Polk Street mural plan a canvas for controversy 

An effort to beautify and unify the Polk Street corridor with historically themed murals appears to have done more to divide the community.

The joint project between the Lower Polk Neighbors and Mayor’s Office of Economic Workforce Development tapped local artists to draw up murals for Hemlock Alley and Fern Alley that could make the crime-plagued area more vibrant.

But after a year in planning, the mural ideas recently proposed at community meetings drew criticism in part for their themes — including an image depicting police harassment and another of a gay hustler working the street.

The two artists behind the proposed Hemlock Alley mural, Helen Bayly and Aaron Bo Heimlich, were reportedly tapped by The City and the Lower Polk Neighbors group to depict the influence of the area’s Beat poets and LGBT movement.

But the Hemlock mural concept was yanked — as was its gay history theme — after some community members lambasted the art as crude, negative and more representative of the Castro district than Lower Polk Street.

A preliminary sketch of Bayly and Heimlich’s proposed mural portrayed slain Supervisor and gay-rights leader Harvey Milk at the forefront. A swirling rainbow behind him acts as the dividing line between a colorful Pride Parade procession and a black-and-white image of police harassment in front of City Hall.

“It looked really bad,” said David Villa-Lobos, executive director of the Community Leadership Alliance, a neighborhood advocacy group.

“Folks complained it had nothing to do with the history of Polk Street.”

Because local artists Bayly and Heimlich were told by the Mayor’s Office to focus on an LGBT theme, the neighborhood reaction came as a shock.

“We were sort of blindsided,” Bayly said, adding that Lower Polk should be given credit for providing solace to the gay community in the early ’60s. “To get that sort of reaction from a historically straightforward piece, it seemed like sort of a homophobic reaction.”

Bayly said she met with the neighborhood group again to discuss possible changes to the mural, but now she wants nothing more to do with the project.

“It gave me some pretty bad anxieties,” Bayly said.

Ron Case, chairman of the group, said he doesn’t consider the reaction homophobic.

“It had nothing to do with that,” Case said, adding that the police confrontation aspect of the mural could be problematic for an area trying to have better relations in that arena. “The reaction of a lot of people was that it just doesn’t look like the neighborhood.”

The Fern Alley mural proposal was far less contentious — the artist, Dray, proposed a visual timeline of Polk Street dating back to 1906.

The artist faced some heat for featuring an image of a gay hustler, and for depicting famous graffiti artist Shepard Fairey at work, which a few residents said glorified vandalism. Still, the mural proposal is moving forward.

The Hemlock Alley proposal is not dead in the water. Instead of the gay history theme, it will now be a transportation theme. Artists can propose concepts for the mural until the end of March, he said.


Examiner Staff Writer Dan Schreiber contributed to this story.

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