Bloomberg News: San Francisco Drag-Queen Halloween Is Tamed as Home Prices Rise

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Oct. 13 (Bloomberg) — Hundreds of thousands of fun-seekers usually swarm into the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco each Oct. 31 for one of the biggest, wildest Halloween celebrations in the U.S.

They may be disappointed this year. Partyers won’t find the three stages of years past, with disco music pounding until the wee hours. Instead, they’ll get one stage with mellower music, a city-mandated closing time of about 11 p.m. and what Mayor Gavin Newsom calls an unprecedented number of police.

It’s all part of an effort by Castro homeowners and the city to rein in an uninhibited street party that has thrived for 30 years in a neighborhood that gained fame in the 1970s as a national center of gay rights.

“The young guys that were in the neighborhood have now aged,” said Audrey Joseph, an event planner who volunteers to organize the logistics. “Their values have changed. When you own property, you want to protect it.”

The median price of a single-family home in the Castro area has surged to $1.18 million, the San Francisco Association of Realtors said. That’s up from $89,500 in 1979, according to the National Association of Realtors. It was in the 1970s that large numbers of gay men began moving into the decaying neighborhood and restoring its ornamental Victorian houses.

Organizers say the Halloween party is the second-biggest in the country, after the Village Halloween Parade in New York. It began as a children’s parade, sponsored by a neighborhood hardware store in the 1940s, gradually evolving into a pageant of drag queens and theatrical costumes that people from around the region came to join or gawk at.

Losing Support

In July, community leaders tried to call the whole thing off, saying the Halloween event, once a celebration of gay pride, now attracts too many ill-behaved outsiders. Stories abound of people urinating on stoops, getting into fights and hurling anti-gay slurs.

Even drag queens are joining the anti-party forces. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who dress in nuns’ habits, helped organize the bash in previous years.

“The idea of continuing Halloween in the Castro is dead wrong,” Dennis McMillan, 58, who goes by the name Sister Dana Van Iquity, wrote in an e-mail. “The cops can’t possibly control all of the Castro.”

Steps Against Violence

Bevan Dufty, the city supervisor who represents the area and is running for re-election, is the leader of the anti-party contingent. He wants to prevent the kind of violence he witnessed at Halloween 2002.

“It was a disaster,” he recalled. “We had five stabbings, one nearly fatal.”

One costume included a working gas-powered chainsaw, said Dufty, 51. While increased policing since then has reduced crime, he said, “I’m troubled and uncertain that we can pull this off.”

Community United Against Violence, a local group that tracks violence against sexual minorities, recorded 14 incidents of harassment or violence at last year’s event, the most for any day of the year.

The party’s defenders say that Castro homeowners, enriched by soaring real-estate values, are putting property before cultural traditions — and are showing their age.

From 1990 to 2000, the number of people in their 50s living in the Castro increased by 59 percent, while the number of 20- to 24-year-olds fell by 44 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Naked Parties

The plan to tone down the revelry is causing friction, said Keith Hennessy, 46, a performance artist who organized naked make-out parties in the street at the Castro’s Halloween parties in the early 1990s. He said opponents of the Halloween merriment are the same residents who complained about pictures of male sex organs in bookstore windows and tried to drive out homeless people.

“I assure you that most people complaining about Halloween didn’t show up in San Francisco as an abused queer kid with a backpack and no money,” he said.

This year, the party opposition is organized. A closing time of about 11 p.m. will be enforced, if necessary, by having street-cleaning trucks spray water on the pavement and people, and switching to “elevator music” on the public-address system, Dufty, the organizer, said at a public meeting in August.

Alix Rosenthal, 33, Dufty’s Nov. 7 electoral challenger, scoffed at the plans for taming the Halloween fest.

“Bringing out the hoses and Kenny G that early is tantamount to canceling the event,” she said. “There may be retribution. I’d hate to see it, but it could be an angry crowd.”

Campaigning for Fun

The struggle to keep the party alive has become a rallying point for the San Francisco Party Party, an organization originally formed last year around the cause of keeping bars open later than the currently mandated close of 2 a.m.

“There are neighbors everywhere that don’t like the one night a year they have to deal with,” said Party Party founder Ted Strawser, 39, an accountant. He termed the crackdown part of the “suburbanization of San Francisco.”

The party still has support in the neighborhood. Martha Asten, owner of Cliff’s Variety, the gift and hardware store that initiated the original costume contest, said demand for wigs and feather boas makes Halloween one of the biggest sales periods of the year.


About Steven Bodzin

Steven Bodzin is a reporter. He blogged when he was a freelancer.

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