When the London Ballet visited in the mid 1960’s, San Francisco was excited by the glamour of its leading couple, prima-of-the-world Margot Fonteyn, and the newly defected young Bolshoi sensation Rudolf Nureyev. The biggest news during their stay was the couple's arrest at a Haight-Ashbury “pot party,” having “danced across rooftops,” according to the Chron, trying to evade police.
More impressive to me were comments made to a local interviewer:
Interviewer: What do you think of San Francisco?
Nureyev: It’s a toilet for dogs.
Interviewer: What do you mean?
Nureyev: Everywhere I walk there is dogshit.
Interviewer: But really, don’t you think it's a beautiful city?
Nureyev: I don’t know. I can’t look up to see it. If I look up, I step in dogshit.
A decade and a half later, SF’s new elections-by-district produced the first openly gay legislator in the country, Harvey Milk. Supervisor Milk’s assassination by a right-wing ex-cop was followed by the killing, moments later, of the first-term liberal mayor, George Moscone. Having Milk and Moscone in office had represented a sea change in San Francisco’s historically conservative local politics.
A sweetheart prosecution by the assassin’s DA friends resulted in outrageously light manslaughter convictions, which spawned the White Night Riot. Civic Center streets were taken over, a dozen police cars were torched, and City Hall was surrounded and besieged, trapping inside for hours Diane Feinstein, who had run for mayor twice, and lost, but then, thanks to Dan White’s bullets, had become acting mayor, then, thanks to incumbency and the city’s sorrow, had been elected Mayor in her own right.
Presumably most of the rioters were gay, angered by the killing of Harvey Milk. News footage showing cop cars burning in the night, their sirens shrieking, made a deep impression in San Francisco’s memory. Since then, the gay community has been respected and courted by local politicians, and homophobia has been the hate that dare not speak its name.
Mayor Moscone had wanted to throw at least a few crumbs to the disadvantaged. Without the assassination, Feinstein’s political career might have ended in San Francisco, downtown interests might not have dominated local politics for the following fifteen years, and maybe a real Democrat would have vied for her senate seat.
Harvey Milk’s brief tenure in office might seem only symbolic, but he was responsible for a major improvement in San Francisco’s quality of life. Dogshit has mostly disappeared from the city’s footpaths and playfields. It’s gone away, and stayed away for twenty years now, thanks to Harvey Milk’s pooper-scooper ordinance.