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    Abrupt Closure of Harvey’s Draws Attention to LGBTQ Importance of 500 Castro Street

    Like the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one, the abrupt closure of restaurant, bar, and community venue Harvey’s on January 22, 2023, left many in the Castro saddened and in shock. Aside from a message on a dry-erase board placed in front of the site earlier that morning, there had been no prior public notice of closure, no final announced event, and no proper chance to say goodbye and absorb the loss with fellow patrons. (Editor’s Note: Since the publication of this story, Harvey’s announced that there will be a fundraiser event, “Harvettes: One Last Night With Friends,” on January 28 from 4 pm to closing. See the Harvey’s Instagram page for more information.) On Instagram that day, the Harvey’s team simply shared, with an image of the board, “The writing is now on the wall. We will always love you!”

    The Cove on Castro posted in response: “No words … “

    Leather activist, author, and sex educator Race Bannon also commented on the closure: “For those reading this who aren’t familiar with the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, Harvey’s is what I would consider a neighborhood anchor business. Been there for years. It’s right on the most highly trafficked corner. It has a long queer community history. It was a living legacy business honoring Harvey Milk. Its closing is a big deal for us.”

    Jimmy Strano of the Castro Country Club wrote, “The SF Historical Society should seek to preserve the space and we should come together as a community and restore it to (The) Elephant Walk, have the community pitch in to take it, and we can run it with inclusivity and generosity, giving back to the organizations that work so hard to further our rights and showcase universal love.”

    The Elephant Walk

    Before Harvey’s opened in 1996, 500 Castro Street in the early 1970s was occupied by Anderson’s Pharmacy. On November 27, 1974, Fred Rogers and David Manducca took over the space and created The Elephant Walk bar and restaurant. They named it after the 1954 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Finch. The film was set in British Ceylon, now known as the South Asian island country of Sri Lanka, which inspired the venue’s iconic etched glass elephant image and other décor.

    During the earliest days of his political career and after he was elected Supervisor of then District 5, Milk (1930–1978) frequented The Elephant Walk and called it “a place where the gay community could meet and feel safe and secure.” Milk friend Rink, who is the San Francisco Bay Times’ lead photographer, took a now famous photo of him at The Elephant Walk in October 1977, showing him at a birthday celebration for activist Cleve Jones. Joining them were Doug Perry and Eric Garber—all clearly having an enjoyable, relaxed time.

    Milk took office on January 8, 1978, but was not even able to serve a full year within his term. On November 27, 1978, both he and Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed in their City Hall offices by Supervisor Dan White. As the Harvey’s website recounts, “On May 21, 1979, White was convicted of the crime but only charged with manslaughter. Outraged by the verdict, the community numbering in the thousands marched to City Hall in protest. During the march some isolated groups smashed windows, set trash cans ablaze, hurled bottles and rocks through windows and set fire to several police cars. In response to the riots the San Francisco police started one of their own. They targeted The Elephant Walk and began breaking the windows, damaging the property and beating the patrons inside the bar in rebuttal to the downtown riots. While the district mourned the loss of their ‘heart’ they drew on strength from one another to cope with the blow to the community.”

    Then Bay Times publisher, Kim Corsaro, who passed last year, was among those injured during what were later called the White Night riots.

    Reopened as Harvey’s

    The Elephant Walk remained in business for another decade before a fire led to its closure. After several years of restoration and other work, the building’s present owner, Paul Langley, reopened the restaurant and bar in 1996 as Harvey’s in honor of Milk and the site’s importance to the LGBTQ community—both because of Milk’s own fondness for it and also because of the White Night riots significance. Located at the corner of 18th and Castro, the site is and was at the heart of the Castro neighborhood.

    For all of these reasons, Harvey’s has been a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. As a visitor from Provincetown, MA, recently wrote at Yelp: “Go for the history and stay for the food and drinks.”

    The menu, with such offerings as the Sylvester Burger (Angus beef with American cheese, bacon, and BBQ sauce) and Big Bloody Marys named after other celebrities, was fun and approachable. The brunch fare, served until 3 pm daily, and dinner entrées were comforting and hearty.

    Many of us at the Bay Times fondly recall community and political events held at Harvey’s over the years. State Senator Scott Wiener used to hold campaign events at the venue. Community leader Gary Virginia regularly hosted fundraisers there. Bay Times publisher Dr. Betty Sullivan back in the day would cap off group visits to see the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus at the Castro Theatre on Christmas Eve with a visit to Harvey’s. These are just a handful of the numerous events with LGBTQ community importance that took place at 500 Castro Street. It is little wonder that the late Trevor Hailey, creator of Cruisin’ the Castro tours, included the site on her stops, as does present Cruisin’ owner Kathy Amendola.

    Then there were the beloved drag shows, such as the trivia nights hosted by talented BeBe Sweetbriar, and the recently premiered Harvey’s Harvettes that included impersonator Christina Ashton, Ducal Court Reigning Empress Kelly Rose, stylist Kipper Snacks, and Olivia Heart. The venue not long ago invested in a new sound system, and seemed to be ramping up for more events to come. We feel for these artists and the hardworking Harvey’s staff, given their losses of both valued work friendships and income.

    Abrupt Closure

    As of this writing, the management and owner have not provided detailed reasons for Harvey’s sudden shuttering. Manager David Facer, however, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the closure was “a sign of the times.” He added, “Covid kicked us in the butt. We see it all across the Bay Area.”

    There were also personnel problems in recent months. In terms of finances, Hoodline reported that Harvey’s received two Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program loans: $140,000 in March 2021 and $100,000 in May 2021.

    Owner Langley, who has other real estate holdings, does not live in the Bay Area and has suffered from chronic health issues in recent years. It may then be that a combination of factors led to the sudden decision to close Harvey’s. It is certainly not the only closure to impact the neighborhood. Nearby Mexican restaurant El Capitan, the Levi’s Store, Sunglass Hut, and garden center Hortica have all closed in the Castro in recent months. There are also vacancies at the former Puff ‘n Stuff, Dogo Love, Hamburger Mary’s, and Under One Roof locations.

    Businesses Eager to Open at 500 Castro

    The future of 500 Castro is now unclear, but Supervisor Rafael Mandelman sheds some light on what could be possible.

    He told Hoodline that “it is certainly disappointing to see another vacant storefront, particularly in the central location like Harvey’s.” He then, however, quickly added, “I have had several people reach out to me in the last year looking for spaces where they might consider opening bars or restaurants in the Castro.”

    “There is actually a shortage of spaces with landlords who are motivated to lease their space,” Mandelman continued. “If this owner is interested in renting out that space and is willing to charge a reasonable rent, there are operators interested in opening restaurants and bars in the Castro. It should be relatively easy to fill it, but it has a lot to do with how motivated the property owner is.”

    Mandelman plans to contact Langley soon to see if he can help facilitate this possible plan that could open a new chapter for the historic site.

    Cover Story
    Published on January 25, 2023