Dead town

Pub date November 7, 2007
WriterG.W. Schulz


Every reporter assigned to the Castro on Halloween knew right away that the story was, in fact, the nonstory.

There were no outlaws. No shootings or stabbings as in the past. There weren’t even many of the scumbag bridge-and-tunnelers police feared most. The mayor’s plan worked: two decades of fun in the Castro on Halloween died in 2007.

"People are leaving in droves," one man said into his cell phone around 10:30 p.m. "We can’t drink."

By that point the San Francisco Police Department could count the total arrests on one hand. A few people were cuffed for public intoxication. One man had outstanding warrants. Another jaywalked. Department spokesperson Sgt. Neville Gittens — not someone reporters know as typically cheerful — was in a startlingly good mood.

"There aren’t enough people out here to urinate or defecate anywhere," Gittens told the Guardian that night while standing near a cordoned command and control center the city had planted at 18th and Collingwood streets. "You can see the streets. They’re pretty empty. They’re pretty quiet, and we’re very thankful for that. What we set out to accomplish as far as discouraging this party, so far it seems like it’s working."

The Mayor’s Office, in fact, called the night "an incredible success." Nathan Ballard, the mayor’s press spokesperson, added, "We are pleased with the way Halloween turned out this year. [Police] Chief [Heather] Fong did an excellent job of keeping the peace, and Sup. [Bevan] Dufty deserves praise for showing real leadership and representing the interests of his district."

But that success came at a cost — the Castro on Halloween night was under the tight control of a massive contingent of police. Barricades blocked the streets. Cops kept revelers (and anyone else who happened by) from setting so much as a toe off the sidewalk.

While the crowd totaled just a fraction of what has appeared in years past, Gittens said well over 500 law enforcement personnel were assigned to the area, including officers from the probation department, the BART Police Department, the Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Even the San Francisco Chronicle, an institution that hardly embodies unbridled countercultural fun — deemed the law enforcement preparations "almost militaristic."

The tab for all of that police presence — and for the lost tax revenue from bars and restaurants and the hit to the tourist industry — will almost certainly run into millions of dollars.

At times members of the media even appeared to outnumber partygoers. When an ambulance and two vans from the Sheriff’s Department began backing into an alley between Market and Castro, a camera operator and a reporter rushed to the scene. It was nothing, it turned out. Just a woman splayed out drunk next to a Dumpster.


The last-minute announcement of the shutdown of the BART station at 16th and Mission streets, Gittens said, probably did the trick more than anything else. But that decision enraged some business owners, who told us they were worried that fewer transit riders would threaten revenue during what is usually a profitable holiday.

"Small business is the heartbeat of San Francisco, and the Mission district itself endures enough difficulties on a regular basis," Jean Feilmoser, president of the Mission Merchants Association, wrote in a community e-mail Oct. 30. "To cut off the arm that feeds the economic engine on one of the busiest nights of the year is cruel and unusual punishment."

The dramatic transit shutdown earned harsh criticism from two local officials, BART board member Tom Radulovich and District 6’s Sup. Chris Daly.

"Transit riders have been unfairly singled out in the city’s War on Halloween, and BART’s proposed closure is an insult to the community [that]
relies on 16th Street Mission Station," the two wrote in an Oct. 30 letter condemning the move. "People and businesses that depend on BART and Muni will have their mobility compromised by this campaign to suppress the Halloween celebration in the Castro."

Alix Rosenthal, who lost a board challenge to Castro district Sup. Bevan Dufty in 2006, was appalled by how little the public knew about the Halloween plans in advance. Rosenthal helped found Citizens for Halloween, a group that argued revelers would show up despite city hall’s insistence that the event be cancelled this year.

"I think it was really great they were able to keep the Castro safe," Rosenthal said. "But at what cost? The cost of fun. The cost of Halloween. The cost of transit riders. The cost of merchants."

Several businesses — including sex shops, bars, and restaurants — relented to pressure from the city and closed early. Officers clad in riot helmets and zip cuffs filled the entryways, seeming to overshadow civilians and bored-looking TV reporters.

