by Tim Kingston

The building that housed Harvey Milk's camera shop at 573-575 Castro St. is well on its way to becoming an official San Francisco landmark.

On February 24, the San Francisco Planning Commission voted 5­0 to grant the Victorian building and storefront between 18th and 19th streets landmark designation, putting it among such esteemed company as the Golden Gate Bridge and Mission Dolores. (Four of nine commissioners were absent for the vote.) All that remains is for the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor to sign off on the designation ­ something that is close to a foregone conclusion. "It should be coming fairly soon," exulted Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano. "It's terrific and I think he would be very amused. I don't think there will be any problem with it."

Milk leased the camera store between 1973 and 1978. During that time it grew form a simple business to a community center where political strategies­including Milk's successful run for supervisor­were plotted. "It is an altogether fitting tribute," declared Susan Stryker, director of the gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society of Northern California. "It was a real site for community organizing. It was where the idea for the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival took shape...It is fitting to commemorate the site and the historical importance for the city of San Francisco and for the nation."

The Castro Camera store was haven, home and educational hearth for many young gay men in the early days of gay liberation. It was a place where advice was offered and help provided, a focus and locus of activism. Danny Nicoletta, then a 19-year-old gay youth fresh out of the closet, direct from a semirural background, said he was floating on air when he was hired to help run the store after Milk decided to run for supervisor. He swiftly quit his job painting mushrooms on belts at a hippie factory.

"It was really enlightening to come and see guys holding hands and then get a job in the middle of all that," said Nicoletta. "The timing was great." But more momentous events were afoot, well before Dan White crept into City Hall with a revolver. Nicoletta remembers one intense moment shortly after the Mission District murder of Robert Hillsborough in the midst of the Anita Bryant campaign in Florida. It was a murder Nicoletta termed that era's equivalent to Matthew Shepard's death, and like Shepard's murder, it mobilized the gay community.

"The eyewitnesses and his traumatized lover came to the camera store to figure out what the next step would be," said Nicoletta. "The completely traumatized boy­the place he chose to go was the Castro Camera Store to seek Harvey's advice. It described what the store was, beyond a camera store, it was a place where people went when they had concerns, issues or things as momentous as your lover [being] brutally murdered. I can remember all the energy that passed through the door at the time."

The Friends of 1800 Market St. initiated the landmarking process, fresh from their victory in preserving the Fallon Building at Market and Laguna streets. The current owners of the lease: The Skin Zone, have stated they will not oppose the process to landmark the renowned site.

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