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    Honoring Harvey Milk

    By Patrick Carney–

    Two new art pieces are coming to Harvey Milk Plaza on November 8, which is the 40th anniversary of the election of Harvey Milk as California’s first openly gay elected official:

    • Harvey’s Halo will raise a colorful beacon of equality into the sky;
    • Hope Will Never Be Silent will be a permanent display in neon, offering a welcoming message to The Castro at Harvey Milk Plaza.

    The visionary behind the two illuminated art pieces is Ben Davis, founder of Illuminate. Illuminate is a small, but mighty, non-profit organization behind The Bay Lights on the Bay Bridge, the Summer of Love lighting on the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, and other wondrous light installations. Illuminate operates with a deep love and commitment to San Francisco and its history. According to their Mission Statement, Illuminate rallies large groups of people together to create impossible works of public art that, through awe, free humanity’s better nature: “Through public art, we reaffirm our commitment to equality for all.” 

    Davis has lived in San Francisco for 25 years, but had only experienced Harvey Milk Plaza in passing when he was approached by the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza to create a display within the context of the plaza’s upcoming redo. He quickly observed that the plaza is not an inspiring place to honor one of our important historical figures. He understands that there is a competition in progress to redesign the space, but he was surprised that the plaza is merely a transit station where a few plaques were added later mentioning Harvey Milk and outlining his story.

    “The plaza is not up to the measure of the man,” according to Davis. “The challenge of Harvey Milk Plaza isn’t just a redesign. It needs a re-imagination and rebuilding that honors Harvey Milk. We must set our sights higher in this important neighborhood and on this important corner.” 

    Hope Will Never Be Silent

    Davis was honored to be asked by Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza to help bring some art and pizazz to the Plaza until the redesign competition is completed, funded and finally constructed—which could be years. He studied the Plaza and the larger area around it.

    The energy that kept coming to him was located at the small upper portion of Harvey Milk Plaza and the curve of the historic commercial building (former Bank of America). There are five small flags along the curve of the parapet juxtaposed to the large Gilbert Baker Rainbow Flag flying on the pole along Market Street; that curve was the area he chose for the new art pieces. 

    He looked at the façade of the existing building and noticed the missing tooth in the cornice where the former Bank of America sign used to be. He determined that it is large enough for what he called a new “permanent message of community hope,” which will act as a “neighborhood greeting” for locals and tourists alike. This message will draw attention back to Harvey Milk himself and will be a way to honor one of the most important civil rights heroes to come out of not only San Francisco or California, but also of the nation itself. Davis studied Harvey Milk’s writings and multiple pieces written about Milk. After all of that research, five words resonated with Davis: “Hope will never be silent.”

    After selecting the phrase, Davis personally liked the idea of neon to convey Milk’s important and simple message, because it was used for middle-American messaging for generations. Neon was very common in the era of Milk. It is a material of the masses, plus he said, “Neon is made of glass, it is vulnerable, [and] it reminds me of the man.”

    When asked why he chose white as the color for the neon Milk-quote, Davis responded that the understated nature of white allows Milk’s words to stand out. He wanted to emphasize Milk’s “somber, steady and enduring message,” he added. The medium therefore will remain neutral so it won’t compete or distract from the message itself. 

    “It is to remain in its own universe,” Davis said. “Harvey’s simple message must be what people take in and remember. The nearby large rainbow flag is beautiful and certainly colorful, but an unflinching steadiness for Harvey’s words is needed to reflect the clarity of his message. The white neon will allow Milk’s words to remain prominent.” 

    Andrea Aiello of Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza remarked: “Personally, the first time I saw the concept for the white neon quote, ‘Hope Will Never Be Silent,’ it took my breath away. I literally gasped. The simplicity and the pure message of Harvey’s was stunning.” 

    Through a friend, Davis was put in contact with a neon signage expert named Bill Concannon of Aargon Neon located in Crocket, CA.  By chance, Concannon was in Milk’s camera store in 1975 and met him there. Ironically, years later when the movie Milk was being filmed in San Francisco, the producers approached Concannon to recreate neon signage of the 1970s on Castro so the street would look how it appeared when Milk was politically on the rise. A coincidental historic link therefore exists between Concannon, Milk, and the Castro neighborhood; a connection that will be further strengthened when Concannon’s neon implementation of Davis’ and Illuminate’s “message from Harvey” is unveiled on November 8.

