No place left to live: The gentrification of San Francisco’s Polk Street


December 5, 2008


photo: Flyer for an action by to conduct a seance summoning the ghosts of Polk St.



It’s Friday before midnight at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge – a gay bar in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. The bar’s patrons – five enthused and tipsy young people –  cheer longtime drag performer Miss Amanda Sincere in the dimly lit, echoing room.

Hot, hot, hot, hot… If I had my way we’d have drag seven days a week. God knows I do. Everybody else should enjoy it too.

Audience: Exactly!

It’s true…because everybody should have more drag in their life, because drag is fun and exciting.

Audience: Hell yeah! Drag’s life.

Drag is life. It’s the essence.

Not so long ago, gay bars such as Aunt Charlie’s would fill to capacity on weekend nights. Queers, drag queens, transwomen, and hustlers would find themselves together, jostling for elbow space at the same bar….

But these days the clientele has changed. And many of Aunt Charlie’s gay patrons have been replaced by tourists – a clear sign that things are changing.

(ambient of street underneath)

The Tenderloin has a rich history. It’s one of the few remaining working-class neighborhoods near downtown San Francisco. In the 20s it was home to speakeasies, pool halls and gambling parlors. Jazz greats Miles Davis and Theolonious Monk recorded live albums here in the mid 50s. And in the last few decades the neighborhood has served as a gathering spot and relatively safe haven for drag queens, transwomen, hustlers and others who found themselves on the fringes of San Francisco’s mainstream queer society.

Polk Street – which runs through the Tenderloin- is seeing drastic changes.

Strip clubs, homeless encampments, and liquor stores are being replaces by pricey nighclubs and high-end condos. The latest wave of merchants are even trying to re-name the neighborhood from “Polk Gulch” to “Polk Village.”

Umm…Polk Village right now is what they like to call it.

Yeah, Polk Village- Gulch.

Yeah…but none of us like the name, so we’re trying to get rid of it.

It’s still the Tender Nob…

Yeah, not very proud of that name.

That’s not even it’s name, either…

It’s still just the outskirts of the Tenderloin…

Four guys with shaved heads are standing outside of Blur, an upscale lounge bar that offers cocktails and crepes to mostly straight college students and young professionals. Blur is a well-known and visible outpost in the rapidly gentrifying Tenderloin.

The Polk Gulch and the Tenderloin have long been a destination point and safe haven for queers who had no place else to go… people who face discrimination from society because they defy easy and convenient social categorization.

Don Romsburg from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society, looks back to Polk Street’s heyday in the 1960s.

One of the really powerful things about the story of the Tenderloin for queer people is that even in the 1960s it was one of the last places – almost on Earth- that transgender and other marginal queers could eke out a livable life, find community and find ways to feel safe. Even though they were heavily policed there, and they were sort of forced into that spot. And so you have to wonder: What happens to those people when they get pushed out of those places that other forms of gentrification, other forms of policing have pushed them into? It’s those neighborhoods where they’re able to organize, and resist, and set up social service networks for themselves.

Today Polk Gulch and the Tenderloin continue to harbor queers with less social privilege. That’s according to Alejandro Hurtado, a Polk Gulch resident in his mid-twenties.

As a queer man of color, I think of the Polk St as one of the few public spaces for queer men of color, because people of color tend to be paid less than their white counterparts, and seeing that San Francisco is a city – a beacon for all folks in the rainbow – we also kind of break down according to class as well. I found that the Tenderloin is that safe haven for the working class, young, queer men of color… as well as monolingual, transgender Latinas. It is a space safe to them because they’ve carved it out…and they’re continuing to do so.

Alexis Miranda and Victoria Secret are both bartenders and veteran drag performers who work at Diva’s, a cozy nightclub in the Polk Gulch. Diva’s is the only transgender club in the state of California. Alexis Miranda:

Polk St used to be a lot livelier, businesses used to be a lot more colorful, more gay… a lot more open to gay. Not specifically gay, but oriented around gay. And the people who patronized them were gay-friendly if not gay themselves. Now – as Victoria said- it’s a lot more what they call “metrosexual.”

Transgender people who’ve long been in the neighbordhood say that with the recent changes they’re now facing harassment from new business owners and their clientele.

He will not allow transgenders in his bar, or people of color- unless they have money… A lot of money.

Miranda describes the behavior of one business owner new to the neighborhood.

You know, when he first opened up, myself, Mark and Paul- which at that time were the employees here- ran across the street to welcome him, buy a drink… He ran to the door and told us that “our kind” was not wanted there. And threw us out… I’m a past Empress of San Francisco, that’s a non-profit charity fundraising that I do… 43-year-old organization… and I’m a very predominant person in the city… but he’s told me that I need to get myself and “my girls” off of his street. “My whores.

Problems with police harassment also continue.

And we still have the problem with the police- We still call them, and they still call you names… The police went through a… “sensitive” class…

(Patron laughs.)

They did, “sensitivity training”… and that did not work…

(Patron continues to laugh.)

