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Marks on Harry Aleo's Window Show an Ugly Side of Noe Valley
By Kathy Dalle-Molle
Arriving at work to find his large storefront window vandalized is nothing new for Harry Aleo, proprietor of Twin Peaks Properties on 24th Street. Over the decades, Aleo, an unabashed Republican, has turned his window into a revolving showcase for GOP memorabilia, a display that many inhabitants of liberal Noe Valley have viewed with a mix of disdain, curiosity, and admiration.
For this and other reasons, Twin Peaks Properties has had its share of graffiti. But swastikas?
In the early morning hours of June 30, someone plastered Aleo's window with anti-Republican and pro-Democrat newspaper articles. When Aleo removed the clippings, he discovered that the vandal had used glue --in the shape of swastikas -- to attach the papers to the glass.
The mean-spirited vandalism disturbed many neighborhood residents and merchants, and produced an outpouring of support for the 81-year-old real estate entrepreneur, who has been a fixture in the neighborhood since 1947.
"This is Harry's window," said Carol Yenne, owner of Small Frys, a children's clothing store located two doors away from Aleo's office at 4072 24th Street. "He owns the building -- he can do what he wants. It's not up to someone else to decide. He's received lots of support from people in the neighborhood after this. It's about freedom of speech. No one wants to see swastikas on anyone's window."
In the past, vandals have scratched and spit on Aleo's window, and during the Reagan era of the 1980s they even shot bullet holes through the glass. They were likely aiming at one of his presidential campaign souvenirs -- Aleo's collection runs from "Ike" through "Dubya" -- or any number of bumper stickers, American flags, political cartoons, and handwritten posters, such as the one that cheers, "Noe Valley is filled with elation. They love the Bush administration!"
Not Technically a Hate Crime
As for the June 30 incident, San Francisco police believe Aleo was targeted due to his political beliefs and therefore are not treating the incident as a hate crime. According to San Francisco Police Inspector Anna Brown, of the city's Hate Crimes Unit, a hate crime occurs when a person sets out to do harm to another person or his property because of his race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, or ancestry.
"The motivation here seems to be the victim's political party affiliation," Brown says. "This was an attack on his First Amendment rights to put in his window what he wants."
Still, Brown notes that if "harassment continues and the swastika symbol is used again, that could be an issue for the Hate Crimes Unit to look into."
Meanwhile, Noe Valley Beat Officer Lorraine Lombardo, who filed the police report on the June 30 vandalism, has been making frequent patrols by Aleo's office. She also has requested that a squad car pass by the building in the evening hours and be on the lookout for any suspicious activity.
After his window was defaced earlier this year, Aleo installed a video camera to monitor activity in front of his office. Aleo says the camera caught the swastika suspect on videotape and that Lombardo has reviewed the tape. No arrest has been made, however.
Aleo is reluctant to talk about the incident. "Just let it blow over," he says. "I've got the guy on tape. I'd recognize him if I saw him again."
But his window continues to bring him notoriety. In its "Best of the Bay" issue in July, the San Francisco Bay Guardian ran a half-page photograph of Aleo's storefront and named it "Best Place to See Startled Democrats." The Guardian also noted that Aleo's "usual cheery ideologue personality chipped recently after a person he described as an 'ugly white male' defaced his windows with swastikas. We hope the fun-loving Aleo returns soon, smiley faces and all."
"It was fine," Aleo says about the mention in the Guardian. "What they printed was accurate, but I'm not showing up to have my picture taken [for the Best of the Bay group photo]."
Neighbors Come to His Defense
Aleo is pleased by the support he has received from neighbors, fellow merchants, and 24th Street pedestrians who saw or heard about the vandalized storefront.
"Lots of people, especially young people, have come in to tell me they support me," he says. "They'll say, 'I'm a liberal Democrat, but you have the right to do with your window what you want.'"
"That window is a homage to his life and his beliefs," one passerby told the Voice. "He is a person who is not afraid to hide his beliefs, and while his window is partisan, it certainly isn't hateful."
Aleo also has placed two letters of support in his window.
One, written by Dorothy Crowder, reads, "Sometimes I agree with you and sometimes not, but I love your window, for it's there to view or not. One has the choice."
The other, by Gary Lindquist, echoes Crowder's sentiments. "I don't always agree with the opinions expressed in your window, but I will defend, with every syllable I can muster, your right to express diversity of thought.... Without gutsy people like the owner of this business, life would have no diversity."
Besides the two supportive letters, Aleo also received a critical letter, signed by "A Noe Valley Resident." He put that letter in his window, too, along with his own response.
"I feel that the display is appallingly insensitive to the other political views of the neighborhood," writes the anonymous resident. "I realize you have freedom of speech, but I ask you to stop being so openly hateful to Democrats, or frankly, to anyone who doesn't support Republican laws and presidents.... Noe Valley is a very diverse neighborhood, and if an outsider read your postings, they would get the definite impression that Noe Valley is not only close-minded but all Republican, neither of which are true."
Aleo's response provides anyone interested in reading it with an explanation for the courage behind his convictions.
"My political views are not insensitive," he writes, "only different from yours. I do not hate Democrats. I just strongly disagree with most of their views. I have been in this office for 54 years, so I am aware of our diversity. I'm sure that no one anywhere would ever think that Noe Valley is all Republican, close-minded as your letter proves, but never all Republican.
"I put in three years in the service through France, Belgium, and Germany, fighting for freedom. I'm not going to stop because of your biased, insensitive letter!"