Toshio Meronek

San Francisco Neighborhood Associationists Prefer Revisionist Art

Filed By Toshio Meronek | February 20, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics
Tags: Aaron Bo Heimlich, Bay Area Reporter, Helen Bayly, Lower Polk Neighbors, neighborhood associations, San Francisco

The Bay Area Reporter has the story of a piece of LGBT art that may never see the light of day thanks to a 11_11_Polk_Mural_07_LRG.giffew neighborhood associationists in the Lower Polk area of San Francisco.

Last fall, local artists Helen Bayly and Aaron Bo Heimlich were tasked by a Lower Polk Neighbors committee to "design a mural depicting the influence of Polk Street's Beat poet community on the LGBT movement." In January, they unveiled their mock-up (at right), which depicts various pieces of queer SF history--protests; harassment by police; Harvey Milk. In the country's gayest city, a city known for its progressiveness, this is hardly controversial stuff. But according to the Reporter, the response from certain people at the showing was "decidedly hostile."

The majority of meeting attendees opposed the mural, with some saying they were bothered by its depictions of conflict and poverty, which might reflect poorly on the neighborhood. And as for the queer content, Lower Polk Neighbors chairman Ron Case explained, "People said, 'That's the Castro, that's not here,'" a sentiment that the artists refute:

"The Castro has such a monopoly on being 'the gay neighborhood' when really, there are gay and straight people in...neighborhoods throughout the city," said Heimlich. "Polk Street was a hub for people being able to go someplace where they were accepted before the Castro."

"We were pretty shocked," said Bayly, "thinking we had a positive message and art that spoke to the community and history."

Also quoted in the article: local freakshow David Villa-Lobos, the Executive Director (and as far as I can ascertain, the sole staffer) of the Community Leadership Alliance, which lists "public relations in support of liquor license applications" as the top service offered on its website, and supported the criminalizing of homeless people in a ballot measure that passed last fall. Villa-Lobos, who went on a week-long hunger strike to protest former mayor Gavin Newsom's absence at a town hall meeting he had organized, offered his two-cent penny: "The quality of the artwork was very bad... and folks are questioning that it's even art at all."

At this month's meeting, artist Dray presented a proposal for another mural, which concerned some residents for its picturing of graffiti artist Shepard Fairey and a hustler at work. "I'm trying to tell the story truly," said Dray. "Leaving out certain parts would be dishonest."

Unfortunately, it tends to be a handful of people like David Villa-Lobos who decide these kind of things, because most of us are too busy to attend meetings that are usually concerned with stuff like the decibel-level of leaf-blowers or the removal of rainbow flags from lamp posts. You can find out when the Lower Polk Neighbors meetings happen or write to them through their website.

Below, a map of Polk gentrification and queer historical landmarks, c/o anonymous activists from Gay Shame.

Polk Street Gulch Map final.jpg

(Thanks, Ralowe)

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Could it be because that has nothing to do with the topic of this post? Let's keep it pertinent, people.

But of course, no post here ever will be on that topic, will it?

Abbie Hoffman - where are you when we need you?

Or the piece just kinda sucks?

It really is kinda fugly... in the "not good way". I've seen better graffiti in East St. Louis.

I get where your going... gentrification, erasure of history, make it all "Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood". Property taxes are very, VERY important in SF, CA.

But the artwork doesn't draw you in in the least bit. It's internet comic book.

It's just bad.

Go after who ever commissioned this and leave everyone else out.

Lower Polk Street was THE gay commercial district long before any gay folks had moved to Castro Street in the 1970s. Polk Street is also synonymous with male hustlers; the gay teen runaway population has always gravitated to Polk Street to hustle. Gay hustler bars were the hallmark of Polk Street. Mind you, I also think the art work is unforgivably ugly, but it's truthful. And Polk Street is a f*cking sleazy toilet of a neighborhood. F*ck the sleazy real estate agents.

The Pride Parade originally went down Polk and I have a large framed photo — may favorite — of back-lighted dust clouds rising from the huge after-parade gathering at the Elysian Fields in GG Park.

I agree about the ugliness of the mural. It's not something that really adds to that neighborhood and they could seriously do better. Other than having Jose Saria in it, it does little to show how the trans community was very much in that neighborhood or clarify how the battles over young street hustlers turned into real queer political power struggles. It's sloppy looking , a big jumble and I hope it's rejected in favor of something better.

But it's also true the Lower Polk was absolutely 'the' gay neighborhood before Castro. They should do something to commemorate that because there's a lot of 'revisionism' about erasing or minimizing this part of queer history in favor of "the gay movement started with the changes in the Castro" which is total BS. Moreover, centering everything about Harvey Milk is erasing a lot of queer history which happened before he even got to SF.

The piece is a mock-up, not the actual mural; Toshio's piece quite clearly points that out: "they unveiled their mock-up."

And Helen Bayly's work is actually quite different from what you see in the mock-up. You can see it if you click on Toshio's link to her site, but here it is again:

I don't have a similar link for Heimlich's work, but it's rare for two extremely dissimilar artists to work together.

An update on this: the artists have been taken off the project and a new, as-yet-determined theme is being put forth. More here:

I don't have much to say on this article other than that the Lower Polk Neighbors are horrible. Although I don't understand the supposed objection to the queer content more generally when that was what was commissioned: "design a mural depicting the influence of Polk Street's Beat poet community on the LGBT movement".

But dear god, I sure hope they keep Shepard Fairey out of this mural! The man is a documented plagiarist, and you can read a thoroughly researched breakdown of all the work he's stolen and stripped of radical meaning here.