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A Legacy in Limbo 

Two decades after Harvey Milk's assassination, a historic collection of his memorabilia still waits for a proper home

Wednesday, Nov 8 2000
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Grand plans are in the works to better memorialize gay rights icon Harvey Milk. The proposed multimillion-dollar overhaul of the drab plaza bearing his name at the corner of Market and Castro streets has attracted a lot of attention. This month, 22 years after the city supervisor's assassination, some whimsical designs are being presented for public review. One proposes that giant, pink clouds hover above the intersection, created by misting jet sprays; another has a Times Square-like billboard flashing video montages 60 feet into the sky.

Finally, many are saying, a fitting tribute to the nation's first openly gay elected official.

But meanwhile, a whole trove of important Milk memorabilia has been virtually forgotten. Some of Milk's most personal and powerful effects -- his photos, campaign buttons, and posters; the ponytail he cut before running for office; the neon sign from his Castro Street camera shop (now a city landmark); and even the suit he wore when he was gunned down at City Hall -- are languishing in cardboard boxes in a private apartment, out of public view, awaiting an appropriate home. What's more, the man who has been storing the mementos in his apartment is now facing eviction.

For the last five years, the Milk memorabilia has cluttered Terry Henderling's Bernal Heights apartment: the boxes stacked in the middle of three rooms, having already filled every closet; the blood-stained suit wrapped in plastic, lying in a carton under the dining room table. Henderling rescued the collection when Milk's last lover, Scott Smith, died in 1995. While most of Milk's papers and correspondence ended up safely archived at the San Francisco Public Library, his personal belongings were up for grabs. Because Smith had no dependents or will, his estate went to his elderly mother, Elva Smith, who lives in Alabama. She made Henderling the custodian of the memorabilia since he was close friends with her son and Milk, and because she believes such historical items should not leave San Francisco.

Now, in this anniversary month of Milk's death, Henderling is being evicted from his rent-controlled apartment. A landlord move-in is displacing the tenants of the three-unit building. Henderling is scrambling to find new housing for himself and his own belongings, let alone the Milk collection. San Francisco's red-hot rental market is not making the search any easier. At 81, Elva Smith is not inclined to be the collection's guardian. So the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California has agreed to temporarily store the Milk boxes in the basement of its Market Street office.

But that stopgap solution does nothing to answer the larger question of when -- or if -- a proper home will be found for what are arguably the most profound remnants of Milk's time.

"This has taken so long because there has always been a question of vision, financial viability, and a stable location for Harvey's things," Henderling says. "I've always been willing to do the right thing, but it's my job to steer it the right way. I want this taken care of, and so does Elva, but it doesn't mean we should rush and do something stupid."

Henderling wants to see the Milk collection headline a gay-themed museum in San Francisco, but more than two decades after Milk's death, realization of such an idea is still years away.

"At this point, I don't know if it could ever happen. Nobody with the money or time is willing to move forward," he says. "Quite frankly, it has been difficult to raise interest in a museum. Everyone is into the now. But we need to respect the fact we didn't get to now without the past."

"People don't give a damn," says Henderling's neighbor Linda Alband, who is also being evicted and is helping save the Milk collection. "Maybe they'd care if it was all being sold on eBay."

A deal to bestow the collection on the Historical Society two years ago fell through. Henderling did not feel assured that his and the society's vision for the Milk items matched. Over the years, various factions of the gay community have argued over just how much Milk should be revered. Some say his martyr status has been overdone and that recognition should be shared more evenly among the many gay trailblazers. Others point out that the Milk name has enough cachet to anchor a museum, allowing the lesser-known heroes of the gay movement to have their due as well.

"People can get big egos over the silliest things," says Willie Walker, the Historical Society's archivist. "I don't see Harvey Milk in the Grand Pooh-Bah role that many do, but he was an important person in gay history and the history of this city as a whole. And for that, I'd like to see his collection cast in amber for all to see for eons to come."

Henderling says he is now more comfortable with how the Historical Society will proceed under new leadership, and he is grateful the organization is willing to hold the Milk artifacts temporarily. He suspects a permanent agreement will be negotiated.

Susan Stryker, the Historical Society's director, is anxious to get control of the collection. She sees it as a boon to the group's efforts to become more of a visual museum with actual exhibits.

Kevin Schaub, director of the Harvey Milk Institute, wishes his group could be of greater help. But the network of gay-centric adult education classes named for Milk also works on a shoestring budget. Schaub is resigned to the reality that a Milk legacy will have to be built piecemeal. "It all boils down to finding the money and resources to pull it off -- unless you are filthy rich, and leave a foundation to do it for you," he says. "But Harvey Milk wasn't filthy rich, and neither were his friends."

For Schaub, the excitement surrounding the Milk Plaza redesign is a good sign that a museum might finally gain some attention. But even the plaza is not a done deal. The design process, sponsored in part by the city's Arts Commission, was only an ideas competition. The city is not obligated to implement -- or pay for -- any of it.

"The plaza would be a lovely marker of Harvey's legacy, but things like his suit have a powerful connotation. There is a lot that needs to be preserved and put in a museum before it fades into dust," Schaub says. "Dear Lord, it's been 22 years since Harvey died, and there are people who have no idea what happened. History is passing before our eyes."

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio

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