San Francisco may be the most classically gay place in America. What we know as the cornerstones of contemporary gay culture can be traced back here… Yes, New York City, Miami, West Hollywood, Key West and plenty of other places can lay claim to pivotal gay cultural milestones and influences, but really… San Francisco is the heart and soul of “gay America,” and no neighborhood embodies this more than The Castro.
After all, the Castro is where Harvey Milk set up shop; literally. He opened Castro Camera at 575 Castro Street in 1972, founded the Castro Valley Merchants Association, established himself as a prominent local figure and soon enough, began running for public office. At just the same time, thousands of gay men were moving into the Castro neighborhood, cementing it as the thriving, legendary gay mecca that we know and love today.
In honor of Milk’s legacy, and spurred by Gus Van Sant’s big biopic Milk (out now in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco; opening wider on December 5th), here’s what I’ve conceived as maybe a perfect day spent celebrating the life, the times, the legacy and the neighborhood of Harvey Milk and his adopted hometown. Brace yourself for a really gay day.
Open those Golden Gates!
09:30am – A Historic Morning
Where ever you wake up in the city, head to the intersection of Castro and Market streets to begin your day. You’ve got just enough time to grab a coffee and a pastry, because we’ve got some walking ahead of us.
For a classic Castro cup of Joe, head into The Castro Cheesery (427 Castro St.; 415-552-6676; http://castrocheesery.com/), open since 1970. Yes, it’s a cheese shop, but they also brew killer fair-trade coffee and have a massive selection of gourmet beans. And muffins and pastries! If you’re a more post-mod/green type of fellow, you can do Peet’s (2257 Market St.; 415-626-6416; http://www.peets.com/) a couple of blocks down Market Street; or if you’re truly a classic Castro queen, hit up Spike’s Coffe & Teas (4117 19th St.; 415-626-5573; http://www.spikescoffee.com/) over on 19th St. And there’s always the cruisy institution that is Cafe Flore (2298 Market St; 415-621-8579; http://www.cafeflore.com/) on Market too, but it’s better to sit there later in the afternoon when you can linger and look at the parade passing you by. And if you like your latte with a side of burly man, the Starbucks (aka “Bearbucks) on 18th just off of Castro will get you steaming.
10:00am – 12:00pm; Cruisin’
It’s tour time. A great way to get an inside look at Milk’s Castro neighborhood is by taking a historical tour with local Kathy Amendola. Her company, Cruisin’ the Castro (tel. 415-255-1821; http://cruisinthecastro.com), was founded in 1989 by Trevor Hailey, and for the last few years Kathy has been guiding visitors through the ’hood’s gay history. Expect tons of great info on SF’s sexual history, how hippies paved the way for gays, and more. Kathy will also guide you personally by the Castro Theater and to the original location of Milk’s Castro Camera. The two takes about 2 hours, and is a very personal way to get introduced to this legendary area.
Bonus: If you’re in SF on a Wednesday, you can sign on for Kathy’s special “Harvey Milk Tour” which gives you an even more in-depth tour through Milk’s city, including a visit to City Hall, the Milk memorial, and the new GLBT Historical Society’s Castro Exhibit. This tour lasts three hours and ends at City Hall.
Since you may be ending up your tour with Kathy at Milk’s Castro Camera location, be sure to go inside and visit the very cool gay-owned houseware and design store that’s there now. Given (575 Castro St.; tel. 415-865-0353l http://www.givenonline.com/) is a treasure trove of great design items, cool home accessories, books, art pieces and furnishings. Chances are owner Nick will be there and can help you find something fab. And check out the great, colorful mural honoring Harvey Milk just inside the big front window.
A few doors down, you might wanna check out the new Levi’s Store (525 Castro St.; tel. 415-255-6726; http://levis.com) which just opened in the Castro. Levi’s was involved in the film Milk (you’ll see nonstop 501’s), and they sponsored a big benefit premiere, and as part of the deal of their opening this new Castro Street location, the company agreed to help fund the new GLBT Historical Society exhibition space at the corner of Castro & 18th. (More on that in a minute.) Inside the Levi’s Store, check out all the awesome vintage photos of gay life in the Castro from the ’70s. They’re timeless!
