In the 1980s and ’90s, as the combination of economic woes, societal discrimination, and the AIDS crisis weighed on New York City’s queer population, one community made a small part of Lower Manhattan their (relatively) safe haven. There were various “strolls” around the city — stretches where sex workers walked the night. Trans sex workers made part of the Meatpacking District (over time home to fewer meat purveyors and an increasing number of nightclubs) the site of their stroll. Along with much else in New York, this subculture was eventually snuffed out by the tide of gentrification that rolled over the island. In The Stroll, which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the surviving people who walked these streets return to them to take in the significant changes, and to reminisce about bygone times.
Crucially, one of these people is leading the project. Kristen Lovell worked on the Stroll from 1997 to 2005, and so this documentary is deeply personal to her. She is not merely interviewing subjects, but speaking with old friends. She establishes this casual, intimate tone early on, when she talks to Egyptt, another former Stroll worker. Lovell greets Egyptt warmly, makes some small talk, and promises that this is a safe space for her. Several moments like this are in the film, making room for spontaneity. During one scene, as Lovell and an interviewee discuss the frequent harassment they faced from police, they pause to listen to distant sirens and then crack jokes about it.
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Lovell and co-director Zackary Drucker aren’t aiming for a “neutral” or “objective” narrative. The movie is a way for trans New Yorkers in general and trans sex workers specifically to stake a claim on their own history. Most affectingly, they stress that the film’s participants are just a fraction of the people who worked and lived in the Stroll; the majority died at a young age. Within this context, seeing and hearing the stories of trans women who have achieved some measure of security and ease is all the more powerful.
The film’s oral history format is supplemented by some truly impressive archival finds. Lovell and Drucker collate film, images, and materials from news organizations, personal collections, unused documentary footage, and many other sources. Some material offers a surprising commentary on the prejudices of the time. A comedic spot produced by and starring RuPaul for public access about the Meatpacking District illustrates what the neighborhood looked like in the early ’90s, but it is also held up for critical scrutiny; the film shows the disappointment of its subjects, the former actual residents of the area, as the future reality TV star’s mockery of them verges on contempt.
Likewise, period newspaper headlines casually throw out classist and transphobic slurs, further emphasizing how much trans historiography involves seizing control of a hostile popular narrative. The subject and film do not mince words over the historical callousness of not only mainstream society but also the rest of the queer community toward trans people, particularly trans people of color. (Sylvia Rivera frequently appears in the archival sections, and her frustration with this status quo demonstrates how long it’s been around.)
The intercutting between the archival materials and modern-day footage of the women returning to the Meatpacking District conjures a feeling of familiarity. In one scene, Lovell and two friends are pleasantly surprised to find one side street pretty much exactly as they recall it. In a quasi-reenactment, they trace their steps through a secluded encounter with a john, and even joke about checking to see if a parked truck is unlocked. (In one of many vivid little details, one woman explains how the backs of meat trucks were usually available at night.)
But familiar sites are hard to come by. The Stroll is not just a chronicle of trans life and activism in the 1980s and ’90s, but also of urban “renewal” in the 21st century. Now the Little Island interrupts the riverfront view and trendy newer buildings loom overhead, the High Line wending its way between them. The film’s timeline demonstrates how the 9/11 attacks allowed disaster capitalism to do its work with New York City, carving away its inconvenient bits to make room for unaffordable living spaces and trendy shopping destinations. The contrast with the archival imagery is sharp, and the film becomes something of a memory play for Lovell and her compatriots, the project a way for them to reclaim their old neighborhood in spirit, if not physically.
The Stroll screens at the 2023 BFI Flare Festival (Belvedere Road, South Bank, London, England) on March 15 and 16 and will be available to stream on HBO Max later this year.