"Mom and Pop" to Gay Mecca
Text by Joey Plaster. Copyright (©) by C. Joey Plaster, 2009. All rights reserved.
Randall Wallace moved to San Francisco in the early 1950s from Seattle. “San Francisco was considered a very permissive city,” he explained. He lived in the centrally located Nob Hill area, bordered by the “cruisy” Huntington and Layfayette Parks and within walking distance of the Opera House and many of the city’s scattered gay bars. Wallace and his partner socialized with other gay men at Aquatic Park “every weekend” while sunbathing, cruising, and listen to Tallulah Bankhead on a portable radio.
Below Aquatic Park, Polk Street ran down to Civic Center. In the 1950s, it was populated by “mom and pop” stores, Wallace recalled, including “little stores that ladies ran,” news stands, candy stores, shoe repair stores, drug stores, and markets. “It wasn’t a magnet,” he said. But the men who walked up and down the street were: “It was the cruisiest street in the city,” Wallace said.
By 1961, Wallace and his partner had opened a record store in the Marina. “But I kept eyeing Polk,” he said. “I really think we could do better out there. We were doing all right, but we weren’t making money.” He also didn’t “feel at ease” on Union Street. “I just felt comfortable [on Polk Street]. It was near home.”
In 1960, a gay couple opened the Town Squire, a “mod” clothing store, on Polk Street. The next year, Wallace’s partner found “an old market that was going out [of business]…in pretty derelict condition” next to the Squire. They bought it, remodeled, and opened Gramaphone records in May of 1961.
“I just knew that the moneyed crowds from the fancy neighborhoods surrounding would come,” he recalled, referring to the “people you would see in society pages” from Nob Hill and Pacific Heights. “Then the [gay] bars began. Slowly people began to open more things that were gay oriented. It just began to multiply, and it was the place to be on the weekends and the weeknights.”
The Tavern Guild would be formed in 1962 as the first gay business association in the country. The Jumpin’ Frog, a gay bar on Polk Street, was featured in a 1964 Life Magazine article that dubbed San Francisco the nation’s “Gay Capital.” By 1966, there were at least 26 gay bars and other gay businesses in the Polk Gulch area, including restaurants, men’s clothing stores, gay theaters, and hotels.
The low-income Tenderloin “vice” district and the city’s waterfront had housed visible queer populations and businesses since the 1930s, but Polk Street represented the first time in San Francisco’s history that gay business and bar owners would form an aboveground, upscale, concentrated economic bloc. Attracted by its central location, merchants acting in part out economic self-interest would make valuable contributions to an emerging gay community.
- Interview with Randall Wallace by Joey Plaster, 2008
- Records compiled by Eric Garber and Willie Walker for the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society.