THE CASTRO AMBASSADORS – Got questions? Have answers!

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Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Have you noticed the Castro Ambassadors around Castro & Market lately? They’re a group of volunteers who are part of a program being explored by the CBD – the Upper Market Community Benefit District. A couple of Saturdays ago this smart and ready-to-go group made their debut in Jane Warner Plaza. They were in company with members of the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band who knocked-out rousing versions of “California Here I Come” and “San Francisco” along with an exquisitely divine contingent of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who blessed the work of volunteers everywhere and then spray-stenciled and glittered a pink triangle in the middle of the Muni streetcar tracks. It survived even the F-Line.

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Photos, S.M.

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ANDREA AIELLO

I spoke with Andrea Aiello, the appointed Executive Director for the Upper Market Community Benefit District “We have started a new pilot project called the Castro Ambassadors”, she said. “They are people who are trained and available to welcome tourists and visitors to the Castro, to give them directions and tell them points of interest in the neighborhood. A lot of times people will go to the Rainbow Flag and just not know what else to do. The ambassadors can tell them about the Museum, the Caselli Mansion, the AIDS Mural down on 16th Street, and so much more. We’re really excited about launching this program. The CBD is a non-profit. Our mission is around making improvements to the neighborhood. Above and beyond what the City provides, we do a lot of cleaning, a lot graffiti removal, we provide security services and some economic vitality work. The Ambassador Program is a part of the vitality work to make the neighborhood more vibrant and interesting. We also do a lot of greening and landscaping. We created this plaza [the Jane Warner Plaza at 17th, Castro and Market Streets] in co-operation with the City. We’ve done planting at the Harvey Milk Plaza and will be doing more landscaping throughout the neighborhood.

Local community leaders and property owners formed the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District (CBD) in 2005. Along with Andrea, the CBD is run by an elected Board of Directors consisting of residents, community activists, business representatives, and property owners. They meet monthly to respond to neighborhood issues such as street safety and cleanliness, and to directly influence land use, economic development, and future planning in their area.

Having volunteered in the office of Supervisor Bevan Dufty, I remembered how busy he and his office became during the formation of the CBD. “Supervisor Dufty was a real champion,” said Andrea. “Actually, without him, we wouldn’t really have the Castro CBD. He spent two years door-knocking, talking to voters, to property owners and explaining what the CBD could do and what the benefits were. The CBD was established by a mail-in ballot from the property owners in the geographically-defined district. So, Supervisor Dufty was instrumental in that process. The Ambassador Program is slated to go through October 1st. We’ll evaluate it then. If it’s really successful we’ll have it during the Holiday season and perhaps start it again when the tourists come in for the spring break. We are excited about the experiment and anxious to see how it goes.”

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ANDREA AIELLO and OKAN SENGUN

Okan Sengun is the Volunteer Co-ordinator at Castro CBD and for the Ambassador Program. He is from Turkey. “I first went to L.A., about three years ago,” he says. “Then I visited The Castro and fell in love with the neighborhood. Right now I have thirty-seven volunteers. They’ll be working the week-ends, sometimes Fridays. They will be located here at the 17th and Market Plaza, across the street at the Harvey Milk Plaza, also at Castro and 18th and Noe and Market. These are the four hot spots. Wherever you see us, we’re here to answer your questions, providing directions, and information. Basically, we’re the greeting persons to the Castro neighborhood. This is a summer program which will last through the first week in October. It’s a great program that started about a year ago before I got here. Andrea, our Executive Director, had this idea to help. The Castro is an amazing community. We will love you to see you.”

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“During my first shift,” says Tom Crites, one of the Ambassadors, “two young men came up to me and asked if I knew an inexpensive place to stay in the Castro. One is from Germany, the other from Vancouver, and they have a car. My first suggestion was Beck’s Motor Lodge which is a couple of blocks down Market street. They had just arrived, they’re traveling together and really excited about being in San Francisco. So I started telling them about things to do. I brought them over to the 24 Divisadero bus stop by the Castro Theatre, because it displays a map of the City, and pointed out some areas that would probably interest them. And since we’re right in front of it – I offered a little history of the Castro Theatre, then pointed over to Harvey Milk Plaza and to the location of what was his camera shop and residence up at 575 Castro. Then they wanted to know about “Mrs. Doubtfire’s” house. It’s at 2640 Steiner Street near Broadway, which then led to some discussion about the Pacific Heights area. Later on, I was walking by Beck’s and ran into them again. They’d taken my advice and registered there and were very pleased. This is great since Beck’s has been really helpful with the Ambassador’s Program. So it all turned out very positive.”

He never assumes what visitors know about the Castro, especially the families. For some, it’s one of many destinations in San Francisco. After he answers the initial questions and if there’s an opening to offer some neighborhood information, Tom generally starts with facts such as the Castro being ground zero of the LGBT movement. “Most everybody knows about Harvey Milk any many have seen the film with Sean Penn. They may not know about the new location for the GLBT History Museum – sometimes referred to as “the queer Smithsonian” – a block away on 18th Street. Then it’s usually about directions to areas outside the immediate neighborhood such as Dolores Park. And everybody wants to go to the Haight District. So, depending if people are walking, driving or taking the Muni – I know all the ways to get there. Then if they want to go to Golden Gate Park, they’re happy to know there’s an entrance at the very end of Haight Street at Stanyan.”

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Tom went on to describe what he called a cute incident involving a grandmother, mother and son. “The boy is in his early 20s. As I was giving them a quick rundown of the Castro, the Muni F-Line is turning from the plaza onto Market Street. I said that it’s final stop is Fisherman’s Wharf. As the two women started talking to each other about going there, the boy started nudging me away. He whispers to me, “Hey, can you tell me where the Gay bars are – for tonight?” Obviously, he didn’t want his mother to hear. You know he’s going to make some excuse to go out later on. So, I give him the rundown. We’re standing in front of the Twin Peaks which was the first bar to have open windows, Harvey’s is down at the corner, another has some leather going on, etc. His next question was about late night transportation – like, how to get back to where they’re staying way over in Potrero Hill. You know? It’s his first trip out of Colorado.”

“I love to give people directions to anywhere around the City. In fact, that’s what attracts most volunteers to the Ambassador Program. Any time we see someone with a map we want to go right up and help them. Usually direction-questions are the starting point, the ice breaker. Once you solve those questions you can tell by their response if that’s all they want or if they’re open to more information. The easiest question and answer involved a girl and her father. They had just stepped off the F-line. I don’t think they were freaked-out by what they saw, but they’re holding onto luggage and looking really puzzled. Her English was a little broken, but the question was, “Where is the wharf?” Oh, no! At least their transfers were still valid. And that led to some info about the Clipper card.”

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.


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