President Obama has awarded the late Harvey Milk the Presidential Medal of Honor. The California Legislature has proposed that May 22 be named Harvey Milk Day. And San Francisco has just opened the new Harvey Milk Center on Duboce Park. Of all the honors, the new recreation center may be the most enduring, because for generations it will tangibly and usefully enact Harvey Milk’s values: “The American Dream starts with the neighborhoods.” His inaugural speech on being elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977 was titled, “A City of Neighborhoods.”
The new structure, built on the bones of the original, mid-century modern building, has turned out to be one of the most beautiful and intelligently designed new buildings in the city. The architects, Lemanski & Rockwell, have created a “campus” of three buildings in one, each with a separate function – with windows everywhere, bringing in spectacular views.
“Our goal was to open the building to the park, and the park to the building,” says Jean Lemanski. “We built The Grand Stair,” says Peter Rockwell, referring to the huge staircase that extends from the building into the park. Jean Lemanski says they wanted the steps to be “an amphitheatre,” where people could sit and take in the long sweep of lawn, the city and the bay, and the human and canine drama.
When you approach the entrance at 50 Scott Street, you seem to see right through the building – through two sets of glass doors, one on the street side, one on the park side. From the street entrance your view is the bay. When you step in from the park, you see a row of painted-lady Victorians – a postcard from the nineteenth century set in a twenty-first century frame. Both sets of glass doors can be folded open, accordion style, to make an open-air boulevard between Duboce Park and Scott Street.
Now, and probably for generations to come, neighbors from seniors to toddlers can get together for puppet shows and stories. For jazz, ballroom, and Brazilian dancing, there’s a vast, polished maple dance floor. Teens from now into the future will use the Harvey Milk rehearsal rooms to practice Shakespeare and musical comedies. Choruses, glee clubs, and the San Francisco Civic Orchestra can and will continue to perfect their performances there. In special rooms groups will hold meetings and events – helped by two stainless-steel equipped catering kitchens. There’s even a very cool recording studio.
As a photographer, no doubt Harvey Milk’s smile would stretch wide to see that the whole bottom floor houses fabulous new darkrooms with rows of developing sinks; 45 enlargers; a digital center; and a portrait studio with high ceilings, backdrops, and lights. This is the largest community photography center west of the Mississippi.
You don’t have to live in the neighborhood to use and enjoy the new Harvey Milk Center. As he said, “The American dream starts in the neighborhoods.” And this neighborhood center in the “City of Neighborhoods” is open to all the neighboring neighbors.