With five weeks to go until Halloween and no public plan Castro residents are getting nervous
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Dressed to kill in a firehouse-red pantsuit and matching stilettos, drag queen Donna Sachet stood in the Eureka Valley Recreation Center on Sept. 22 and fondly recalled how four years ago she lauded Sup. Bevan Dufty when he announced that he wanted to make Halloween in the Castro a safer, more enjoyable event.
"Bevan said, 'Come and celebrate, but no bad behavior,'" Sachet purred.
But things have changed dramatically and this year Sachet was helping moderate a heated meeting of a group called Citizens for Halloween, at which residents raised myriad concerns about Dufty and Mayor Gavin Newsom's secretive plans for Halloween.
Dufty and Newsom's plans have morphed from a failed and furtive attempt to move this fall's event to the waterfront to an ongoing PR campaign that asks businesses to close early on what traditionally has been their busiest night of the year and implores the public to stay away from the famously flamboyant Castro on Halloween night.
There will be no city-sponsored porta-potties and no street closures.
But locals are haunted by a belief that it's about as easy to kill Halloween in the Castro as it is to kill a bloodthirsty vampire on a rampage and a fear that the city's current plan could leave the Castro less safe than ever.
Sachet, who has lived in the Castro for 13 years, recalled that since the city's gay population migrated from Polk Street to the Castro, the numbers attending the annual Halloween in the Castro party have steadily swollen, to 100,000 in 2006.
"There have been many concerns over the size of it," Sachet said, recalling how, after four people were stabbed in 2002, increased community involvement and police presence and the creation of emergency lanes made Halloween 2005 one of the most peaceful in years.
"Then in 2006 we got word from the city to hem in the event and end it sooner," Sachet said, reminding the crowd that Newsom promised to convene a task force two days after nine people were shot and one woman was trampled on Halloween 2006 an incident that was triggered by someone throwing a bottle into a crowd of young people, one of whom pulled out a gun and fired nine shots in retaliation.
The bottle incident occurred shortly after the city pulled the plug on the music and began chasing away the costumed crowds with water trucks in an effort to break up the party early.
But despite Newsom's promise of a task force, no public presentation was ever made, and longtime Castro resident Gary Virginia, who applied to be on the panel, said he "never got any communication back."
Public records show that Newsom and Dufty held closed-door meetings with city department heads and members of the Entertainment Commission last winter in an effort to shift Halloween from the Castro into the backyard of Mission Bay residents. Those plans fell through, thanks to the objections of neighborhood associations that were left out of the planning loop and the financial concerns of event promoters who allegedly got spooked by all of the negative publicity that has been given to Halloween in the Castro.
Rich Dyer of the Sheriff's Department confirmed to the audience at the meeting that city department heads have been holding secret sessions for months.
With Newsom recently admitting that the city can't prevent people from showing up, Sachet said the members of Citizens for Halloween "aren't placing blame but want accountability."
SF Party Party founder Ted Strawser said he's worried that the only party happening on Halloween will take place at San Francisco General Hospital and the County Jails unless the city provides answers to the community's questions about public safety and health, medical emergencies, and transportation.
CFH cofounder Alix Rosenthal, who challenged Dufty in last year's District 8 supervisorial race, joined Virginia, Strawser, and LGBT community activist Hank Wilson in sending the city an extensive list of questions, which also includes concerns about the impact of the current plan on businesses, the lack of community partnership and involvement, and hopes for a post-Halloween evaluation.
"We think we deserve to know as stakeholders," Virginia said.
The Sheriff's Department, at least, was willing to talk a bit about what's going on. "The plans have changed radically over the last three or four months, as have the roles of the departments, but the police have finally settled on a response kind of plan," Dyer said. "And as far as I know, there are no plans for checkpoints this year."
Asked by mayoral candidate Chicken John Rinaldi whether he thought that frisking members of the crowd, as was done last year, helped contain the situation, Dyer nodded.
"A tremendous amount of alcohol was intercepted, along with knives and other weapons," Dyer said.
But this time around there won't be the normal safety precautions; for example, cars will be able to drive along Castro between 18th Street and Market. If the mayor's polite requests fail and large crowds show up anyway, the place could be a mess and without toilets available, people may simply use the street.
Two Castro businesses, Ritual Coffee Roasters and one that asked to remain anonymous, will provide porta-potties to any residence or business that requests help. But with the witching hour just five weeks away, the prospects for peace and harmony aren't looking good.