France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

March 6, 2009

La Fabrication de l’Histoire

You’d think that a history-themed radio program — on the intello chain France Culture, no less — would be the last place that would perpetrate historical inaccuracies. But that’s exactly what transpired on Emmanuel Laurentin’s Le Fabrique de l’Histoire this morning, when a panel of supposed historians discussed the Harvey Milk bio-pic “Milk” by placing it in a historical context that got several things wrong.

I knew — well, at least encountered — Harvey Milk, growing up in San Francisco in the Noe Valley district neighboring what was then called Eureka Valley before gays arbitrarily renamed it the Castro, after its central, hilly boulevard, and it has little in common with the pre-gay “Castro” described by these French experts. According to one, it was “Irelandaise,” “more or less degraded, and badly maintained.” In reality, if the neighborhood’s roots were Irish, by the 1960s it was more mixed, best characterized as a working-class family neighborhood. And it was neither degraded nor badly maintained. Like Noe Valley and much of San Francisco, including the nearby Haight-Ashbury, it was open to different people — the very fact that lead it to welcome out homosexuals. (The French historians on today’s program also misplaced the Haight-Ashbury as being ‘near Berkeley,’ thus mis-explaining why it was the hippy quarter; as for Oakland, it’s but ‘the black quarter’ of San Francisco.)

PS: My encounter with Harvey was telling, and a sign of the changing times and neighborhood. A teenager, I’d already been propositioned by a gay person, while playing tennis at Dolores Park, across from my ‘lycee,’ Mission High School, both not far from Castro Street. So when I went to pick up some film I’d left at Harvey’s camera shop — Castro Camera, as I recall — I was shaking, through no fault of his. Harvey, who was sitting down and wearing a sort of photo lab vest, looked me straight in the eye and asked, “What are you afraid of, Paul?”

PS 2: Apart from advancing the cause of gay rights, Harvey’s greatest — and lasting — contribution to San Francisco was the “pooper scooper” law, which instituted fines for dog-owners who didn’t clean up after their pets. I remember my grandfather commenting — on a visit to San Francisco and our Noe Valley — what a shame it was that such a beautiful city allowed its streets to be sullied by dog-poop; Harvey cleaned San Francisco up and made it pretty again. I think what many forget is that what allowed Harvey to win in his second attempt at a seat on the board of supervisors is that he didn’t just campaign as a gay rights advocate, or a gay candidate, but took a real interest in issues that affected the neighborhoods, including this one and the rights of senior citizens. In Noe Valley, which was part of the district Harvey was running to represent — this was the first year that supervisors were elected by district — Harvey handed out flyers and introduced himself to people in a pinstriped suit and tie. He was not a wild-eyed radical; that was the role of his assaassin.

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