Polk Street Stories – A Transom Radio Special

Polk_FEATURED

Intro from Jay Allison: At Transom we try to find stories that aren’t being told and voices not often heard, like the ones in "Polk Street Stories."Joey Plaster is an oral historian focusing on queer history in the Bay area. He spent over a year in 2008 and 2009, gathering the stories of the Polk Street neighborhood—on the street and alleyways, in the bars and churches, in apartments and shelters, in the missions and the clubs. Joey says his motivation was, in part, to reclaim a part of queer history: "The Polk Street Community predates the modern gay rights movement and remains a visible manifestation of the stereotypes the movement has worked to scrub clean over the past 40 years, that is: queer people as mentally ill, criminal, licentious, doomed to lonely lives. Instead of repudiating this history, I want to embrace and learn from it."As a public historian, Joey set out to explore this neighborhood from the inside, and in this hour, you can hear a part of what he found.

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About Polk Street Stories

I always felt drawn to the queer world of Polk Street, but I didn’t take a closer look until I heard it was disappearing.

For decades, the street had been a national destination for queer youth and transgender women, many of them fleeing abusive or unwelcoming homes. But by the mid-1990s, the last of the working class bars that formed the backbone of the Polk community were being replaced by a new bloc of mid-income businesses and residents.

Cecilia Chung, photo by Gabriela Hasbun
Cecilia Chung, photo by Gabriela Hasbun

Long-term Polk residents were incredibly emotional about these changes. Many considered the neighborhood to be their first real home. Now they saw their family’s gathering places evaporating. The conflict was sometimes dramatic: owners of one gay bar claimed that the new business association forced them off the street. A gay activist group made national news when they plastered the street with “wanted” posters featuring a photo of the new association’s president.

These intense reactions suggested a rich history, but I found that it had not been recorded. I feared it would be lost with the scene. I had prior experience as an oral historian. This was my first effort to find overlap with radio, which I’ve long felt is the best medium for broadcasting intimate, personal stories from “marginal” populations.

I had support from the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society, a non-profit hub for academics, community historians, artists, and activists. The people associated with the organization mentored me, helped me write and win grants, and encouraged me to complete the work. I spent more than a year recording stories, interviewing over 70 people in all.

Alexis Miranda, photo by Gabriela Hasbun
Alexis Miranda, photo by Gabriela Hasbun

I started the project by forming relationships with Polk Street community hubs: bartenders, social service providers, street priests, and neighborhood association presidents. They introduced me to others, who in turn introduced me to others, and so on (oral historians call this the “snowball” method). I recorded narrators where they felt most comfortable: in bars, churches, apartments, hotels, streets, or alleyways.

Not surprisingly, those who felt most emotional about neighborhood change also had the most intense connection with the area. I eventually limited the project to those at the center of neighborhood conflict: the homeless and marginally housed, aging street youth who gathered around area bars, and new business owners. I conducted as many as three or four interviews with an individual narrator. Each interview unveiled new layers.

River Sims, photo by Gabriela Hasbun
River Sims, photo by Gabriela Hasbun

As an outsider to the scene, I struggled to find a way to present their stories. I eventually focused on themes I could relate to and which felt “universal:” searching for an identity, finding family, and making sense of the perils and joys of city life. I chose twenty narrators whose stories spoke to these themes and edited a 3-5 minute audio portrait for each one. Some stories I hardly touched. Other stories were highly edited, using audio from multiple interview sessions.

The stories are from a community I felt was misunderstood and sometimes vilified and it was important to me that I make them public. As one of my narrators said, “It’s hard to discount someone once you’ve heard their story.” I played them at neighborhood association meetings, at a public “listening party” on Polk Street, and at mediated neighborhood discussions. They were also featured in an exhibit, available on headphones and paired with photos by Gabriela Hasbun.

