Lower Polk may have an unconventional reputation for being a hotbed of drug use and prostitution, but it also has a strong, proud community network. Those connections have grown after years of these streets offering a destination for people from all walks of life. The area was once known as San Francisco’s gay center before the Castro claimed it, and it hosted the city’s first Gay Pride Parade in 1972. Now still LGBT friendly, it also hosts a distinct collection of galleries, restaurants, bars, and merchants who love the diversity and openness to create something new.
Its location is nestled between a diverse convergence of neighborhoods: upscale Nob Hill to the north, seedy Tenderloin and political Civic Center to the south, and bustling Van Ness to the east. The result is a unique intersection of people from all walks of life.
Lower Polk’s name has gone through several transformations over time: Polk Gulch, Polk Village, Polk Corridor, and LOPO. The Bold Italic’s nickname for the microhood between Sutter and Pine, Hokus Polkus, plays on the magic that can be discovered here.
What I found most endearing about this microhood is the sense of community that develops when residents and merchants embrace the history and rich street culture right outside their front doors. However gritty it may seem from the outside, it still teems with a sense of freedom to experiment and act on your creative ideas.
The building that now houses the Hemlock used to be one of Polk Street’s most popular gay bars. Don Alan, who also owns the Casanova, opened the Hemlock in 2001. The showroom in the back hosts emerging rock, punk, and metal bands, while the large central bar in front brings Don back to his Wisconsin roots. Don tells me he loves Lower Polk because it feels more urban than other parts of town. He says the lower housing costs and close proximity to downtown and Civic Center attract people who move to SF for the first time. “It creates an excitement and enthusiasm in the neighborhood,” he adds.
There’s an unspoken rule amongst tattoo parlors that you don’t set up a new shop in the vicinity of an older one. Eric Jones opened Let It Bleed in 2009 because there weren’t many others in the Lower Polk area, and he liked the slightly seedy appeal of the neighborhood. Fellow tattoo artist Justin May laughed as he told me his mother was scared when he first took her there. Eric and Justin are so settled in now they have nicknames and stories about the well-known characters they routinely see on the street. There’s so much activity outside, they tell me, opening their front door is like watching TV.
Rosalie Jacques has been styling hair in San Francisco since 1951. She has owned several salons in North Beach and became well known for styling the topless dancers there. She now focuses on selling wigs, along with amazing vintage clothing finds, and opened her store on Polk Street just three years ago. As a Bay Area native, the 75-year-old is full of incredible stories you would believe only if you heard them straight from her. Rosalie showed me faded color photographs of some of the most memorable shows and celebrities she has styled, including Puck and Rachel from MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco. She adds that she’s always liked Polk Street because of the variety of people, and immediately felt right at home here. She is currently writing a book about her family’s rich history titled Count Your Blessings and Miracles Will Happen.
When old friends and SF natives Andy Hawgood, Nate Hooper, and Lance Geng (not pictured) got together to start a creative design studio, they didn’t anticipate it would turn into an art gallery as well. But when Andy saw the chance to move into the large, light-filled space on Sutter Street in January 2011, he jumped on the chance to start The Popular Workshop. Andy and Nate say that because the neighborhood is on the fringe, it affords more artistic experimentation than if the business were in a well-developed area like downtown. They add that Lower Polk Street cultivates an art and design crowd that is open to pushing boundaries, which is perfect for the gallery and design studio.
Started in 1984 by a group of residents, business owners, and social service providers who recognized the problem of homelessness and drug use in the neighborhood, Larkin Street provides housing, food, counseling, job placement, and medical services to San Franciscans who are 12–24 years old. Art program manager Peter Carpou has been with the organization since 1989. His passion and dedication is palpable when he speaks about the kids he has encountered over the years. He used to work in the art program at San Quentin State Prison, but feels a deeper impact is made on a younger demographic who are at an apex of their lives where real change can be implemented. Larkin Street Youth Services is a stop on the Lower Polk Art Walk, and the youth profit from sales of their work. They’re involved with many of the murals in the neighborhood as well. The presence of this community center reveals the strong collective effort being made here to embrace the needs of people living on the streets and create a safer environment for them. Peter stands in front of a mural painted on the back of the building by an artist named Dray, one of the Larkin Street educators.
Fashion designer Christopher Collins originally opened up his studio in 2008 with business partner Erica Tanamachi (both from San Diego, they’ve been besties since they were five). When the store next door moved out two years later, they opened up an additional showroom for Christopher’s designs. Soon after, he competed on the eighth season of Project Runway and now claims reality star status from finishing sixth on the show. He is very happy to call San Francisco home – he believes he can be more creative here than in NY or LA because of the sense of community. He enjoys the occasional humorous moments when his higher-end clients intermingle with the riffraff of the streets – which is just the sort of culture clashing that makes Lower Polk such an enchanting place.
Hiro Hayama has been in the bonsai, flower, and plant business for most of his life. He moved to San Francisco from Tokyo three years ago, and opened Utsuwa just a year and a half ago. He opened a second location recently near Japantown, but spends most his time in the Lower Polk shop because he likes the unique mix of people here. His 94-year-old grandmother taught him everything he knows about horticulture, including how to talk and listen to plants. Even though he works every day, he says he never gets stressed because of the gratification he gets from tending to his shop. It’s worth a visit to Utsuwa to check out the beautiful arrangements and to get caught up in Hiro’s infectious enthusiasm.
Salvatore Cimino (call him Sal) and his old-fashioned 1512 Barber Shop transport you to another time and place. Though he was born and raised in San Francisco, he comes from generations of Sicilian barbers, and it shows in his no-frills demeanor and the nostalgic details in the cozy shop. Sal has been doing haircuts and straight razor shaves for 26 years, and has been in this Lower Polk location since 2006. He happens to also run a spirits distillery named after the shop, 1512 Spirits. He talks about the constant renewal that happens in Lower Polk with a certain wistful yearning for how things used to be.
The lively nature of Lower Polk makes it a perfect home for street art. You can explore the nooks of Austin Street, Fern Alley, and Hemlock Street to find ever-changing murals by local artists. Many of the paintings are curated by Wall Space, or commissioned by the city in an effort to revitalize the streets and keep them graffiti-free. Larkin Street artist Dray encountered some initial controversy with his first proposal for a mural depicting the history of Polk St. He had to rethink some overly candid images to get the city’s approval, but you can now see his seven panels in Fern Alley. See if you can also find the stenciled Banksy in one of these alleys.
You can of course visit Lower Polk any time, but The Bold Italic is particularly excited about inviting the city to explore these streets during the Hocus Polkus Microhood on Thursday, May 3 from 6-8 p.m.