The death of Polk Street - Page 3

The death of Polk Street: Gentrification is destroying the home of a vibrant, if marginalized, queer community
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Abst told the San Francisco Chronicle in September 2005 that she "wants a fruit stand [on Polk Street], and we'll take a Starbucks too."

The group has had an impact: District Attorney Kamala Harris said at a recent community meeting organized by the LPN that she has responded to association agitation by having representatives of the District Attorney's Office walk the neighborhood with police and installing high-tech surveillance equipment to gain more criminal convictions. Sup. Aaron Peskin has asked the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development to include the Lower Polk in its Neighborhood Marketplace Initiative, a program designed to revitalize neighborhood business districts. As part of this program, a part-time staff person now acts as a liaison between Lower Polk merchants and police. Another city program is scheduled to spend $1 million on installing new lights and planting trees later this year.

Activists say the LPN focus is not on outreach, therapy, or support for the Polk's marginalized residents but on pushing undesirables out of the neighborhood and ejecting outreach programs like a local needle exchange.

Last year Abst was the subject of a "wanted" poster put up on Polk by the group Gay Shame. The group calls the LPN a "progentrification attack squad" whose goal is to "remove outsider queers and social deviants from our neighborhood in order to accelerate property development and real estate profiteering."

The hustler bar Club RendezVous lost its lease in 2005 after the property was bought and razed. Its co-owner, David Kapp, didn't return our phone calls seeking comment, but he told the Central City Extra in February 2006 that a "smear campaign" by the LPN stopped him from relocating down the street. A First Congregational Church is now being constructed where RendezVous once stood. The church was designed by Case+Abst.

Case told us that the Planning Department wanted to see neighborhood support for the RendezVous move. The LPN asked that RendezVous provide security, but the bar's owners refused. "They always had younger, underage boys hanging out," Case said. "There are a lot of families in this neighborhood. We wished them well, but it's also a community." He told us he wants not to gentrify the neighborhood but to make it clean and safe.

But safe for whom?

Chris Roebuck, a medical anthropologist at UC Berkeley, told us that the increased policing has also meant increased harassment of trans women. Sex workers, many of them immigrants from Mexico, the Philippines, and Thailand, are "increasingly being pushed into the alleyways, into unsafe spaces," he said. He's also noticed a criminalization of what he called "walking while trans" in the six years he has spent interviewing trans women on Polk Street.

At a community meeting with the district attorney earlier this month, two trans women said the police, despite sensitivity trainings, do not take them seriously when they report a crime.

"Getting rid of the public space for trans women and drug users is not safe for them," Polk resident Matt Bernstein Sycamore (a.k.a. Mattilda) told us. "Deportation [of immigrant sex workers] is not a safe space. The needle exchange actually does make people safer. Getting rid of it does not make people safer."

Sycamore, editor of the book Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write About Their Clients, is concerned with what he calls a "cultural erasure" in the area. "Polk Street has been the last remaining place where marginalized queers can come to figure out how to cope, meet one another, and form social networks," he told us. "That sort of outsider culture has been so dependent on having a public space to figure out ways to survive.

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