Dan Diez, Corey Longseeker, Megan Rohrer, photo by Gabriela Hasbun
Dan Diez, Corey Longseeker, Megan Rohrer, photo by Gabriela Hasbun

I also started to see this project as an effort to reclaim a piece of queer history. The Polk Street scene predated the modern gay rights movement, and 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. These stories are now archived for future generations at the GLBT Historical Society.

I gave Jay Allison a CD of some of the audio portraits at the 2008 Third Coast Radio festival. He invited me to work on a radio hour based on them. The next year I visited Jay and Viki Merrick in Woods Hole, where they walked me through the process of presenting a collection of oral histories in the style of radio documentary. Jay helped me write a first-person narrative designed to make the framing personal. I found this challenging – my background is in the detached style of oral history – and I welcome feedback and suggestions for improvement from the transom.org community.

I feel incredibly humbled that the remarkable people of Polk Street shared their stories with me, and I feel fortunate to have been able to learn from them. I dedicate this piece to the more than seventy individuals whose trust in me and belief in the project made it possible.

Tech Notes

All the audio was recorded using a Marantz PMD 660 and a Sennheiser microphone. I edited the audio portraits using Pro Tools. I recorded my tracks at a studio with Jay Allison, who edited the entire piece using Pro Tools.

Thank you to Gabriel Hasbun for the photos of Polk Street residents.


Additional Support for this work provided by
National Endowment for the Arts logo

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  • Sydney Lewis

    6.28.10

    Reply
    the public and picking the people

    Joey,

    Thanks so much for this sensitive exploration of the Polk Street community. Though I’m ‘really glad I heard it without looking at pictures, I am curious about the responses at the various venues you shared the audio portraits and photographs.

    It must’ve been an arduous task, choosing which audio portraits to use for this hour. Would you talk about a bit about the winnowing process?

  • sarah reynolds

    7.06.10

    Reply
    resistance?

    Joey – this is really an incredible thing you’ve done. Congratulations on an amazing community oral history project!

    I agree with you that radio (or any other presentation of sound recordings) is the best way to give an intimate portrait of marginalized communities, but often they are the hardest to document. In your time embedding yourself into the community and recording it, what kind of resistance did you find? Was there distrust in the beginning? If so, what did it sound like?

  • Joey Plaster

    7.07.10

    Reply
    re: resistance?

    Hi Sarah —

    Thanks for the comments!

    There was definitely resistance. Most of it actually came from the new merchants and residents who had been called "homophobic" or "gentrifiers" — or tarred and feathered in a variety of other ways in the press and on the street.

    Many only consented to an interview after I spoke at a neighborhood association meeting, visited them several times at their businesses, and organized a series of discussions about the conflict with key stakeholders.

    One key person never consented to an interview: her photo had appeared on "wanted" posters on the street and she told me that she would never talk with the press again in her life.

    Most of the long-time Polk Street residents were eager to have their story (and the neighborhood’s history) recorded for the first time. Their resistance looked a little different. Most people were willing to be interviewed, but could be (understandably) cagey at first.

    For instance, Alexis, the manager of Divas, was upset that news reports consistently focused on prostitution at her bar to the exclusion of everything else — especially given the possibility that her bar would be shut down as other "problem bars" had in the recent past. Recording her story required three different sessions until I felt that she trusted me enough to talk about the complexities of her life and her club.

    Her story completely changed the way I thought about her bar, and people in the neighborhood association told me as much themselves.

    But probably the biggest compliment of the entire project came from Alexis herself. Infamously perfectionist and imperious (even for a drag queen) after listening to her story she simply said: "you did a good job.”

    At the same time, I’m still trying to determine where the ethical boundaries are between "resisting resistance" and respecting that resistance. One person — River — became incredibly angry with me when I asked a question he deemed too personal. Others were clearly uncomfortable with questions but answered them anyway.

    One person asked that I take his story out of the exhibit because he felt he had revealed too much of himself. I complied: his story was largely about being exploited, and I don’t think journalism should perpetuate that same kind of exploitation. I’d welcome your thoughts as I continue to think about these issues!

  • Joey Plaster

    7.07.10

    Reply
    re: the public and picking the people

    Hi Syd!

