The death of Polk Street: Gentrification is destroying the home of a vibrant, if marginalized, queer community
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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 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?
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. Many trans immigrants make a living as prostitutes, and while Miranda insists that she does not allow them to work inside the club, the close vicinity of San Francisco's tranny prostitute district has meant tension for Divas.
Miranda told us the police have been targeting the club because of complaints from new merchants. "Some of the people who have new businesses don't want the people who live here to stay. They want to close us down," she said. "They're trying to gentrify the neighborhood."
Neville Gittens, a police spokesperson, told us that the San Francisco Police Department performs "regular enforcement in that area" but said any targeted operations cannot be discussed.
Theresa Sparks, a trans woman who chairs the Police Commission, said Miranda made the same claim at the commission meeting Aug. 15. "I don't know if that's true or not," Sparks told us. "My intent is to find out what is going on."
Sparks agreed that gentrification is driving trans people out of the Polk Gulch neighborhood: "It is very, very difficult for a transgendered person to survive in this city."
Miranda pointed to a bar across the street. Until 2000, the Lush Lounge was the cruisy trans and hustler bar Polk Gulch Saloon. Now, under a new owner, white twentysomething heterosexuals sip apple pie martinis.
Sonia Khanna, a 28-year-old trans woman with long, curly brown hair and mocha skin told us she doesn't feel welcome there. "If you're a tranny, they think you're a whore," she said.
Miranda said the owner, Steve Black, ejected her when she went to welcome him to the neighborhood. Miranda, a former empress in San Francisco's Imperial Court System, reported him to the Human Rights Commission. The inquiry was closed when the owner informed the commission that he allows transgendered people into the bar. He didn't deny tossing out Miranda; he said he just disliked her personally.
The bigger problem may be the neighborhood's increased property values. Divas owner and Polk Gulch resident Steve Berkey told us that rents have pushed out other established queer businesses on Polk. The only reason Divas stays open is that he owns the building. "It used to be that so many girls lived in the neighborhood," he said. "They packed the place. But now rents have driven them off."
The reasons behind the death of the queer Polk are complex, likely including the ascendance of the Internet as a social networking tool, rising property costs, and the aging of the bars' core clientele and owners. But most of the community's rancor has focused on the most visible manifestation of change: neighborhood associations representing new, upscale businesses working with police and the city to clean up the streets.
At the center of the storm is a glass-walled architecture studio at the bottom of Polk Gulch, around the corner from Divas. Two freshly planted palm trees in front of the studio are conspicuous on a site next door to a bleak, institutional homeless shelter outfitted with security cameras and across the street from a porn shop promising "Hot Bareback Action!"
Case+Abst Architects has been the workplace and home of husband and wife Carolyn Abst and Ron Case since they were lured by the area's low cost in 1999. The trees were the first of 40 planted in a campaign they initiated last year as cofounders of Lower Polk Neighbors. 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. That is the dream of San Francisco that you can get away from where you came from and cope, and create something dangerous and desperate and explosive."
When Kimo's changes hands at the end of September, San Francisco will lose one of the last vestiges of a hustler culture housed on Polk Street since at least the early 1960s.
On a recent night, six gray-haired men sat chatting or reading the paper, relics of Polk Street's heyday. A young man with a shaved head and black hoodie stood outside the front door and gave a suspicious look to a young blonde woman in bikini straps who breezed in with two friends, laughing, oblivious to him. A sign in front read "No Loitering In Front of These Premises."
The state's Department of Alcohol Beverage Control mandated the warning, Kimo's bartender John David told us. He said he thinks that was the result of pressure from the LPN. "Kimo's is the new whipping boy," he told us. "RendezVous is out, and now it's our fault that people are on the streets."
Case denies that his group had anything to do with the crackdown on Kimo's.
A tall man with shaggy brown hair standing on the sidewalk near Kimo's, who asked to be identified by his porn-actor name, Eric Manchester, complained that a way of life is coming to an end. Manchester said he started hustling on Polk at age 17 after leaving the "redneck, racist town" of Martinsville, Ind., in 10th grade and being stationed in San Diego by the Navy.
"It wasn't just money for me," Manchester told us. "This was a good place to come and get advice, comfort, support. There are people that need people, and they're going to take that all away. San Francisco is going down the tubes. All the heterosexual people are moving in. They like the police-state mentality."
Among the new arrivals is the owner of the $6.5 million O'Reilly's Holy Grail Restaurant that stands just a few doors down Polk Street from Kimo's. On a recent evening, a musician played soft jazz on a black grand piano, while men in starched pastel button-down shirts stood around on the hickory pecan floor.
Myles O'Reilly opened the restaurant two years ago, when he also transformed a low-rent residential hotel above the space into 14 European-style hotel suites. Neighbors point to the property as a tipping point in Polk's transformation. But O'Reilly sounded almost defeated when he talked about his "multimillion-dollar jewel in the middle of the desert."
"We are only a couple blocks from City Hall and Union Square," he told us. "But tourism doesn't come this way."
With the goal of transforming the area, he teamed up with John Malloy, the head of the recently founded Polk Corridor Business Association, who has also chaired the LPN.
One of their projects is on view outside the restaurant and along the street. Colorful banners read: "Welcome to Polk Village ... working together to build a cleaner, safer, more beautiful community." The PCBA plans to circulate a petition to officially change the name of Polk Gulch to Polk Village in a few years, but O'Reilly isn't waiting. He defiantly lists the restaurant's address as 1233 Polk Village on his building.
That "village" will house a small army if these merchants have their way. "We need foot patrols up and down Polk Street," Malloy, who lives in the neighborhood, told us. "We're going to get more police even if we have to go out there and hire them ourselves."
O'Reilly took out his cell phone and started showing me photos. "This is defecation on the sidewalk outside," he said, pointing to a smudgy image. "This is condoms on the sidewalk. You see this lovely photograph? That's a condom in the flowerbed. That's what my son had to see this morning. And nobody helps."
"There are 1,000 condos being built here," O'Reilly said. "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."