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OPINION -- Harvey Milk's Challenge to Renovate the Spirit of the City Still Resonates

By Rick Cole

Wednesday, May 22 was Harvey Milk Day. He would have been 89 years old.

Milk is remembered as the first openly gay official to win an election in a major city. His election in 1977 as a San Francisco County Supervisor made history, but just 11 months later, both he and San Francisco’s Mayor were assassinated.

This month, Santa Monica inaugurates its first celebration of PRIDE Month in Santa Monica. The City, Pier, Santa Monica Place, Third-Street Promenade and other community groups and businesses will celebrate not only our LGBTQ+ friends, neighbors and co-workers but Santa Monica’s values of equity and inclusion.

An incredible light installation -- dubbed “Miles of Pride” -- will span miles of city streets (including City Hall) and light up the sky with a rainbow of colors.

With a focus on family-friendly art and community connection, more than 50 events have been scheduled including food festivals, a beach clean-up, story hours, silent discos and much more to help us celebrate love in every color.

Milk would have been proud. He inspired millions to assert their pride and stand up for their rights. And his vision encompassed a broad coalition of allies who elected him to office -- and who he passionately advocated for as an activist and elected official.

Not only gays and lesbians but African-Americans, Latinos, seniors, youth, the disabled, workers, the poor and the marginalized.

In fact, Milk’s words continue to resonate as cities struggle with market forces pushing neighborhoods and cities toward becoming enclaves reserved for the affluent.

In a speech delivered shortly after he took office, Milk celebrated urban life and authentic community. “Isn’t it strange,” he asked, that as technology advances, the quality of life so frequently declines?

"I think what we actually need is a little more dirt on the seat of our pants as we sit on the front stoop and to talk to our neighbors once again. What’s missing is the touch, the warmth, the meaning of life.”

He spoke during a time when cities struggled. It was the era of the “urban crisis” with widespread disinvestment in urban neighborhoods. Millions abandoned inner cities for the suburbs. Milk correctly predicted that the flight to suburbia would eventually be reversed.

Calling cities “the wave of the future,” he insisted, “Cities will be saved. They’ll be saved and they’ll be run by the people who like to live in them.

"The people who prefer the neighborhood stores to the shopping mall, who go to the plays and eat in the local restaurants and go to the discos and worry about the education the kids are getting, even if they have no kids of their own.

"That’s not just the city of the future, that’s the city of today. It means new directions, it means new alliances, new solutions for old problems.”

Milk celebrated cities “of many colors who speak in many tongues.” Milk credited those who were staying put with “renovating not only the physical city, they’re renovating the spirit of the city as well.”

He challenged his listeners to cherish their city, to fight for just and sustainable public policies and his hope for San Francisco was that it could “set an example to show the rest of the country what a city can really be.”

Four decades later, that challenge still beckons -- in San Francisco, in Santa Monica and in cities across America.

Investment has come pouring back into urban areas, but often at the expense of the people who stayed loyal to their neighborhoods and now face economic struggles, eviction and displacement.

Milk’s unique brand of empathetic politics is a shining example of putting people first. It’s a legacy worthy of pride.

Today, in seeking to create a city that works for everyone, we carry on that cause. Let June not only be a time to celebrate how far we’ve come in forty years, but a challenge for the work ahead of all of us.

Harvey Milk fervently believed in -- and inspired -- hope.

“You have to give them hope,” he told those who despaired. “Hope for a better world. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope that all will be all right.”

And he continued, “It means hope to those who have given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone. And you and you and you – you have to give people hope!”

That’s a powerful message for the PRIDE Celebration – open to all, giving hope to all.

Please join in the many events this month, including a reception at City Hall before the June 11 Council meeting for the City’s proclamation for PRIDE month.

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