“Trade” Sex Work Moves to Polk Street

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Text by Joey Plaster. Copyright (©) by C. Joey Plaster, 2009. All rights reserved.

Polk Street merchants and residents would soon be able to answer. “More and more speedfreaks are abounding on the Street [Polk],” the Gay Crusader reported in 1974. “[C]um to think of it, the Street looks like the Tenderloin did back in 1966.” The next year the paper noted, “the most marked area of heroin use amongst gays is the Polk Street gay ghetto area.”

Michael Norton came to San Francisco at the age of 17 in 1969, hustling Union Square by the St. Francis Hotel. But by the mid-1970s, “the Tenderloin became a livin’ hell-hole,” he said. “Extremely violent. Not many of us wanted to be around there anymore; most of got out and never went back.”

His move to Polk Street in the mid-1970s was partly due an increasingly violent neighborhood. But he was also drawn to the increasingly affluent and gay “party” atmosphere of Polk Street. Polk Street was “the place where you could party, where you could find decent restaurants that were gay, decent bars that were gay instead of Skid Row bars like in the Tenderloin,” he said.

“It was all underground over [at Union Square],” he said. “Here [on Polk Street] it was all out in the open and you were around people. You were around gay merchants, gay customers coming in and out – you didn’t have to be ashamed of who you were like you would around Union Square. You didn’t have to be on the defense all the time dealing with people.”[1]

Audio: Listen to Michael Norton.

Joseph Itiel began picking up hustlers in Union Square in 1964, but by the late 1960s, “hippies” began dealing drugs in the area, he said, and “within a very short time one could feel a threatening atmosphere.” The night a gun was pulled on “the cruisers,” he decided to change venues. Following the hustlers, he moved to Polk Street, which was “well-lit” and safe.[2]

Rob Bennett, a native San Franciscan who began working the streets as a sixteen year old in the late 1970s, remembers an increase of both the numbers of youth on Polk Street and the level of openness in the early 1980s as part of a general explosion of sexual energy. “People seemed to have more money, so it seemed a little more carefree. A new batch of people started moving into the city, bringing money from I guess the Midwest, South, the East. There was a big draw to Polk Street. It was…more openly sexual.”

Bennett began to dress more provocatively as the street loosened up, and “lean against the wall and have normal stream of people doing their daily life, like old ladies grocery shopping, kids going to school since there was that elementary school…all walking past while I’m leaning against the wall, prostituting myself, half-dressed. I think it was a liberating feeling. I don’t know what the feelings of the other people were that were walking by witnessing it, but for me it was a great feeling.”[3]

  1. Interview with Michael Norton by Joey Plaster, 2008.
  2. Interview with Joseph Itiel by Joey Plaster, 2008.
  3. Interview with Rob Bennett by Joey Plaster, 2008.

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