San Francisco's national holiday in the Castro has become a heated political issue
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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. Dufty, who has been involved in negotiations with neighborhood residents and city officials, promised weeks ago that an outline for security measures and an entertainment itinerary would be available at www.halloweeninthecastro.com . But at press time the Web site was still empty.
"It's totally appalling that the first planning meeting was in July," Rosenthal said in an interview. "It should have been organized a year in advance.... I haven't seen any public service announcements. If you're going to fundamentally change an event like Halloween, you need to tell people what you're going to do."
Suggestions from Dufty, confirmed for us by the Mission District police station, include having just one music stage (there were three last year), keeping the Castro Muni open as opposed to previous years, and beefing up the public-safety presence at Market and Noe streets. Then, at 11 o'clock, water trucks would appear to clean the streets.
Over the last few months Rosenthal has suggested that the event be turned into a parade to keep the anxious crowds occupied, similar to what takes place in New York's Greenwich Village each year. Access would be limited to one entry gate where sliding scale donations would be taken to help cover costs, and costumed attendees, whom Rosenthal said would perhaps be less likely to cause major disturbances, would receive a discount. Other access points would be for exits only.
She said police commanders from the Mission station have taken the position that Halloween should be as unpleasant as possible to discourage large crowds in the future, but the result could be angry resistance from partygoers. Sgt. Mark Solomon from the Mission station said he wouldn't describe it as "unpleasant" but said there are certain types of visitors who can cause a variety of problems for the neighborhood.
"The outsiders who are coming in and urinating and defecating on the sidewalks and having sex and leaving the condoms behind, we're going to address those kinds of problems and make them not want to come back," Solomon said.
Rosenthal remains skeptical that Halloween in the Castro is sufficiently organized this year and properly balances honoring a long-running tradition and meeting the needs of fed-up Castro residents.
"There are a lot of people who just want to get rid of Halloween in the Castro entirely," she said. "We can make this a fun party. Making this unpleasant will only make it more violent. I fear retribution."
The Mayor's Office now appears to have taken over responsibility for the event, but Martha Cohen, whom Dufty told us is in charge of the event, wasn't available for comment.
Ted Strosser of the fun-advocacy group SF Party Party, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary on Halloween, said the outfit is concerned that allowing too many restrictions for the event would stifle the city's traditional reverence for street parties. SF Party Party plans this year to canvass the city again with 100 costumed and party-crawling Abe Lincolns. He said trying to end Halloween in the Castro altogether would cause the same problems for Gavin Newsom that Willie Brown experienced when he attempted to rub out Critical Mass in the ’90s — record-breaking participants turned out as a show of force.
"San Francisco says it can safely host the Olympics, but it can't host Halloween and deal with some San Jose teens," Strosser said. "If SF can't keep us safe and clean up trash, then that's a problem."
Dufty, for his part, told the Guardian again that maps should be up at www.halloweeninthecastro.com  outlining the finalized plan shortly after we go to press. He said one of the biggest changes this year was keeping open the Castro Muni stop and admitted that the goal was to tone down Halloween. Some Castro residents still want entirely to get rid of Halloween, he said.
"I have spent so much time on Halloween," he added. "I think it's not fair I'm getting the smackdown for not wanting to have fun.... I feel responsible to make sure that everyone feels safe." SFBG
Editor’s note: Alix Rosenthal is the domestic partner of Guardian city editor Steven T. Jones. Jones did not participate in the assigning, writing, or editing of this story.