KCPW Presents: “Polk Street Stories” (6/22/18)

Street Minister, River Sims

Public Historian Joey Plaster spent over a year gathering more than 70 interviews from people experiencing Polk Street’s transition from a working class queer neighborhood to an upscale entertainment district.  This hour contains stories from the alleys and bars, churches, shelters and clubs.  It is an oral history of a place invented by those who had no other home.

As Joey says in his introduction:

“The Polk Street scene predates the modern gay rights movement. In some ways, it was a visible manifestation of the stereotypes the movement has worked to scrub clean over the past forty years: queer people as mentally ill, criminal, licentious, and doomed to lonely lives. Instead of repudiating this history, I wanted to embrace and learn from it.

“I came to San Francisco in part to figure out what it means to be queer – I came to what my uncle called the land of fruit and nuts. If the famous gay Castro neighborhood was scrubbed clean and glossy, I was always more attracted to its black sheep sister, the queer world of Polk Street. It was a whole world to itself, just about ten blocks of low rent hotels, bars and liquor stores, all sandwiched in between the gritty Tenderloin, City Hall, and the upscale Nob Hill. But by the time I got there, that scene was receding, and luxury condos and posh clubs were taking its place. People said gentrification was displacing the down and out folks who had long made Polk Street their home. Young queer activist groups held protests. Drag queens led take back the Polk marches. The press chimed in – some called it a death, some a renaissance.

“For me, it felt like an enormous loss. Like I was losing part of the history I’d come to San Francisco to claim, to become part of. I knew the Polk Street scene predated the Castro and the Stonewall riots, that it reached back to the origins of the early gay movement. But I found that its marginal history wasn’t written down and hadn’t been recorded. I feared it too would disappear with the neighborhood. In a way, I started to think about Polk Street as this parent I never knew, now elderly and dying. And it became an obsession to save its history – its collective wisdom and secrets — before they were gone completely.
“Some of the stories were painful to hear. They’re from people who are often out of sight and forgotten. In this hour, you won’t hear a full history of the neighborhood, you’ll hear stories from the extremes, about the rewards and perils of the freedom Polk Street offered.”
This Transom Radio Special is produced by Joey Plaster with Jay Allison and Transom.org at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
This special will air Friday June 22nd at 10 AM and 8 PM here on 88.3 FM KCPW.