Strides Forward for Pride: Updates on the Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza

Daniel Cunningham-8174_promo web

SWA Designer
Daniel Cunningham
tells the story:

This Pride Month, SWA is proud to continue working to bring to reality the redesign of Harvey Milk Plaza as an inspired memorial honoring the late San Francisco Board of Supervisors official – one of the United States’ first openly gay elected officials, who remains a civil rights icon to this day. We are always gratified when our work provides opportunities for social impact, whether that involves prioritizing freedom of education, procession, and assembly, celebrating civil rights leaders like Nelson Mandela, or providing equitable green space for underserved communities.

Milk was assassinated in 1978 along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. The plaza bearing his name lies at the prominent intersection of Market and Castro Streets, in the heart of San Francisco’s historically gay district. Since the 1960s, the Castro District has been the center for LGBTQ+ activism and culture, with the plaza acting as a gathering place from the days of the gay liberation front to the ongoing struggles of today. Since his assassination, the LGBTQ+ community has sought to celebrate the legacy of Harvey Milk, but until now there has been widespread no consensus on what that should look like. With a groundswell of community support the Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza is moving closer to reality, with the plan on track to be shovel-ready by Summer 2023.

This coming November, San Francisco Associate Principal and project lead Daniel Cunningham will join SWA Associate Sam Dent and Brian Springfield, the Executive Director of Friends of Harvey Milk (FHMP) and Tina Aguirre, the city’s LGBTQ Cultural District Manager, to lead a tour highlighting LGBTQ+ history, Harvey Milk’s impact, queer arts, and future development that will define the district. The tour will be part of the 2022 ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture. (Please see details below.)

We asked Daniel for the latest developments on this welcome contribution to the City of San Francisco, long known as a mecca for LGBTQ+ pride and civil rights discourse. In a 2021 interview, he describes the design as a way to “give form to (Harvey’s) vision of equality and authenticity for everyone, everywhere.”

The existing Harvey Milk Plaza is located at the entry to one of San Francisco’s busiest transit stations, with interest in the redesign stemming from both the public and private sides. What can you tell us about recent updates since the design was revealed to the community in 2021?

The project has always been about balancing the needs of a busy transit station with the needs of a community and memorial. The current design takes both into account, and will provide benefits to critical city infrastructure both physically and socially. Above all, this was a community-led project; in collaboration with FHMP, our online engagement process was extensive. We’ve taken care to present and welcome ideas from every major community group in the Castro, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive – the project has received written endorsements from every major community group in the Castro, including the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, the Castro Merchants Association, the Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club, the Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association, the Castro Community Benefit District, the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, and the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club. The design was also unanimously approved by the San Francisco Arts Commission, the group responsible for reviewing and approving the design of public space in San Francisco, in September 2021.

Public-private partnerships can be tricky to navigate – there are a lot of stakeholders in the mix.

On the public side, we’ve been extraordinarily fortunate, and that is a testament to the redesign’s impact. Rafael Mandelman, who currently represents District 8 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, took note, as did Scott Wiener, his predecessor on the Board and now a California State Senator; they both continue to support the project. Weiner was able to secure an additional $1.5 million in state funding (and $2.5M to date), both sharing their support in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle. We were also fortunate to have the support of Mayor London Breed, who has been complimentary of SWA’s design and FHMP’s efforts.

On the private side, FHMP has moved into preliminary fundraising mode to reach community members who are eager the be some of the first to support the project! The effort kicked off in May 2022 and has already raised over $125,000 from private donors to supplement the $3 million contributed from public sources.

In November, you are scheduled to co-lead an in-person tour as part of the 2022 ASLA Conference. What is planned for that upcoming events?

Sam Dent and I, who are both with SWA’s San Francisco studio, are excited be joining LGBTQ Cultural District Manager and FHMPS Director Brian Springfield to co-lead an ASLA walking tour called “LGBTQ+ Castro: Past, Present, and Future” on the first day of ASLA’s 2022 Conference on Landscape Architecture here in San Francisco. It’s a field session, currently scheduled for Friday, November 11 from 11:00AM-5:00PM, and will take participants along an in-depth journey of the Castro District, highlighting significant spaces of LGBTQ+ activism and arts.

We’ll begin at Moscone Center – which is named for the San Francisco Mayor who was assassinated along with Harvey in 1978. Being in November 43 years later, the tour itself will serve as a commemoration of sorts. We’ll be speaking about Harvey’s story and visiting the places he worked as a Supervisor, photographer, and activist. We’ll also be exploring the landmarks and history of the Castro District itself, and touching on some of the movement’s symbolism – the Castro Theatre and rainbow flag in particular. The intent is to hear a multitude of voices, so participants should expect to meet a few special guests along the way.

All those of us who have been involved with this project in recent years are enthused about the outpouring of support it’s received from the community and the City, both financially and in terms of thoughtful engagement and critique. SWA is not only celebrating pride this month by recognizing past LGBTQ+ civil rights achievements – we’re also working with communities to bring spaces to life that will inspire the work that has yet to be done.