A ceremonial unveiling in San Francisco’s Castro District of two neon-bright art installations honoring Harvey Milk’s legacy Wednesday night saw a mix of celebration and solemnity.
Barring a few whoops and hollers — and a small dance party set to Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel” — the unveiling of Harvey’s Halo and Hope Will Not Be Silent near Harvey Milk Plaza affirmed the Castro as a landmark for queer and trans communities.
The hundreds in attendance were treated to an operatic rendition of a West Side Story number from trans singer Breanna Sinclairé and a slam poet missive by Janice Mirikitani and Ramona Webb confronting the intersections of injustices in the Trump era.
Harvey’s Halo and Hope Will Not Be Silent both commemorate the 40th anniversary of Milk’s storied election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Ben Davis, the founder of local public art collective Illuminate and the mastermind behind the two luminary artworks, recognized that this commemoration of Harvey Milk doubled as a reminder of San Francisco’s role in rallying against social inequality.
“Everything Illuminate does tries to find that transcendent space, that space that crosses all borders and really becomes about being a human and being alive,” Davis said.
Harvey’s Halo consists of 17 beams of multi-colored light projecting upward, illuminating the sky with rainbow formations. The exhibition will be lit up until Nov. 11, and again, on Nov. 17 and 18.
The installation is an overt dedication to Milk, but its ties to Gilbert Baker, the gay artist who envisioned the original rainbow flag, did not go unstated. District Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, the sole queer person to currently serve on the Board of Supervisors, recounted event attendees of his efforts with Baker in 1987 to convince then-Mayor Jerry Brown to erect the flag in Harvey Milk Plaza.
Fittingly, the evening also commemorated the 20th anniversary of Baker’s flag being raised on the Harvey Milk Plaza. Baker passed away earlier this year.
Harvey’s Halo was not envisioned as a permanent installation, but Davis says he’s weighing the possibility of it once Illuminate can measure Halo’s impact on its natural surroundings. After all, the organization’s grand flagship in San Francisco — Leo Villareal’s Bay Bridge light sculpture The Bay Lights — was approved for permanent installation and gifted to the state of California in 2016 after a two-year trial period.
“If it ever becomes a permanent work, I could see it lit up in moments when San Francisco does come together and reflect on the values that the rest of the world looks to us for,” says Davis.
The second installation, Hope Will Not Be Silent, was envisioned as a permanent fixture, with Milk’s famous saying adorned on the facade of the SoulCycle building in stark white neon.
Davis noted that both projects, from their conception to the unveiling ceremony, took about three months.
A crowdfunding campaign was established in September to raise $60,000 for the two pieces to be installed. Illuminate handily met the $60,000 goal with a principal $15,000 sponsorship from Salesforce, announced only days before the unveiling of the Milk light exhibitions. Other organizations, like Levi’s, the Giants and the 49ers, chipped in alongside donations from nonprofits and the general public to reach the funding goal.
The light installation wasn’t the only new technology debuting in the Castro. Dr. Betty Sullivan, publisher the long-running LGBT publication San Francisco Bay Times, launched the Castro Street Cam — a 24/7 livestream of the Castro’s 400 block. She devised the project nearly 10 years ago as a means for LGBTQ+ individuals like herself to find virtual camaraderie where a local equivalent may not exist.
Taking cues from the live recording of the Pete’s Pond watering hole in Botswana and the webcams installed on Times Square — both of which have accumulated millions of views since their inception — she imagines the camera to not only unify but to celebrate the historic neighborhood.
“We should use technology in all the ways we can,” Sullivan said. “Humans need connection and support, and it’s been a goal of my life to help people find each other.”