How about a little more history before lunch? San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society (499 Castro St.; tel. 415-777-5455; http://www.glbthistory.org) has a new exhibit space right at 18th and Castro, and it’s worth a look. The current exhibition, Passionate Struggle: Dynamics of San Franscisco’s GLBT History, guides you through the people, places, politics and pleasures of this still-busy gay mecca. At the website, you can even download a mp3 Audio Tour and print out a map to take you on a historic trek from the Castro all the way to City Hall.
1:30pm – Lunch!
You have to eat… A classically gay option right in the heart of the Castro is Harvey’s (500 Castro St.; tel. 415-431-HARV; http://www.harveyssf.com/), a reliable and sharp little cafe at the intersection of Castro and 18th Streets. It’s named after Mr. Milk, after all. Or if you’re jonesing for some seafood, the Anchor Oyster Bar (579 Castro St.; tel. 415-431-3990; http://www.anchoroysterbar.com/) right next door to Given serves up great seafood standards, like clam chowder and fantastic crab cakes, as well as fresh daily specials.
If you’re feeling less Castro queen and more foodie, consider Catch (2362 Market St.; tel. 415-431-5000; http://www.catchsf.com) over on Market (which just happens to occupy the space which was the first home to the AIDS Quilt and the Names Project, founded by Milk’s friend and contemporary Cleve Jones). Catch dishes up mod plates of fresh seafood, burgers and other gourmet treats.
If you take Kathy’s Wednesday morning “Harvey Milk Tour” and end up at City Hall come lunchtime, consider treating yourself an amazing lunch at Jardiniere (300 Grove St.; tel. 415-861-5555; http://www.jardiniere.com/). It’s swanky and upscale, drawing a smart biz crowd in the daytime (ballet/opera-goers at night). If Milk were alive and feeling fancy, no doubt he’d be willing to splurge. Or over in the cool Hayes Valley, stop in at Absinthe (398 Hayes St.; tel. 415-551-1590; http://www.absinthe.com). Top Chef 5’s lesbian chef Jamie is currently calling the shots.
3:00pm – 6:00pm
On Market Street, you can take a streetcar from the Castro down to City Hall and the Public Library where there’s more Milk touring to do. You’ll be following the well-trod route down Market where activists have traditionally marched carrying signs or candles (depending on the occasion, including following Milk’s assassination in 1978).
If you’re lucky, you can ride on the newly dedicated Harvey Milk Streetcar, which the SFMTA and Muni christened in October 2008. The streetcar will daily trace Milk’s commute from the Castro to City Hall, and will serve as a “rolling classroom to inform Muni customers about Supervisor Milk’s passion for improving Muni and city government in general for all San Franciscans,” said SFMTA honcho Nathaniel P. Ford, Sr. It’s a tram ride, and a trip through gay history. Milk would be proud; after all, he was the first City Supervisor to use a FastPass.
City Hall (1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place; tel. 415-554-4933; http://www.sfgov.org/site/cityhall) is open to the public. And it’s been a hub of GLBT activity for decades. Rosie O’Donnell married her wife Kelli here back in 2004 (alongside thousands of other gay newlyweds) and then in June 2008, when the CA Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, lifelong activists and partners Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were the first to officially get hitched, married by Mayor Gavin Newsom. And yes, this is where Harvey Milk went to work as a City Supervisor until he and Mayor George Moscone were shot by Dan White in 1978. The building is living history.
Get here earlier in the day for the official 45-minute tour (Mon-Fri; 10am, 12pm, 2pm). Or you can just stroll in on your own. If you want to visit the Harvey Milk City Hall Memorial, head up the stairs in the grand central atrium and on the second floor (at the top of the steps head forward and to the right) and you’ll see the lovely bust commemorating Milk.
