SF planning staff recommends Castro rainbow flag landmarking

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Friday May 10, 2024
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San Francisco planning staff have recommended that the city's Historic Preservation Commission endorse landmarking of Gilbert Baker's rainbow flag installation at Castro and Market streets. Photo: Rick Gerharter
San Francisco planning staff have recommended that the city's Historic Preservation Commission endorse landmarking of Gilbert Baker's rainbow flag installation at Castro and Market streets. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The late gay artist Gilbert Baker's oversized rainbow flag installation in San Francisco's Castro district is a step closer to being recognized as a city landmark.

San Francisco Planning Department staff has recommended that the Historic Preservation Commission endorse for approval a landmark designation of the rainbow flag at Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro, seen as the front door to the LGBTQ neighborhood. The HPC will be taking up the matter at its May 15 meeting at 12:30 p.m., one week prior to the annual Harvey Milk Day observance May 22, on what would have been Milk's 94th birthday.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors agreed to kick-start the process in April after approving a resolution from gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman asking that the planning department "prepare a landmark designation report to submit to the Historic Preservation Commission for its consideration of the full historical, architectural, aesthetic, and cultural interest and value of Gilbert Baker's Rainbow Flag installation at Harvey Milk Plaza."

Per the city's landmark designation rules, a majority of the 11 supervisors would need to adopt an ordinance to officially add the flagpole to the list of local landmarks.

The oversized rainbow flag has been flying at Harvey Milk Plaza since November 8, 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of Milk's election to the Board of Supervisors. Milk, the first gay person elected to office in the city and state, took office in January 1978 and served for just 11 months before he and then-mayor George Moscone were assassinated that November by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White.

In its statement recommending landmarking, planning staff wrote, "The Rainbow Flag is significant as the only permanent installation of Rainbow Flag by the artist Gilbert Baker and an enduring symbol of diversity and acceptance. The Planning Department determined that the project is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The Commission's action would rely on that determination, and the Board of Supervisors' approval of the Landmark Designation would constitute the Approval Action for the project for the purposes of CEQA."

As the B.A.R. previously reported, Baker co-created the first rainbow flag with friends Lynn Segerblom, a straight ally who now lives in Southern California, and James McNamara, a gay man who died of AIDS-related complications in 1999. Baker and his friends came up with a rainbow flag design that had eight colored stripes, with one version also sporting a corner section of stars to mimic the design of the American flag. It debuted at the 1978 San Francisco Pride parade.

"It really is a three-person, not a one-person, flag making. Everybody played their part and then some," Segerblom told the B.A.R. in a 2018 phone interview from her home in Torrance, southwest of Los Angeles.

Baker would go on to eliminate the stars and reduce the number of colored stripes to six. Over the ensuing years, Baker turned that standard six-color banner into an international symbol of LGBTQ rights.

Baker died unexpectedly in 2017 at the age of 65, and the foundation created in his name donated a segment from one of the first rainbow flags that flew in front of San Francisco City Hall during the 1978 parade to the GLBT Historical Society Museum in the city's Castro neighborhood, where it is now on public display.

If the HPC approves the landmarking, it will return to the Board of Supervisors.

Mandelman stated to the B.A.R. that his office is "hoping to have this project done in time for this year's Pride celebration, which is especially fitting as Gilbert's Pride flag made its debut at a San Francisco Pride parade."

"I'm happy the Planning Department recommended landmarking the Gilbert Baker Rainbow Flag installation," he stated. "I look forward to getting this legislation passed by the board."

Charles Beal, a gay man who's president of the Gilbert Baker Foundation, stated, "Gilbert Baker Foundation is pleased and honored that the Gilbert Baker Rainbow Flag installation at Harvey Milk Plaza is one step closer to achieving landmark status. With our community under attack on so many fronts, it is heartening to know that the city of San Francisco would consider making permanent, this global symbol of hope, diversity and liberation."

In 2022, as the B.A.R. previously reported, the Gilbert Baker Foundation had hired architectural historian Shayne Watson, a lesbian who is an expert on the city's LGBTQ history, to conduct research on how the flagpole came to be as a first step toward declaring it a landmark. The Castro Merchants Association is supportive of the landmarking effort.

The merchants group is currently the flag's caretaker; most recently the association replaced it March 22, and it is slated to be replaced again in June before this year's Pride festivities. Tom Taylor had been the keeper of the flag, but he died in 2020, as the B.A.R. reported at the time. In the years preceding his death, the merchants had been involved with him and his assistant in the flag's caretaking.

"I am very happy to see this moving forward. It is so important that this historic symbol of hope and belonging be preserved," Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is president of the merchants association and co-owner of Cliff's Variety on Castro Street, stated to the B.A.R. May 10. "I am proud to be a steward of Gilbert Baker's rainbow flag."

The merchants association last year started a new program to donate retired rainbow flags to nonprofit organizations, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

Updated, 5/13/24: This article has been updated with comments from Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and the Gilbert Baker Foundation.

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