    Neon maker Concannon’s website explains: “Neon signs transform and decorate buildings, and form our image of the urban night. But what does all this have to do with art? Actually quite a bit. From the 19th century beginnings of gas discharge tubing known as Geissler tubes, ‘neon-like’ tubes have been used to depict images and text. Light has long been used by artists to graphically depict the metaphysical. As Lili Lakich observes, ‘Neon makes the metaphor real.’ The neon tubes found in signs are the last hand-made electric lights in common usage, and almost all neon tubes are made to human scale; all but a very few are made by hand and all have a maximum overall dimension of no more than 8’ in length and weigh no more than two pounds. This is true even on huge Las Vegas displays. The author Tom Wolfe in his article about neon signs in Las Vegas observed that neon signs were a 20th century form of folk art.”

    Aiello knew the building’s landlord and introduced the owner to Davis. The landlord liked the idea. SoulCycle, the tenant in the building, also joined with enthusiastic support. Davis remarked: “Everyone came together for this project: the building owner, the building’s tenant, and the neon maker.” Aiello predicts that “Harvey’s message on the building will become a beacon for all those who come to the Castro searching for strength, freedom and equality.”

    Davis believes that Harvey’s memory fills us with joy and sorrow. He explained that this is because of “the joy of his 1977 election on November 8 and the sorrow of his tragic 1978 assassination a little over a year later on November 27.” Rather than dedicate this important artwork on the anniversary of Milk’s death, the date of November 8 was selected as a time to reflect on the “joy” of Milk. Davis said, “On November 8, let us honor Harvey Milk with our joy, [and] our reaffirmation to the values for which he dedicated his life. Sorrow will know where to find us on November 27. On the evening of November 8, let us fill the Castro and the sky with the truest, most beautiful and loving story of who we are.”

    The November 8 dedication ceremony will include several prominent speakers and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus will be performing. It will be a community event. According to Davis, the new art pieces are meant “to shine the spotlight on love, unity and equality.”

    The neon message Hope Will Never Be Silent will be a permanent greeting to the larger community right next to Gilbert Baker’s giant Rainbow Flag.  November 8 is a double anniversary: the 40th anniversary of the election of Harvey Milk and the 20th anniversary of the installation of Gilbert’s jumbo Rainbow Flag and flagpole.     

    Harvey’s Halo

    Davis said that “the Halo of colored lights above the Milk neon quote is a beacon to remember the joy brought about by Harvey’s vision.” If atmospheric conditions are right, it will rise into the night sky and should be visible as far as the Ferry Building at the end of Market Street. Regarding the word halo, Davis was asked what its connotations are. “It is intentionally honorific, suggesting sainthood and the acknowledgment of hallowed ground,” he replied. “This place is a mecca to millions after all. People’s personal journey of self-discovery leads them here from all over the world. To hoist a halo over Harvey Milk feels appropriate in this context.” 

    Some might find the word halo to be controversial. Davis, however, quoting Oscar Wilde said that “an idea that is not dangerous or controversial is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” Davis reminded that Milk came from New York to San Francisco to live his true self. He rose to prominence along Castro Street and gave some of his important bullhorn speeches right at what is now Harvey Milk Plaza, so this is indeed hallowed ground!

    Harvey’s Halo will include 15 vertical light bands matching the colors used by Baker in his iconic Rainbow Flag. Davis came up with the number working with the architectural vocabulary of the building’s curve. Harvey’s Halo for now is to be a temporary display for seven nights spread over two weekends after its initial debut November 8.  Perhaps in the future it will become permanent.  

    Interactive Poster of Harvey Milk

    In addition to the two art pieces, Illuminate worked with the Haight Street Art Center and artist John Mavroudis to create a beautiful, clever, intricate and educational poster.  The interactive poster is an invitation for the public to learn about our history. Davis said, “We honor Harvey Milk’s memory by honoring the lives of over 140 other historic and contemporary LGBTQ activists.” A link to the poster can be found on the website and honors not just Milk, but also the entire LGBTQ community worldwide. The facial image of Milk on the poster is made up of tiny colored names of activists that form the contours and features of Milk’s face and clothing.  

