Polk Street Gay Commercial Health Undermined

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

This experiment in institutionalized gay upward mobility was cut short by the mid-1980s, when a number of factors combined to undermine the economic health of the gay Polk Street business community. These including a national recession, a spike in commercial rents, a wave of business closures and shuttered businesses, a devastating heath crisis, and economic competition from the gay Castro neighborhood.

By the end of the 1970s, the gay economic and political center had shifted to the Castro. The Pride Parade moved from Polk Street to Market Street in 1976, and the annual Polk Street Halloween celebration slowly shifted to the Castro by the late 1970s. Runaways, poor youth, and transgendered women found that they were excluded from the neighborhood. While middle-class business owners and residents may have moved to the Castro at this time, these populations remained in the Tenderloin and Polk Street areas.

The entire gay community was blindsided by a catastrophic health crisis by the early 1980s. “AIDS just decimated the beauty parlors,” Randall Wallace recalled. “The owners were going, you could see their health going, and boys from the Town Squire. And they were kind of famous boys because they were all good looking. And the P.S., the waiters used to wear satin basketball shorts, and they got really, really cute kids, and they began to go.”

Steve Cornell, owner of Polk Street’s Brownies Hardware and a merchant association president, remembers chain operations such as Walgreens coming in when the street became successful in the 1970s, putting the independent drug stores and others out of business. He also remembers them leaving behind more than a dozen empty storefronts during the national recession in 1980 and ’81.

From 1981-84, the neighborhood saw an 18% turnover rate and a 42% average rent increase, according to a study released in 1984 that surveyed the 87 businesses that were part of the Polk District Merchants Association. They noted the “horror stories being circulated about the continual unraveling and chronic instability of Polk District businesses.” 65% of the businesses reported knowing at least three cases where a merchant “had to close or move a business because of the high rents.” Among the most pressing problems identified by merchants were the “streetwalkers, hustlers, drug dealers, panhadlers, and other ‘unsavory elements’ who are seen in the area” and the “high or rapidly rising commercial rents.”[1]

“Landlords were getting greedy,” Gramaphone owner Randall Wallace recalled. “The plush times in the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s made them think we can get some big things, and it drove a lot of businesses out, I think, because the landlords raised rents.”

A weakened economic bloc translated to decreased political and police power. In the 1970s, the merchant association “could call the Mayor’s Office and get what they wanted,” recalled John Gallagher, a beat cop on Polk Street in the 1970s and now the permits officer for Northern District police station. “You wanted police around the clock on the beat, they’d do it.” But by the 1980s, “they’ll [just] look into it,” he said. “If you’re not that powerful it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease…[and they] respond to where the money is and the businesses are.”[2]

Where merchants once policed the sidewalk in front of their businesses, empty storefronts and a weakened merchant’s association created an opportunity for the sex work/drug economy to emerge as the street’s dominant economy. “With no merchants to tell them to leave, the empty storefronts attracted illicit behavior, such as drug dealing and hustling,” Steve Cornell recalled. “If you’re a more establishment person, you get this uncomfortable feeling and you don’t want to go down in the neighborhood.”[3]

By 1985, Polk District Merchants Association member Maureen O'Rorke told a group of shopkeepers and concerned citizens the male hustlers are “doing better business than we are.”[4] While her statement might have been hyperbole, it pointed to a weakening of aboveground businesses and the relative economic power of sex workers and the businesses that thrived off the trade.

  1. “A Neighborhood Commercial District in Transition: A Pilot Survey,” the Public Research Institute of San Francisco University, April 1984, p. 9.
  2. Interview with John Gallagher by Joey Plaster.
  3. Interview with Steve Cornell by Joey Plaster, 2008.
  4. “Hustling the hustlers off the street,” United Press International, June 13, 1985.

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