"And that's what [began] the downward spiral. Some very pretty boys have become very ugly people because of the ... loss of the great community."
A large homeless shelter moved onto Polk in 1990, along with much of the hardscrabble Tenderloin population. A different kind of john came to the street, and there was less respect for sex workers, leading to more escape through drug use. Ellison left his work at the bars in the 1990s, when the community of bartenders that had kept violent crime in check on the street broke down. Sex workers increasingly started advertising in newspapers, and later on the Internet.
Corey began using the speed that was rampant on the block, quickly becoming addicted. Diez worried that by continuing to give Corey money, which he used for drugs, he was "keeping him where he was at" instead of helping. "I eventually always gave in because I always wanted to see him have something better," Diez said. "I just enjoyed being with him. Even if we weren't talking and he was just writing, I just liked him being there. He was company."
As Corey began using more speed, his artwork "became wilder and wilder." He started to lose his teeth, and his blonde hair turned brown. "He went down, I would say, fairly fast," Diez recalled. Spas began to refuse to serve him. He would wander into the street to pick up imaginary children, and began to be more difficult to talk with. "He went into a lot of gibberish or psychobabble," Diez recalled. "He started to look almost Charles Manson-like."
James Harris, a Polk Street community member since 1978, met Corey when he came to the city in 1990. Harris left in the mid-'90s, and when he returned in 2001, he barely recognized Corey. "I just could not believe what I was seeing. What was once a strapping, good-looking, young man had been reduced to this homeless, toothless guy. It freaked me out so bad. It took me a little while to get over it."
Harris has no doubt that Corey's decline was linked to the breakdown of the Polk community. "If Corey came to Polk Street in 1980, he would have a job as bartender maybe, working somewhere, maybe living in the Castro," he said. "No question about it." Many people who now work in Polk Street businesses and social service organizations started as runaways and sex workers on Polk.
"In the '60s and the '70s, it was like a big party atmosphere. I, fortunately was taken under several people wings," said Cabello, the Palo Alto Hotel manager. "Now people don't have the cash flow, 'cuz economically times have really changed. People who were out partying and being able to take somebody home and help them find a job are basically waiting in line at Social Security and making sure that their housing is together."
INTO THE SYSTEM
Gay bar patronage decreased citywide in the 1980s and 1990s, the result of AIDS-related deaths, a generational shift, and later the rise of the Internet. The Tavern Guild disbanded in 1995, and by the late 1990s, most of the Polk Street bar owners had either died or retired. Most of the remaining gay bars were remade into upscale heterosexual or mixed drinking establishments, serving new residents attracted by low rents during dot.com era.
Lower Polk Neighbors represented this new bloc of business owners. Diez joined LPN in 2001, when he retired and moved to Pacific Heights. They planted trees, cleaned sidewalks, and successfully pressured the city officials to increase the number of police patrols in the area. In one of their most controversial actions, they opposed the relocation of the RendezVous bar, which they blamed for nurturing the street and hustler population.
Corey and people like him, once the street's economic engine, were now bad for business.