Polk Street

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Index for "Polk Street: Lives in Transition"

“Polk Street: Lives in Transition” examines Polk Street’s history through the lens of neighborhood change in the mid-2000s. Polk Street was San Francisco’s premiere gay male center in the 1960s and 1970s. The residential enclave and business district provided fertile ground for the development of gay economic and political power.

Its bloc of middle-income gay businesses evaporated in the late 1970s, leaving a “blighted” area known for its underground sex work and drug economy. During these decades, Polk Street served as a home, refuge, and family for queer runaway and homeless youth, often fleeing abusive or unwelcome homes; immigrants, primarily from Asia and Latin America; and, increasingly in the 1990s, lower-income transgendered women and seniors.

Since the early 2000s, a citywide building boom, skyrocketing rents in the central city, and increases in permanent housing for the formerly homeless have pushed and pulled new actors to the area. Tension, bitterness, and misunderstandings now accompany the changes, with the vestiges of a once thriving queer community competing with new businesses and residents for prized territory in the urban landscape.

In an effort to better understand the actions and attitudes of Polk Street denizens, we present personal histories from stake-holders who are living through and shaping these changes.

"Saving People" [click on link for audio]

"The litter of a changing economy" [click on link for audio]

  • Megan Rohrer, minister and Executive Director of nonprofit serving the homeless.
  • Dan Diez, Lower Polk Neighbors member and retiree.
  • Corey Longseeker, artist and Polk Street resident.

"A hustler bar becomes a church" [click on link for audio]

"We Are Family" [click on link for audio]


Index for Polk Street: A Study of Transitions

The buck has always been the bottom line on San Francisco's Polk Street, a coveted bloc of central city space long zoned by the City as a commercial corridor. The economic principles that would help create a gay neighborhood in the late 1950s -- and facilitate the growth of gay economic, social, and political strength -- would also lead to its demise by the early 2000s. This essay is not a comprehensive history of Polk Street. Instead, it is an attempt to trace the street’s primary economic shifts over the past sixty years in the context of both a changing city and GLBT political center.

1960s to 1970s: Polk Street Emerges as a Gay Economic Engine

1960s to 1970s: Queer Sex Work Zones Shift

Late 1970s to 1990s: Polk Street Sex Work Economy

Late 1990s-2008: Dot.com Boom and “Gentrification”

Epilogue: the Rise and Fall of a Polk Street Hustler

San Francisco gay bar map. c. 1970s. Courtesy of Coy Ellison.

Curator biography:
Joey Plaster.

Joey Plaster is an independent public historian, radio producer, and freelance journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Joey is the recipient of the 2010 Allan Bérubé Prize for outstanding work in public GLBT history, awarded by the American Historical Association’s Committee on LGBT History. He directed the Polk Stories Project and works closely with San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society. <comments />

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Toby Marotta said ...
20:38, 3 October 2010 (EST)
A wonderfully illuminating longitudinal history of terrain crucial in the making of GLBT San Francisco, hence the rest of the world.
bmw3034 said ...
03:39, 3 December 2010 (EST)
The ca1970s SF bar map is great! I have found it no where else. Would it be possible to upload a higher resolution scan of it? When enlarged to read the numbers/names, it becomes blurry. Thanks!

I was one of those "boys" on Polk from 1976-1981, when it was less-dangerous. I was 15. Not every guy who worked Polk was a runaway, most were, but some of us were just seeking out the gay life and because of our age Polk was the place to go. It was an exciting time in gay history and San Francisco. Not all desperation, and I met some great older men, but who society would most-likely consider predators and molestors. Yes, there was rape, violence, drug abuse...but we looked out for each other the best we could. We never had "pimps" and saw ourselves as independent. There was no one to help us and the police would look the other way (they knew what was happening on Polk). This was before Larkin Street Youth Services, where some of my friends went as soon as it started. The gay community back then watched out for us the best they could too and we felt safe at least around older gay men (even though some of them were "abusing" us). We did what we had to do to eat and survive.

Thanks so much, Robby, for your very moving and interesting comment. If you'd like to tell readers of OutHistory.org more about your life we would love to have that on the site. Jonathan Ned Katz, founder, co-director OutHistory.org

I too was one of the many young men hanging out on Polk Street 1973-1979. I was 19 years old but not a runaway. It was a place to hangout and drink and party with my fellow Hustlers at Buzzby's, the P.S. Lounge, Oil Can Harry's, The Giraffe, Komo's The White Swallow, The Polk Gulch Saloon. in the Tenderloin; The Alley Cat, Trapp, The body Shop,The Rendezvous.Sutter's Mill in the financial district

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