And I know that you find a lot of that humorous, but it’s not at all…

Patron stops laughing: yeah, I know…

Because a lot of people got hurt by that. So as funny as you might deem it to be, a good friend of mine was pulled out of a car- with an officer… Melanie was pulled out of a car, through her hair, simply for double parking, waiting for a girlfriend of hers to get into the car. And the cop pulled her out through the window…

Victoria: Really!

Um hm. She sued him… took forever, and she didn’t get anything out of it, of course.

Increased policing and harsher penalties are the main ways gentrifiers remove people. But Claire St. Bernard with the San Francisco Tenant’s Union, says what drives gentrication ultimately is real estate speculation. They’ve been organizing tenants of the city’s largest landlord, Citiapartments, to defend themselves from illegal rent increases and evictions.

Block by block, they are forcing out long-term, low-rent tenants and destroying poor people’s housing, replacing it with market rate housing and luxury hotels. Part of their endgame is buying up poor people’s housing and turning it into hotels for corporate travelers. This is part of a larger program of ridding San Francisco of undesirables and making San Francisco more conservative and safe for the wealthy.

Gay Shame is a queer, anti-capitalist, direct action activist group. They fight against what they say is the culture of gentrification in the Polk Gulch. They also fight class discrimination in the queer community.

Mainstream gay culture completely excludes people who are homeless, people who are trans, people who are sex workers, and people who are drug addicts.

That’s Mary About Something, an activist with Gay Shame.

The type of gentrification that Gay Shame has been focusing specifically on has to do with straight gentrification, like- sort of mainstream people forcing out marginalized people, people who have less privilege and less resources in being able to prevent being forced out onto the streets.

Gay Shame has been trying to rally dissent against a group they say is destroying Polk St. The group, “Lower Polk Neighbors,” is an association of merchants, landlords and residents that formed five years ago.

(street ambient, walking…)

Their office is in the Polk Gulch. It’s right around the corner from Diva’s and across the street from a gay porn store. It’s an architect’s office with enormous glass windows. Inside, well-groomed men in button-up shirts type on laptops.

(soft jazz here)

The walls are painted with soft pastel colors. Jazz music plays softly.

Ron Case and his wife are the bosses here, and they live right above their office. They’re also both active members of Lower Polk Neighbors. Gay Shame says that Case & Abst stand to benefit financially if Polk St property values continue to rise.

We – my wife and myself- could possibly live in a different area of town, but we like the diversity here… We like all the different things that are happening here, there’s a lot of excitement here!..a lot of energy…

Lower Polk Neighbors’ list of successes include the planting of palm trees outside storefronts, increased police patrols and the removal of male hustlers and other sex workers who used to congregate across the street from their office.

But not everyone believes these are positive changes.

(traffic noise fade in, walk with Mattilda)

On a walk with Tenderloin resident and activist, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, she points out some of San Francisco’s most glaring contradictions – such as what “cleaning up the streets” really means.

So the rhetoric they use: “Oh, we’re making these businesses in the neighborhood to improve the lives of the people who are here, right…” So we can take a look at what they actually do to the people who are actually here. So they get rid of the needle exchange, they arrest women who are turning tricks, they arrest male hustlers, they arrest drug dealers, and homeless people… And then they create really trendy places to buy overpriced cocktails!

Sycamore has been an outspoken defender of Polk Street queer culture for years. She has written and edited several books about queer culture, some of which touch on what’s at stake when we lose places like Polk Street.

The disappearance of an entire cultural possibility, and so that possibility is really the dream of San Francisco. It’s that you can escape an abusive family, a scary place of origin- you can escape a city or a town where you can’t express your gender or your sexuality, and you can come here to San Francisco to find that.

And unfortunately that’s not true anymore… and I think Polk St offered a place for people who got here and were like, “Oh no! This is not what I thought the options would be… Whether it’s like, I fled a scary country of origin, as in the case of many trans women in the Tenderloin… They’re coming here so that they can exist. Or… kids who are escaping abusive families and find themselves strung out on drugs… And at least I think Polk St was offering a place where those kids could find other kids who were trying to survive, and figure out ways to survive together…

(Street noise. Mary About Something reads.)

Gene Compton’s cafeteria riot… 1966.

Tonight in the Tenderloin, the memory of Compton’s Cafeteria riot- and Mattilda’s dream of San Francisco- is far from visible at this street corner. Homeless people, some barefoot and wrapped in blankets, wander around. Some set up camp for the night along the intersection. Blocks away, people dine in shimmering restaurants in the new Polk Street while they watch police load up trans sex workers into a van.

The only marker of the area’s former identity, and a an indicator of a dream unfinished, is a bronze plaque that lies embedded in the sidewalk, nearly lost in trash debris.

Here marks the site of Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, where a riot took place one August night when transgender women and gay men stood up for their rights and fought against police brutality, poverty, oppression and discrimination in the Tenderloin. We- the transgender, gay, lesbian and bisexual community- are dedicating this plaque to our heroes of our civil rights movement. Dedicated June 22, 2006.

From the Tenderloin in San Francisco, this is Puck Lo for “Making Contact.”