    The Rage Within

    After a discussion of many of Davis’ and Illuminate’s beautiful works, he was asked why a straight man has such passion for this project and so many other LGBTQ issues. “I’m known as a promoter of peace and love,” he said, “but some fundamental part of me burns with rage. Injustice boils my blood. In those moments, I strive to stay calm, look within and find the love in my rage.”

    Davis grew up in a diverse neighborhood of Boston. He started high school in 1974, the first year of “forced busing” when Boston’s racism flared. “Violence, intolerance, ignorance, hatred, and fear filled our daily lives. Empathy for ‘the other’ is easy to come by when it’s your best friends who are ‘the others’ and they are under verbal and physical attack.” Later, Davis—who says he has always been attracted to the innate beauty of marginalized people—developed many gay friendships, and then watched in horror as HIV/AIDS started claiming lives and once again unleashed gross social prejudices. “An injustice against one is an injustice against all,” he said. “How we look and who we love should not be the determinant of opportunity in our lives.”

    Davis takes his role in the Plaza upgrade seriously. He said, “This plaza redesign is an opportunity bordering on responsibility to put our best foot forward; finding the love in our rage.” Illuminate’s highly aspirational mission of changing humanity’s future for the better via public art is a reflection of the organization’s core belief. Davis said, “The art is designed to honor the life and legacy of Harvey Milk through light’s power of attraction.” He added that “passion” and “community” set the tone. “We are going deep on this project; out of love for the city of San Francisco and Harvey Milk,” he continued. “We have a true sense of commitment of passion and community; otherwise it is just a light show!”

    According to Davis, “1977 was tumultuous, moving and welcoming to Harvey Milk,” who was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that historic year. His election’s 40th Anniversary celebration ceremony and art illumination dedication on November 8 are a re-affirmation to California’s commitment to equality. It is intended to be a one-day holiday from the “T-word”—Trump—and a renewed call to live our lives as our true selves as Milk urged us to do. 

    Davis said that “the anecdote for the current chaos and division in our nation is living our true lives.” As Davis read The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts, he was amazed by the part about how quickly things changed in 1933 Berlin. Davis said, thinking of that history: “We have to continue to take charge and control of our lives.”

    Times and circumstances can indeed change quickly. According to Aiello, “The goal of this [November 8] event is to honor Harvey Milk and his vision for equality and hope. The art amplifies this and is meant to further inspire the community.” She added, “We are awed by the art Ben Davis and Illuminate have created.”

    Dedication of Harvey’s Halo and the Neon Quote ‘Hope Will Never Be Silent’

    November 8 at 6pm @ Harvey Milk Plaza


    To Donate

    Non-profit and Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza invite you to honor Harvey Milk’s life and legacy by helping fund the cost of installing the artwork. More than half of the $60K has been raised so far.

    Patrick Carney is a Co-Founder of The Friends of the Pink Triangle. The group, with the help of many dedicated volunteers, constructs a gigantic pink triangle on Twin Peaks each year during the last weekend in June. Carney, who worked on the restoration of San Francisco City Hall, was appointed to the City Hall Preservation Advisory Commission in 2013.


    Honor Harvey Milk: 40th Anniversary Celebration

    6:00 pm–7:00 pm

    At the corner of Market & Castro Streets


    Planned Program (in planned order of appearance):

    DJ Jacatak as attendees arrive

    Kate Kendell and Gregg Cassin

    Anne Kronenberg, Allan Baird, Danny Nicoletta and Gwenn Craig

    Tom Ammiano

    Lighting of Harvey’s Halo and a performance by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus

    Tribute to Gilbert Baker by Supervisor Jeff Sheehy

    Jan Mirikitani and Ramona Webb to present a poem/Spoken Word performance                

    Harvey Milk speech remix

    Ben Davis to unveil Hope Will Never Be Silent in neon

    San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus

    DJ Jacatak to close the event