While you’ve probably already celebrated LGTBQIA+ pride and allyship in The Castro, the city’s famously gay neighborhood, did you know that Polk Gulch was where you’d be celebrating gay pride from the 1950s to the early 1980s?
Yes, Polk Street was the epicenter for LGTBQIA+-owned clothing stores, bars, nightclubs, parties, and more. As Pride comes to a close, it’s important to make sure both this locale and moment in gay history are known — which is why we are sharing information about Polk Gulch, its history, and its role as the original SF gay mecca.
Polk Street and Polk Gulch were named after President James Knox Polk and housed San Francisco’s German community during the early 1900s (Polk Street is still referred to by its German name, Polk Strasse). The expansion of the downtown area forced German immigrants out of Germantown and moved downtown’s low-income LGBTQIA+ population to Polk. Today, you can still see a remnant of the German community in California Hall, a “German House” constructed at 625 Polk Street in 1912.
Fast forward to 1950. That was the year that Nob Hill Club opened. It was the Polk neighborhood’s first gay bar, and the beginning of this area becoming an upscale LGBTQIA+ hub, according to SF Gay History (meanwhile, the Tenderloin and SOMA neighborhoods catered to a different gay clientele). Sadly, the Nob Hill Club closed, after a police raid, in 1959, but it got the momentum going for more gay-owned businesses to emerge (over 65 along the strip), growing the neighborhood’s LGBTQIA+ following.
These include The Town Squire, opened in 1962 by gay couple Terry Popek and August Territo at 2060 Polk Street, The Casual Man at 2060 Polk Street (Polk became the cool place for all men to get clothing), Buzzby’s bar, and The Jumping Frog at Polk and Broadway, a bar which Life magazine featured in June 1964. Divas (formerly Motherlode; 1081 Post St.) was a trans club that sadly closed in 2019; the Gangway, at 841 Larkin St. was the oldest operating gay bar in SF (established in 1910; was recognized as a gay bar in 1961), until its closure in 2018.
Polk Street was also the birthplace of the very first San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, on June 28, 1970 (other sources say the first parade was in 1972), as well as the first LGBTQIA+ Halloween party, two city traditions that would eventually migrate to The Castro with the majority of the gay community. This shift towards The Castro from The Polk started in the 1970s. According to Out History, “from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, economic competition from the emerging Castro district, a national recession, a spike in commercial rents, and the AIDS health crisis devastated Polk Street’s gay bar and businesses economy.”
While Polk Gulch and Polk Street aren’t the epicenters of LGBTQIA+ culture in San Francisco anymore, you can still visit establishments from that era gone past that keep Polk’s gay memory alive. Having dinner at Grubstake (1525 Pine St.), or drinking at Cinch Saloon, the “last standing gay bar” on Polk Street, and the second oldest operating gay bar in SF; are solid options.