Political Notebook: At Disneyland, Harvey Milk saw inspiration for urban design

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 17, 2023
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The late supervisor Harvey Milk. Photo: Daniel Nicoletta
The late supervisor Harvey Milk. Photo: Daniel Nicoletta

A youth of the 1930s and 1940s, Harvey Milk grew up with the Walt Disney Company being a dominant player in the pop culture offerings of his day. The entertainment behemoth would use its television show "Walt Disney's Disneyland" that began airing in 1954 to help promote the under-construction Disneyland in Anaheim ahead of its opening the following year.

At the time, Milk was serving as a diving instructor in the Navy. The lieutenant (junior grade) was stationed at what was then called the Naval Air Missile Test Center in Ventura County in Southern California not too far from the theme park.

Two decades later, while living in San Francisco, Milk would visit Disneyland in 1976, according to his gay nephew Stuart Milk. The park's Main Street, inspired by small-town America and other design elements, apparently left quite an impression on the already prominent gay rights leader in the city.

Two years later, having been elected the first gay supervisor in San Francisco's history, Harvey Milk would point to both Disneyland and its counterpart theme park Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida, as examples for how city planners could better integrate residential and business centers into combined neighborhoods.

"One of the foremost designers of 'cities' are the people who built Disneyland. They originally created a miniature city for little people — children — that was a fantastic success," wrote Milk in a speech he would give to different groups. "With the techniques they developed and the information gained, they went on to design Disney World-with hotels and a monorail system for adults as well as kids. City planners now come from all over the globe to study Disney World."

Reached in Paris, where he is serving as the jury president for the sixth Paris International Prize for LGBTQI+ Rights Award, Stuart Milk told the Bay Area Reporter he wasn't sure if his uncle had ever been to the company's East Coast park.

"Not positive about Disney World however he was in Florida before my grandfather died," Stuart Milk wrote in a texted reply.

According to Jason Edward Black and Charles E. Morris III in their 2013 collection of Harvey Milk's various speeches and media interviews "Harvey Milk: An Archive Of Hope," Milk would give the stump speech known as his "I Have High Hopes Address" throughout the city during the summer of 1978. They only included the first two pages of the speech in their book, however, and omitted the third page that included the Disney reference.

The full three-page speech can be read online via the San Francisco Public Library's Digi Center. It is part of the library's online Hormel LGBTQIA Center Collection consisting of digitized materials from the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center housed at the city's Main Library in the Civic Center district.

It is strikingly relevant to various issues city leaders are confronting today, from how to care for the needs of a growing senior population to reimagining downtown office buildings hollowed out by work-at-home policies brought on by the COVID pandemic. Milk, who frequently championed seniors and their concerns, argued in his speech that too often they are "ignored" and "discarded" like empty beer cans instead of seen as "the most valuable resource" cities can deploy in myriad ways.

"Senior citizens don't suddenly lose their expertise, their knowledge of what makes things work, and how, at the magic age of 65," said Milk. "Instead of scrapping them, why not use them?"

He also questioned having "huge high-rise office buildings that stand empty two-thirds of the day." Instead of siloing workers into an area that "dies every evening at five when the workers go home," Milk asked people to "picture a city where the rush hour has been eliminated — because the factory and home are integrated into the same neighborhood and people walk to work!"

Of the speech, which also discussed how seniors could help people who commit minor crimes, Stuart Milk told the B.A.R., "Love Uncle Harvey's possible matching making of two vulnerable communities and imaginative thinking."

Tom Radulovich, a gay man who in January stepped down as executive director of the urban planning focused nonprofit Livable City, told the B.A.R. he was struck by how Milk's speech continues to echo today as San Francisco's elected leaders struggle with how to reinvent its downtown district and infuse it with new vitality, possibly by converting vacant office space into new housing.

"These were front and center issues in the 1970s, and we continue to talk about them," said Radulovich, who is now solely focused on policy and planning for the nonprofit. "It seems frustrating that we have not made a lot of progress on them in the past 50 years."

Radulovich noted the irony in Milk extolling the design virtues of Disney planners when today the term "Disneyfication" is used as an epithet within planning circles. In reality, Radulovich said many people love going to the parks because of how they are designed, offering car-free environments easily walkable and filled with various public transit options.

"Disneyland, if you talk to modernists, is a derogatory term. 'We don't want it to be Disneyland; Disneyland is bad.' Yet most people love Disneyland. One reason why is Americans will pay money to go some place where they can walk and take public transit all day. We should let these people design cities; they have figured it out," said Radulovich, a former elected member of the board that oversees the BART regional transit agency.

Michael T. Nguyen, a gay lawyer who is vice president of Livable City's board, told the B.A.R. after reading the speech that "Milk's words seem prescient." Current city leaders should take inspiration from Milk, he said, and look at arts, culture, and entertainment offerings for both young people and senior citizens for reviving downtown, along with his idea to use empty storefronts for childcare centers.

"The idea of having high rise buildings sitting empty for two-thirds of the day was as silly then as it is now," noted Nguyen. "The idea of mixed-use city centers is still very inspiring today. We are at an inflection point in the development of San Francisco, and Downtown, especially Chinatown, SOMA, and FiDi, needs some imagination and heart."

This Monday, May 22, on what would have been Milk's 93rd birthday, California will again observe Harvey Milk Day. Various groups in San Francisco are co-hosting a celebration Saturday in the Castro in honor of the state's annual day of special significance.

It will take place from 2 to 5 p.m. May 20 at Jane Warner Plaza on 17th Street near Castro and Market streets. The event will include speakers, a Drag Story Hour at 3 p.m., live music by DJ Nico and performances, including from the Queer Chorus of San Francisco.

As Milk said of his adopted home of San Francisco in his speech, "Granted its present problems, I have high hopes that the city of the future — our City of the future — will be one that will enrich the lives of all the people who live in it."

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on the continued lack of out LGBTQ female representation on San Francisco's historic preservation body.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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