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Winter 2008 | Milking the Castro's Queer History

Winter 2008 | Milking the Castro's Queer History

Winter 2008 | Milking the Castro's Queer History

San Francisco?s Castro district is bracing for a flood of tourists after its star turn in Gus Van Sant?s biopic Milk. Shot on location, the movie stars Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay men elected to public office.

The most anticipated queer flick since Brokeback Mountain, it is more than just one man?s story. It is also a tale about the Castro?s birth as a center of gay politics and culture.

When Milk landed in San Francisco in 1972, the gay community had just begun to take hold in the Castro, then a waning Irish-American enclave situated in Eureka Valley in the heart of the city. From his camera shop Milk led the area?s gay transformation. Dubbed ?the Mayor of Castro Street,? he harnessed his popularity to win a board of supervisors seat in 1977.

A year later Milk?s dizzying rise to power was cut short when Dan White, a former board colleague, assassinated Milk and then-mayor George Moscone in their City Hall offices. Van Sant?s film brings to life this chapter in gay history and re-creates Castro Street during its 1970s glory days.

Travelers prompted by the movie to head to the gayborhood, though, will quickly realize that the film?s verisimilitude is merely movie magic.
Here then is a fact-versus-fiction guide to several locations depicted on screen:

1. 575 Castro St.: Milk's Camera Shop

Currently home to Given, a high-end gift shop with a mural of Milk, the film crew transformed it back into Milk?s camera shop and campaign headquarters. A timeworn drawing of Milk keeps watch from a second-floor window. An extra in one scene whom no one recognized is said to have been Milk?s ghost.

2. 400 Castro St.: Harvey Milk Plaza

The plaza named posthumously for Milk served as the gathering point for several marches he led to City Hall. During Milk?s time the multilevel transit station was under construction; today, a photographic memorial of Milk?s life is displayed in the below-ground courtyard.

3. 440 Castro St.: Toad Hall bar

A facade of the infamous dance hall was re-created at this site. But Toad Hall?s real address was 482 Castro St., a space that was swallowed up by an expansion of Walgreens. The name has since been appropriated for a bar on 18th Street whose owner fondly recalls patronizing Toad Hall in Milk?s day.

4. 429 Castro St.: Castro Theatre

The 1920s movie palace?s marquee and neon sign were restored to their disco-era look for the film. Van Sant used the roof to shoot scenes of TV reporters covering the marches Milk led from the plaza across the street.

5. 499 Castro St.: corner of 18th and Castro streets

This corner store space doesn?t appear in the movie but is being used to mount a special historical exhibit tied to the release of Milk. The show traces San Francisco?s emergence as a gay mecca and includes the suit Milk wore November 27, 1978, the day he was killed.

6. 50 Scott St.: Harvey Milk Center for Recreational Arts, Duboce Park

City officials renamed the center in Milk?s honor six months after his death. It sits atop Duboce Park, where Milk, seeking media attention for his law requiring dog owners to pick up their pooches? poop, planted a pile of doggy do-do to pick up for the cameras.
The renovated center is set to reopen in January with a new exhibit/art installation about Milk. A 1988 outdoor mural about Milk was painted over and replaced by a rendering of the supervisor?s quote ?The American dream starts with neighborhoods.?

7. 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place: San Francisco City Hall

The film crew gained access to the Beaux-Arts style building?s Manchurian oak?paneled board chambers for filming, and other scenes were shot throughout the landmark building?s marble corridors. Atop the grand staircase underneath the ceremonial rotunda -- where gay and straight couples hold wedding ceremonies -- sits a bronze memorial bust of a smiling Milk, his tie blown backward by the wind. It is the first such tribute to a gay American to be placed in a seat of government.

Van Sant?s Milk is scheduled for wide release December 5.

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