SPECIAL: Candy apples and razor blades

San Francisco's national holiday in the Castro has become a heated political issue

Colorado Springs, Colo., is likely the most Christian city in America, a Vatican for the Evangelicals, if you will. It's home base for some of the most potent forces in Christian conservative politics, and perhaps no place in the country celebrates Christmas with as much conviction. The central Colorado city of 350,000 even sports a 25-acre Christmas-themed amusement park known as Santa's Workshop that stays open from spring until the end of the year, complete with rides and a shop selling miniature nativity sets and Precious Moments figurines. Christmas, more than any other event, defines the reputation of this sort of conservative religious town.
San Francisco, on the other hand, could be the most secular city in America — and as far as national holidays go, Halloween best represents our taste for light sin and playful fascination with the demonic.
And for better or worse, much of it happens in the Castro, in a giant frenzy of partying that attracts not only local revelers but spectators from around the Bay Area. Therein lies what over the years has become something of a problem.
With literally days remaining before more than 100,000 people are expected in the neighborhood, the city still hasn't made clear exactly how it's going to respond, what the rules will be — or whether partyers will really be greeted at 11 p.m. with water hoses.
In fact, some fear that the confusion and disorganization, combined with rumors that the city wants to make the event as unpleasant as possible to discourage huge crowds, could lead to a nasty backlash.
The last couple of years haven't actually been all that bad, according to post-Halloween Chronicle headlines. "A Not-Too-Scary Halloween," began last year's headline. "Police call Castro event one of the most peaceful lately." A 2004 story declared the event that year for the most part a success too, the Chron's perpetually nerdy headlines notwithstanding. "Spooky but Safe Fright Night: Tens of thousands converge on the Castro for a far-out, but peaceful, celebration." Even 2003 wasn't necessarily that terrible, despite one guy getting shot in the leg. The cops aggressively worked to keep out booze, and a lane through the crowds was widened for emergency vehicles.
But Castro residents haven't forgotten when things did get out of control. A record 300,000 people turned out in 2002, and police said at the time that well before midnight, the crowd's mood had turned dark. Four people were stabbed or slashed, bottles were lobbed at the cops, and 30 people were arrested. In 2001, 50 people were arrested, and one woman told police that she was drugged, abducted, and taken to a dirt road in South San Francisco, where she was raped by three men.
And community concerns about violence are on the rise these days in the Castro, where three assaults have taken place since July.
Frustration over what Halloween in the Castro had become — it began three decades ago as a block party and turned into a regional event for wall-to-wall crowds, which police in 2002 estimated were 60 percent visitors to the city — led to this year's event becoming a campaign issue for District 8 incumbent Bevan Dufty and challenger Alix Rosenthal.
In a larger sense, the debate raises a question that has the late-night crowd up in arms: is San Francisco becoming too staid and cautious to hold a big, wild party?
Complaints about Halloween have been growing for some time. Castro residents and merchants who have grown tired of having to mop up foreign substances from the sidewalks and repair broken windows each year on Nov. 1 have approached Dufty, who earlier this year proposed ending all city support for the event in the hope of keeping the big, rowdy crowds away.
Problem is, you can't really scrap Halloween in the Castro. Critics of Dufty's proposal feared (and likely hoped) revelers would show up anyway.
Since then, Dufty and other city officials have been looking for a compromise — but few specifics have emerged.

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