Friday, June 08, 2007

San Francisco Notes 2

Cities have an obligation to nurture both public space and private space to which the public is invited. A tourist city like San Francisco has a double obligation ... firstly to its citizenry and secondly to its financial future.

I took the day off yesterday to clean house ... got a little waylaid because the oil change on my '86 Honda Civic turned into a new radiator, new rear brakes, and a couple of tires. But I got some cleaning done, and took myself out to lunch. I went to Harvey's at 18th and Castro. This is a famous location. 18th and Castro is the moral center of the gay liberation movement ... our Vatican, as it were, a little slice of same-sex Mecca ... and it is still the heart of San Francisco's gay community. Harvey's, named after our martyr Harvey Milk, occupies the location that was once the Elephant Walk. It was the Elephant Walk that enraged San Francisco police officers trashed after the White Night riots in Civic Center in 1979 that followed upon the acquital of Dan White for murdering Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone. (White served five years for involuntary manslaughter based upon his novel Twinkie defense.) That was a turning point in gay history, and we have never gone back.

Harvey's replaced the Elephant Walk accompanied by some local grumbling a few years back. It is the only eatery on that great corner ... the other corners are a drug store, a bank, and a now empty former camera shop. Without warning a few weeks back, Harvey's windows were covered up, and a few days later there were announcements that the place was being renovated. Removations over, I thought I would check it out.

I guess they painted the place ... it has a vaguely Southwestern look, although I think they are trying for some kind of moederno-Italian chique. There are a couple of un-thought-through art pieces on a far wall, but the main wall viewable from Castro is big and empty and beige.

What are they thinking? This is the center of the gay universe ... the Castro is a huge tourist attraction particularly among gay men. And now the most visible eatery in the area has all the charm of a suburban mall cafe. There is absolutely no imagination in the place. The waiters have always been vaguely sexy in that "don't come hither" way of the self-assured unavailable ... too cool for school, frankly. But why can't they be funky, friendly, make the place a site, a location, somewhere people talk about. I made a little joke when I sat down, but he either didn't get it or didn't care.

Why don't they plaster the walls with the history of the place? Why do they play stupid rap music instead of doing a little research on the classic tunes that motivated gay men over the ages? Why do they just do the minimum, take their paltry profits, and avoid any suggestion that this place is more than they have made it? Really kind of nauseating.

This is where I believe that civic government has a responsibility. Tourists make us money, and public space, even privately owned, makes us a fascinating city. Why doesn't the city, or the local Supervisor, step in at some point and tell the owner, there's more here than your tiny head can see, so let's negotiate and see what we can make of this.

I guess that is not the American way ... better some dump than any hint of government involvement.

Meanwhile, the Castro is filled with empty storefronts, primary among them kitty corner to Harvery's where a camera chain abandoned its feeble efforts ... again, what is a chain store doing at such a central location? Local wags have it that landlords are all holding out for the big paydays from chain stores, and no small guys can afford the steroidal prices. Again, the city should intervene. I think they should ban chain stores in the area for five years, and enact some kind of commercial rent control. Give small business a chance to compete with the loss leader blandness of the cookie cutters that are crushing the life out of cities.

Photo by Arod of the famous Twin Peaks bar at 17th and Castro, the first gay bar ever to have plate glass windows.

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