    Thanks for the comments and questions.

    People loved the photos — especially the narrators themselves. I particularly loved with narrators had their photo taken in front of their photo. One of the narrators told his mom that he’d been photographed and was mentioned in the paper. No, he told her, he hadn’t been arrested again.

    The exhibit paired a large, framed photo of the narrator with their audio portrait, available on an ipod. The photos were done in a kind of glossy magazine style by a professional photographer who primarily shoots CEOs, politicians, and other powerful folks. One exhibit patron told me it felt like the narrators — many of whom are either vilified as “undesirables” or romanticized as radical outsiders — were instead being “honored” for who they were by presenting their stories and images in this way.

    You can find some of the comments people left at http://www.glbthistory.org/PolkProject/comments.html.

    The winnowing process happened gradually, over the period of a year, really. I went in telling myself to be open to anything I heard. I eventually chose narrators whose story 1) spoke to the history of the street, 2) changed the way I thought about changes in the neighborhood, and 3) said something about what it meant to be human. (For instance, one of my original "research questions" was "how do we respond to pain and suffering?" While I never specifically asked this question of narrators, a lot of the stories I eventually chose speak to this theme in some way.)

    Imposing these limitations made it much easier to choose the final narrators.

  • PolkStreet1977

    8.24.10

    Reply
    Polk Street 1977

    When I first moved to San Francisco in 1977, I rented a studio apartment with a murphy bed on Bush Street a block from Polk for $130 a month. San Francisco was exciting, and the Polk was an enclave. I learned about Polk Street before I moved to San Francisco from a cover story on the first issue of Christopher Street magazine. It turned out to be a little bit of everything and everybody, like most of San Francisco, but with an identity all its own. Clothing shops, hardware stores, dance clubs, and the 24-hour burger joint called the Grubstake. The best pot stickers in San Francisco at a Chinese restaurant on upper Polk. I was a regular at the bookstore owned by Margaret Cho’s parents, and the quirky metaphysical bookshop up the street. Three blocks in any direction was a different world. I kept hearing about Harvey Milk and Castro Street, but it took me almost a year to get there. I remember the gay pride parade on Polk. And I remember an angry demonstration where the crowd I was in got tear gassed. I danced at the N’Touch and Buzzby’s, and visited the Liberty Baths two or three nights a week. It was the wild and carefree pre-AIDS ’70s. I can’t remember when I moved out of the Polk, probably ’78 or ’79, and after a while I didn’t have much reason to go back. But everything I remember about those heady days is played against the backdrop of Polk Street. Thanks for the excellent oral history. It brought back a lot of sweet memories.

  • gerald adams

    9.26.10

    Reply
    transcript

    will there be a transcript of Polk Street available?

  • ralph locurcio

    6.04.11

    Reply

    cool but Joey was photographed ON Sacramento Street LOL

  • Locus

    6.05.11

    Reply

    Joey, these were intense stores that I appreciated and empathized so much with, thanks you your well done efforts. I listened to the radio version and felt compelled to visit the website and view the pictures too. Thank you so much!

  • Coy Ellison

    6.07.11

    Reply

    Good job Joey. Many of us young and old in the Polk are still here welcoming so many more people. Thank you for sharing our stories. Maybe this will shine a light on what this neighborhood is originally really about acceptance
    .

  • Thom M

    4.29.12

    Reply

    I came out in 1981, for my 21st birthday, my friend Joe 33 at the time flew me to San Fransisco to the Folsom Street Fair. That weekend was the first time I went dancing at a Gay Disco, Tracadero, went to the Castro and my favorite memory was Buzzby’s on Polk. What an experience. I am 52 now, but carry that memory with me forever. The bar was great with the sunburst lights in the back and the drag queens sitting on the stools, hustlers, tourist and local alike…What a great time to be a young gay man. Thank you POLK STREET, for my coming out party and the memories of a life time….the youth of today have NO IDEA what it was like and what a shame that is!

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