The revolution brewing in San Francisco’s Castro district sounds familiar

Olivia Murray wrote about the fact that business owners in San Francisco’s Castro district are fed up that the city is doing nothing to stop the influx of homeless into the district, complete with bodies splayed on the sidewalk, litter and, of course, human waste. For those of us who remember the city in the 1970s, this is a familiar tale—and one rife with possibilities.

Beginning in the 1960s, San Francisco had the biggest and most vibrant gay meccas in the world, located right on Castro Street, with the hub where Castro intersected with Market. By the mid-1970s, we high school students often went there for the great old movies at the Castro Theater, to visit the cool boutiques, to eat at the trendy-but-still-affordable restaurants and, naturally, take in the street scene.

The hedonism was off the charts as mostly gay men and a few lesbian women, all fresh “out of the closet,” reveled in their new freedoms. To get a sense of the “scene,” just read Armistead Maupin’s first Tales of the City book. The book started as a daily chapter read in the San Francisco Chronicle, and perfectly captured the joyous zeitgeist on Castro Street.

Image: Harvey Milk by Ted Sahl, Kat Fitzgerald, Patrick Phonsakwa, Lawrence McCrorey, Darryl Pelletier. CC BY-SA 4.0.

One of the people enjoying life in the Castro was Harvey Milk, who had served in and been discharged from the Navy during the Korean War because of his homosexuality. In the subsequent years, he moved around the U.S., holding a variety of jobs and passing through several relationships. In 1972, he finally landed in San Francisco’s blossoming Castro district, where he opened a camera store.

Milk became interested in politics for two reasons: gay rights and the city’s anti-business climate, although his concerns expanded to the whole panoply of leftist political issues. And of course, let’s not forget the dog poop. Milk was enraged by the city’s failure to clean up dog poop. When he ran for office as a city supervisor, he promised to change the law to get people to clean up after their dogs—and he kept that promise:

Although popular in his district, Milk ironically attained his greatest fame when Dan White, another supervisor, assassinated both Milk and Mayor George Moscone. He was instantly elevated to the status of gay martyr. When White was convicted only for voluntary manslaughter, rather than first-degree murder (allegedly thanks to the “Twinkie defense”), gays rampaged through the city in what was called the White Night riots. It was at that moment that many gays realized that they had political power.

There’s a certain symmetry in the fact that, while the Castro once sent Harvey Milk to city hall to fight the scourge of dog poop, the Castro is again fighting the scourge of poop, this time from humans. Milk’s political odyssey reflected the gay community’s increasingly leftist radicalism. Maybe this time around, the gay community’s poop wars will help constrain that radicalism as they realize that the leftism they’ve embraced for so long is not serving them well.

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