Polk neighbors derail LGBT history mural
by Matt Baume
A proposed mural depicting the LGBT history of Polk Street may never be painted due to objections from neighbors.
The mural is a joint project of the Lower Polk Neighbors and the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, intended to instill local pride while beautifying a blank wall on the side of Hemlock Alley.
In fall of 2010, an LPN committee selected two neighborhood artists, Helen Bayly and Aaron Bo Heimlich, and asked them to design a mural depicting the influence of Polk Street's Beat poet community on the LGBT movement.
The artists showed a preliminary mockup at an LPN meeting last month. Half of their design is monochrome and shows historical police harassment, public poetry readings, and protests near Civic Center. The other half depicts a colorful, inclusive contemporary Pride Parade, framed by figures such as Harvey Milk.
Bayly and Heimlich consulted with the GLBT Historical Society, and incorporated actual incidents of police harassment, as well as tributes to social service organizations and their clients.
Reaction from LPN members was decidedly hostile.
"People said, 'That's the Castro, that's not here,'" said LPN Chairman Ron Case.
"The mural itself was really, really crude, very poorly done," said David Villa-Lobos, executive director of Community Leadership Alliance, a neighborhood advocacy group. "Folks felt that a lot of it has more to do with the Castro, and far more to do with Pride and that kind of thing, than it does with the history of Polk Street."
The artists were surprised by the reaction.
"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."
According to reports, meeting attendees overwhelmingly opposed the mural, saying that its depiction of conflict and disadvantaged residents constituted a negative portrayal.
"One of the comments we received was ... 'we want something uplifting,'" said Heimlich.
Bayly explained, "It goes from a place of struggle to a place of celebration, a positive change of civil rights and equality."
For his part, Case said he regretted the critical tone of the meeting.
"They kind of got clobbered," said Case.
At the next LPN meeting, held last week, an artist named Dray presented his proposal for an additional mural to be painted on Fern Street. Dray's mural focused more generally on Polk's last hundred years of history, ranging from the 1906 earthquake to a male hustler and Andy Warhol's Querelle poster.
Attendees raised objections to the hustler, and to a depiction of graffiti artist Shepard Fairey at work.
"I'm trying to tell the story truly," said Dray, who only uses one name. "Leaving out certain parts would be dishonest."
Though Dray's proposal was otherwise well-received, it's unclear whether Bayly and Heimlich will choose to revise their work or opt to abandon the project.
Neighbors continue to voice objections to their Hemlock mural proposal.
"The quality of the artwork was very bad," Villa-Lobos said, "and folks are questioning that it's even art at all."
"The unfortunate part was some people got very vocal about it," said Case. "It evoked some emotions in people." He paused. "Maybe good art's supposed to."