Last June, a small group of costumed 20-something activists from Gay Shame wielding saxophones, loudspeakers booming electronica, and bullhorns held a "séance" on Polk Street to "summon the ghosts of Polk Street's past."
They performed in front of the recently constructed First Congregational Church what they call "ground zero" for Polk Street gentrification built over the remains of what they characterize as a gay hustler bar pushed out of the area by Lower Polk Neighbors (LPN), an organization not coincidentally holding its monthly meeting just a few feet beyond the window during the ear-splitting performance.
It was one of many ongoing clashes as new condos, upscale businesses, and trendy "metrosexual" bars replace Polk Street's SRO apartment buildings, shuttered businesses, and hardscrabble hustler bars.
Protesters blamed the transition on LPN, a "pro-gentrification attack squad" working to transform the city's "last remaining public gathering place for marginalized queers." New business and neighborhood associations counter that they are only working to beautify, make safer, and "revitalize" the area a benefit to everyone, including the street's marginal residents.
But what has been lost in the noise of this high profile, ongoing clash are the stories, needs, and wishes of the very people purportedly at the center of this conflict: the "marginal queers" and the homeless.
I conducted interviews with more than 60 people during the past year, including sex workers, merchants, the homeless, and social service providers thanks to a grant from the California Council for the Humanities and the sponsorship of the GLBT Historical Society. And I learned that changes on Polk Street stem from a collapse of the area's community-based economic and social safety nets in the 1990s, combined with the absence of a viable alternative from the city, the neighborhood, or an increasingly affluent gay political establishment.
That trend is illustrated by the story of one such "marginal queer," known on the street as "Corey Longseeker." In a changing neighborhood divided by distrust and tension, it seems that even people from opposing viewpoints are united in their familiarity with a story that has become the stuff of legend: the most beautiful, most successful boy on Polk Street who became the saddest, poorest homeless man in the neighborhood.
Now, during a time of recession and drastic budget cuts to mental health, drug abuse, and HIV-related services, Corey's story traces the neighborhood's history and its present challenges.
THEN AND NOW
Corey, now 39, is a constant presence in the neighborhood. He's always alone when I see him, sometimes sitting on the sidewalk, his head of long stringy hair in his lap, rocking back and forth slightly. Or walking up and down the alleyways, sometimes stooping over and making cupping motions with his arms picking up imaginary children, I'm later told. Or walking slowly, alone, near City Hall, his arms straight by his side, his body hunched.
"I came to San Francisco because I wanted to be an artist," he told me. He speaks slowly, softly, laboring, with long pauses. "When I first got here, there were a lot more people. We used to play guitars and drink beers or smoke a joint and just hang out and stay out of trouble."
He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, compounded by years of methamphetamine use and complications related from AIDS a triple diagnosis that is unusually common among homeless people on Polk Street.