The death of Polk Street - Page 5

The death of Polk Street: Gentrification is destroying the home of a vibrant, if marginalized, queer community

"Something has to be done to restrict the number of street people."


The Tenderloin, and to a lesser extent Polk Gulch, risked being swallowed by the expanding downtown financial district and tourist industries in the late 1970s. But in the 1980s, community activism secured a moratorium on the conversion of residential hotel units, required luxury hoteliers to contribute millions of dollars in community mitigations, downzoned dozens of blocks of prime downtown property, and created a nonprofit housing boom.

It is these achievements that new merchants and residents point to when distancing themselves from the word gentrification. LPN cofounder Case told us that because apartments in the area are rent controlled, gentrification is "not possible."

Not so, said Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Housing Rights Committee. "Look at the Castro," he told us. "It's full of rent-controlled buildings. All you have to do is evoke the Ellis Act, or you buy out the tenants."

Or look next to the Congregational Church construction on Polk. There stands an almost-completed four-story building whose 32 units are being sold for up to $630,000. A large glossy poster in its window advertises the units' "open living and dining areas," along with "stainless steel appliances, custom cabinets, [and] granite counters."

Brian Bassinger, cofounder of the AIDS Housing Alliance, told us that in one of the buildings where his organization houses people a few blocks south of Polk Gulch, rent is now $1,700 a month, up from $1,325 just a few years ago.

Gayle Rubin, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and a historian of South of Market leather cultures, told us that gay neighborhoods are disappearing across the country as the core of major cities are transformed into high-value areas. This puts pressure on the economic viability of queer neighborhoods, most of which — despite the stereotype of the wealthy gay — have taken root in marginalized, poor neighborhoods.

"Polk Street is just one little battle in the war," Mecca told us. "The Mission was a working-class lesbian area. That whole lesbian culture got lost overnight. The bustling culture of queer artists in the Castro — all gone. The South of Market leather scene — gone. Parts of our culture, the very thing we came to San Francisco for, keep getting wiped out."

Kelly Michaels did develop a certain amount of celebrity as a performer at the famed club Finocchio's and as a porn star; fans still post photos and gush over her online. And she remains drawn to the Polk, even if her relationship with the neighborhood is deeply ambivalent.

"It's so evil, so dark, full of drugs and despair," she told us outside Divas. "But this is my home and my family."

"The people left here are going to fight for their home," she said. "Some people have been here forever. Their whole life is here. It's impossible to get an apartment in other places of this city."

"This is a sanctuary," she said. "They're taking the sparkle out of San Francisco."

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