The original queer district

Pub date August 29, 2007
WriterJ. Plaster

The Tenderloin and its more settled fringe, Polk Gulch, have a long history in queer San Francisco.

The city’s street prostitutes were pushed into the Tenderloin after the 1914 Red-Light Abatement Law led to a crackdown on the Barbary Coast. Police crackdowns on gay bars in North Beach in the early 1960s led to the ascendance of Polk Gulch as the city’s gay center.

In the 1960s, a vibrant queer culture consisting of young butch hustlers, drag queens, transgendered sex workers, and older men spanned lower Polk and the adjacent Tenderloin. By 1966, the area supported more than two dozen gay bars and baths, sex shops, restaurants, men’s clothing stores, gay theaters, and gay hotels, according to GLBT Historical Society records. The Gay Freedom Day Parade passed through Polk Gulch in the early 1970s. Before Halloween in the Castro, Halloween was in the Polk.

A 1966 police riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, an all-night hangout for hustlers and street queens just a few blocks from Polk Gulch, predates New York’s famous Stonewall riot by three years.

Many gay men from Polk Gulch migrated to the Castro in the mid-1970s, and their businesses left with them. But Polk Street remained a vital center for poor queers of color, hustlers, runaway youths, trannies, and drug users who were generally not welcome in the Castro. The AIDS epidemic hit the Polk hard in the 1980s, which also saw a rise in crime and drugs in the area.

The dot-com boom of 1999–2001 hastened this collapse, accelerating gentrification in the area. A series of fires at SROs, including one in 1998 at the Polk Street Leland Hotel, displaced low-income tenants, while condos began to be constructed in their place. Increased policing, tied in with new upscale businesses and tenants, the aging of the bars’ owners and core clientele, and competition from the new technology of the Internet, also changed the neighborhood’s character.

In the past few years especially, businesses began buying up limping gay bars, transforming them into hip, heterosexual meeting places. RendezVous was razed. The Polk Gulch Saloon became the Lush Lounge. Reflections, a male hustler bar, became the Vertigo Lounge. The Giraffe, a gay bar since 1979, became the Hemlock Tavern. The dive bar Katie’s became Blur. (Plaster)