Editors’ note: For purposes of clarity, “Milk” refers to the film and “Harvey” to the person.
There are, including watching the . The 2008 biopic about Harvey Milk is more than just a fantastic film. It brilliantly shows how Harvey led a civil rights movement that fought for inclusion and equality. His legacy .
The film’s quality and authenticity come, in part, from the fact that it was filmed on location in San Francisco’s Castro District, the city’s center of gay life and the neighborhood Harvey represented on the city’s Board of Supervisors before he was assassinated in 1978. For the movie, storefronts were dressed to match the neighborhood businesses from the 1970s, and cars from the era were parked on the streets.
Of course today’s San Francisco has changed a lot from 1978 and even from 2008 when the film came out, but the locations critical to the film and Harvey’s life still exist. You can celebrate Pride Month with a tour of these sights. If you’re not in the Bay Area, I’ve noted where you can take online tours. Or you can catch them on Google Street View.
Harvey Milk Plaza
You can start at the corner of Castro and Market streets under the giant Rainbow Flag (designed by SF-based artist Gilbert Baker). As the town square of the neighborhood, Harvey Milk Plaza is used both as a gathering place and a starting point for rallies that then head down Market Street to City Hall. You can savor the community’s lively energy and look at the photos of Harvey’s life that adorn the entrance to a transit station. In the film, Harvey, who is played by Sean Penn, gives a speech here announcing his first (unsuccessful) run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1975 while standing on a soapbox. Across Market Street is Pink Triangle Park, which honors gay people murdered by Nazi Germany.
Twin Peaks Tavern
Opened in 1972, Twin Peaks Tavern (401 Castro) is (likely) the first gay bar in the country with plate glass windows, allowing people walking by to see who might be inside. Before that, most gay bars were windowless places where closeted patrons hid from their communities. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been kind to the bar — it turned to crowdfunding to stay afloat during lockdown — but it oozes history and is a cozy and welcoming place to have a drink. In the film, activist Cleve Jones (played by Emile Hirsch) persuades patrons inside to join an impromptu gay rights protest by shouting, “Out of the bars and into the streets!” Close by is Hot Cookie (407 Castro). You won’t find a ton of gay history here, but you will find amazing cookies.
Steps away is the Castro Theatre (429 Castro), the neighborhood’s showpiece and the site of Milk’s 2008 premiere where Penn made a red carpet appearance. Opened in 1922, the Castro Theatre is one of the last grand movie palaces. Its signature marquee plays a prominent role in the film. The elaborately carved exterior and the rich interior with its huge art deco chandelier have been carefully preserved. Add in a pre-show organ, and it’s a wonderful place to catch a movie. It’s also used for drag shows, speakers and other events. The theater remains closed due to the pandemic, but hopefully will open soon.
Though the current Toad Hall bar is now located at 4146 18th Street (a short walk from the Castro Theatre), 40 years ago it was at 482 Castro (now part of the corner Walgreens) as the first gay bar in the Castro to allow dancing.
After its 1971 opening, it was the target of police raids for no reason other than harassing patrons for being in a gay space (an all-too common experience in the three decades following World War II). One of those raids is depicted in the film, serving as a catalyst for Harvey to become politically active as the “Mayor of Castro Street.” The onscreen raid was filmed at 440 Castro, now the location of a bar called 440 Castro with the same name.
Harvey’s Castro Camera shop
You can then walk up past 18th Street to 575 Castro. This was the location of Harvey’s camera store, Castro Camera, which also functioned as a community center, a hangout for neighborhood newcomers and campaign headquarters. Harvey opened the store in 1972 and later moved into the flat above the shop, where he lived until his death.
A clothing store operated by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQI advocacy organization, occupied the space up until April, but the film crew carefully restored the space during Milk’s production and shot scenes on location. You can view memorial plaques set into the sidewalk and look up to the second floor for the painting of Harvey looking down onto the neighborhood he loved. Additional sidewalk plaques throughout the Castro celebrate other famous LGBTQI people.
Swirl on Castro
Across the street at 527 Castro Street is Swirl on Castro, a pleasant wine shop and bar. In the film it was transformed into McConnelly Wine & Liquors, whose owner gives Harvey a hostile and homophobic welcome to the neighborhood. He eventually warms to Harvey, though, after his business booms thanks to the area’s new gay residents.
San Francisco City Hall
The finest city hall in America (in my opinion), the gorgeous Beaux-Arts building is crowned by a magnificent 307-foot high dome that’s taller than the US Capitol. (The San Francisco City Hall, by the way.) Though it’s currently closed due to the pandemic, in better times it’s worth joining one of the public tours to view the grand staircase and the wood-paneled chamber of the Board of Supervisors where Harvey served after his 1977 election. (You can tour the building online in the meantime.) His former supervisor colleague Dan White shot and killed Harvey and Mayor George Moscone in their City Hall offices the next year.
Exterior scenes showed demonstrations over anti-gay legislation, Harvey’s famous “You must come out” speech at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day (a powerful moment in the film) and a memorial march from the Castro to City Hall after his assassination. Though not shown in the movie, City Hall was the site of the 1979 White Night riots after White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the lightest possible sentence he could get, and sentenced to seven years in prison. Outraged over the decision, more than 5,000 protesters broke windows, tore ornamental metalwork from City Hall doors and set police cars on fire. As police tried to disperse them, they fought back shouting “Avenge Harvey Milk” and “Kill Dan White!”
War Memorial Opera House
Across the street from City Hall is the equally beautiful War Memorial Opera House. In the film, it’s where Harvey enjoys Tosca just before his death. When he’s shot in the movie, the Opera House exterior is the last thing he sees. It was also the site of Harvey’s memorial service. The building is another great tour, when those become possible again. For now, you can visit virtually.
Back in the Castro, you can head to the corner of Castro and 18th streets. Hours after the White Night riots were broken up, police retaliated in the Castro by beating people on the street, raiding bars, assaulting patrons and vandalizing businesses. One of those bars was the Elephant Walk (500 Castro Street), which is now the location of Harvey’s, a bar and restaurant. It’s a lovely place to enjoy lunch and drinks on a warm day, to people-watch and to examine Harvey memorabilia inside. The intersections outside have vibrant rainbow-painted crosswalks.
LGBT Historical Society Museum
An in-depth Harvey exhibit is nearby at the GLBT Historical Society and Museum at 4127 18th Street. The museum, which shows LGBTQI history, culture and arts, will reopen to visitors on Friday, June 4. General admission is $10. You browse its collections virtually if you can’t manage an in-person look.
Harvey Milk Terminal at SF International Airport
In 2019, SFO named its remodeled Terminal 1 the Harvey Milk Terminal. Now brighter and more spacious after many years of being the airport’s least appealing space, it includes a large floor-to-ceiling exhibit of Harvey’s life and accomplishments. Some of the exhibit is located past the security checkpoint, so you’ll need to check it out before your flight or after you land. SFO is already renowned for its museum-quality exhibits, many of which you can see online. This exhibit is no exception.