Kelly Michaels was following the San Francisco dream when she escaped her small Alabama hometown at 17 and hitchhiked westward. It was 1989.
"I had stars in my eyes," Michaels told the Guardian, sitting on the floor of her friend's small single-room occupancy Tenderloin apartment, hints of a Southern drawl now paired with Tammy Faye mascara and bleached-blonde hair. "When you're 16 or 17 and have dreams of being famous, you come to California and you probably end up on Polk Street in drag."
Michaels arrived on Polk with little more than blue jeans, a bra, and rubber falsies to her name, making ends meet as a street sex worker. It wasn't what she was looking for; the Polk was plagued with drugs and violence. But her dad was embarrassed by his transgendered daughter and didn't her want her back. The neighborhood was a home.
She found a community at fierce Polk Gulch trans and boy-hustler bars like Q.T. and Reflections, where clientele included one "big, tall, black Egyptian transsexual hell-raiser" known to draw a gun. Scores of boy hustlers "coming in daily from the Greyhound station" danced naked on the bars. At the end of the night, Michaels's new family members would pool their money and rent a hotel room for $30.
"The bars were the churches, the sanctuaries," Michaels's friend Terri, an African American man in his 50s, told us. "You weren't really going to be hassled there."
Not any more. "Polk Street is dead," Michaels told us. "Dead as fuck now."
THE NEW POLK STREET
The new kids on the block are calling it "revitalization."
After the three-decades-old gay bar Kimo's is transferred to a new owner at the end of September, there will be only two queer bars left on a street that was San Francisco's gay male center in the 1960s and a gritty, affordable home for low-income queers, trans women, and male sex workers in the following decades. Where scores of hustlers lined up against seedy sex shops and gay bars just a few years ago, crowds of twentysomething Marina look-alikes now clog the sidewalks in front of upscale clubs.
Polk's queer residents and patrons are now being priced and policed out of their neighborhood and their city as business and tourism interests continue to eat away at the city's center. Lower Polk Gulch, just blocks north of City Hall and one block east of Van Ness, has in the past few years succumbed to multimillion-dollar businesses, upscale lofts, increased rents at SRO hotels and apartments, and a new million-dollar city streetscape beautification plan. The related increase in policing and new efforts to clean up the street is making the area an unwelcoming place for the marginal queers who for so long called it home.
It has been the most down-and-out segments of the queer population male sex workers, trannies, young people, poor people of color, and immigrants who have often been the queer population's boldest and most innovative actors, pushing the movement forward in new ways. What does queer San Francisco lose when our most marginalized members are pushed, policed, and priced out of the city?
HEART OF A COMMUNITY
Michaels stood under a neon purple Divas sign, advertising the three-story transgender club that has stood in Polk Gulch for more than three decades. Divas manager Alexis Miranda, a friend, stepped outside to chat, and a dozen characters from the neighborhood stopped by to shoot the shit. One man rubbed Miranda's belly through her leopard bodysuit. "This is my baby," he told us jokingly.
Divas is as much a community center as it is a club. Girls from out of town and out of the country know to come to Divas when they step off the boat, plane, or bus.
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