In this essay I reflect on my experience as director of Polk Street: Lives in Transition, a project that drew on oral histories to intervene in debates about gentrification, homelessness, sex work, queer politics, and public safety in the highly polarized setting of gentrifying San Francisco. From 2008–10, I recorded more than seventy oral histories from people experiencing the transformation of the city’s Polk Street from a working-class queer commercial district to a gentrified entertainment destination serving the city’s growing elite. Oral histories enabled me to document a local past rich in non-biological family structures, which I interpreted through public “listening parties,” professionally mediated neighborhood dialogues, a traveling multimedia exhibit, and radio documentaries. The project challenged gentrifiers’ claims to be promoting “safety” and “family” by positing alternative understandings of both concepts drawn from oral histories with transgender women, queer homeless youth, sex workers, and working-class gay men who had made Polk Street their home.
Safe for Whom? And Whose Families? Narrative, Urban Neoliberalism, and Queer Oral History on San Francisco’s Polk Street
Joseph Plaster is Curator in Public Humanities for the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University. His research and teaching focuses on collaborative public humanities, performance studies, interdisciplinary oral history, and queer history. His current book project combines archival, ethnographic, and oral history research to explore the social worlds that abandoned and runaway queer street youth, their patrons, and their protectors have created over the past century in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Polk Street: Lives in Transition was awarded the 2010 American Historical Association Allan Bérubé Prize and a 2011 National Council for Public History Outstanding Public History Project Award honorable mention.
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Joseph Plaster; Safe for Whom? And Whose Families? Narrative, Urban Neoliberalism, and Queer Oral History on San Francisco’s Polk Street. The Public Historian 5 August 2020; 42 (3): 86–113. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2020.42.3.86
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