The Edge bar at 4149 18th St., Osaki Sushi around the corner, the Posh Bagel, Chinese Dim Sum, the Sausage Factory, and even Twin Peaks, a bar that stands at the northeast entryway of the Castro and normally serves as a sort of de facto welcoming committee for the neighborhood, were shuttered. The restaurant A Bon Port at 476 Castro stood dark with a chalkboard sign in the window: "Out cruising," it read hopefully.

San Francisco Badlands, one of many Castro bars owned by area entrepreneur Les Natali, closed at 10 p.m., and two perturbed-looking private security guards in orange vests informed loiterers that they weren’t allowed in any longer. Harvey’s (on the southwest corner of 18th and Castro streets) remained open, but there were few people inside.


The folks who braved the police and the lack of transit tried to liven things up. Just south of the Castro Muni station, two friends protested with signs reading, "Don’t tell us what to do — we’ll come if we want to." One of them, Erik Proctor, splits his time between the East Bay and San Francisco and said residents who move to the neighborhood should expect rambunctious annual celebrations.

"Partly why I’m out here is because last year they said people from the East Bay were the problem," Proctor said. "I represent the East Bay also. I come over here to have a good time. I don’t come over here to cause problems."

With the crowd under control, the cops had plenty of time to chat about their paychecks. "Are you on OT?" one officer standing south of 18th Street casually asked another.

"I think so," he responded.

"Well, that’s good."

A handful of costumed celebrants graced filled the sidewalks, but there was still plenty of breathing room, and traffic moved swiftly and easily along Castro Street, which was lined with steel barricades. One step into the street would elicit a hand on the chest and a hasty warning from a police officer: "Back on the sidewalk."

A handful of men went near-commando in little more than elastic thongs, but few people were shocked, and most of the costumes were far from scandalous. One woman dressed as a bag of groceries from Trader Joe’s.

Among the people most directly impacted were foreign tourists — the very folks the city spends money to attract every year. Activists walking through the Castro and interviewing people found visitors from 19 countries who had come to see the legendary celebration. Most walked away disappointed; they won’t be back next year.


At least one business that stayed open felt a bit of official pressure. Koch Salgut, who owns Ararat on 18th Street, didn’t close early, even though he was repeatedly asked to do so.

"I kept it open because I was against" the shutdown, he told us later. "All the merchants rely on the business."

To his surprise, he got a visit that night from the San Francisco Fire Department. The inspectors told him he didn’t have permits for the candles on his tables.

"This is the second business I’ve had. I never heard there was a regulation against candles," Salgut told us. "The Fire Department gave me a little hard time. It wasn’t threatening, but it was an ugly situation."

Salgut has no doubt what was going on: "They were trying to give me a hard time because I was open, I didn’t close."

Calls to the SFFD seeking comment were not returned by press time.

John Lewis, a bartender at Moby Dick on 18th Street, wasn’t working Halloween night, but he lives in the neighborhood — and when we talked to him Nov. 1, he told us he wasn’t at all happy about what went down. The city had promised to fix the problem, he told us — not shut down the entire event. He complained that local bars were asked to close early and then reminded that they could be cited for exceeding occupancy regulations, for public displays of drunkenness, and for open containers on the street. Halloween has traditionally been the one time of year when the city doesn’t strictly enforce those rules.

Dufty has taken credit for shutting down the party and keeping the city’s plans for security under seal, but he admitted Oct. 31 to the Chron‘s gossip hounds, Matier and Ross, that next year’s event could look different. It’ll be on a Friday.

Police Commission president Theresa Sparks said she’s been told the event cost the city half what it did last year, including overtime for law enforcement, but she still hadn’t received dollar figures when we reached her Nov. 1. She had been skeptical that the crowds could be contained, considering that the city’s scheme was simply to announce that there would be no party. "But I think it was extremely well coordinated…. It went off better than expected." But she still believes planning should have begun far sooner. Police Chief Fong will give the commission a report about Halloween on Nov. 7.

So is the answer to shut down the Castro every year? No, Sparks said, but Halloween has to be made into "a citywide celebration, not just a neighborhood celebration."

Steven T. Jones and Sara Knight contributed to this story.