Polk Street Stories – A Transom Radio Special
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
About Joey Plaster
Joey Plaster is an independent public historian living in the San Francisco Bay Area. A graduate of Oberlin College, he is Director of the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society Oral History Program.
Thank you to Gabriel Hasbun for the photos of Polk Street residents.