And yes, on the opposite side of the second floor of City Hall is where Milk and Moscone were both murdered in their offices. These offices are still in use by the city, so you can’t visit them. But it’s impossible to visit here and not feel a sense of the rich history that the gay rights movement has witnessed here.
Just across from City Hall at the San Francisco Public Libraryy (100 Larkin St.; tel. 415-557-4400; http://sfpl.lib.ca.us/) from now until January 10, 2009, you can visit the fantastic photo exhibit “Harvey Milk: Public Life/Private Life.” It’s on the third floor of the library, tucked in and around the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, and the exhibit features tons of photographs from Milk’s life. See Milk on the beach (he’s buff), cuddling with boyfriends, check out letters and notes he penned to lovers, and best of all, you can see Milk’s own photos. He was a pretty gifted photographer!
6:00pm and Beyond
After all this touring, you need a drink! And dinner. And then maybe a movie?
First, the most historically classic spot to get a cocktail is the legendary Twin Peaks Tavern (401 Castro St.; tel. 415-864-9470; http://www.twinpeakstavern.com/) right on the corner of Castro and Market Streets. It’s here you’ll likely meet Milk’s contemporaries (meaning yes, the crowd veers toward the “mature” side). Jokesters call this historic watering hole the “Glass Coffin,” but show some props! Open since 1972, it was the first gay bar with big glass windows, so that patrons could see out, and outsiders could see in. The decor is old school: brass, ferns, Tiffany-esque lamps… Have a drink and pay homage.
For dinner in the Castro, if you want a folksy neighborhood experience, head to The Sausage Factory (517 Castro St; tel. 415-626-1250; http://www.castrosausagefactory.com/). Pasta, pizza—all the Italian staples; the joint’s been here since 1968! For a more mod/upscale option two reliable options are the festively stylish Mecca (2029 Market St; tel. 4154-621-7000; http://www.sfmecca.com/), which is the home to theme nights, weekly DJs and tasty American bistro fare; or the simply swank 2223 Market (2223 Market St.; tel. 415-431-0692; http://www.2223restaurant.com), which dishes up style and its own “New American” cuisine nightly.
After dinner, head to the Castro Theatre (429 Castro St; tel. 415-621-5288 ; http://www.castrotheatre.com) for a movie or a live show. Right now, Milk is showing. But just about anytime you can find a mix of classic or kitsch repertory cinema, big events like a Gay Men’s Chorus concert, or sing-along screenings of musicals like The Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz, or live shows by comedians like Joy Behar or legends like Petula Clark. The theater is gorgeous (built in 1922 with an exterior to resemble a Mexican Cathedral). And best of all is the historic pipe organ that gets played as an overture to all major events. When the organist begins charging through “San Francisco,” it doesn’t get any better.
Post-theatre, just hit one of the many local Castro watering holes. There’s a pretty good mix of nightlife flavors to be found. The Bar on Castro (456 Castro St; tel. 415-626-7220; http://www.thebarsf.com/) snags a younger crowd for buzzing theme nights; the Badlands (4121 18th St.; tel. 415-626-9320; http://www.sfbadlands.com/) boasts a little dance floor, music videos and a middle-of-the-road way-gay crowd. The Cafe (2367 Market St.; tel. 415-861-3846; http://www.cafesf.com) has been chugging along for years, cranking house and hip-hop, and other hooch-fueled bawdiness. And on 18th St just across the street from each other you’ll find The Mix (4086 18th St.; tel. 415-431-8616; http://www.sfmixbar.com/) which is no-frills neighborhood-bar drinking at its finest, and The Midnight Sun (4067 18th St.; tel. 415-861-4186; http://www.midnightsunsf.com/) which still plays music videos, The Simpsons and reality TV on its many, many screens. Kitschy, silly and tres gay… They’re all a part of classic San Francisco. Go have a laugh and enjoy some old-school fun. This festive gay neighborhood—and more importantly, the modern concept of gay visibility as we know it—lives on here because Harvey Milk fought the good fight on your behalf.