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.

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