvey Milk

Terrance Alan is president of the Castro Merchants Association and owner of the Flore Dispensary on Noe Street.

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