Prostitution is a key to understanding the infrastructure of an urban space. Through sex work, we can come to study the anthropology of our people. It is part of our culture. Martin Bell’s Streetwise (1984), is the defining document of Seattle. Bell said, everywhere you look, there is something new to film. That’s how all cities are: their streets are written by a history of their people. Sex work industries are like the first artifacts we can uncover to determine who is in charge, who is disadvantaged, and how a population feels about that. Counterculture is the best way to understand culture itself.
HBO’s The Stroll takes us on a tour of New York City’s Meatpacking District through the lens of transgender sex workers who offered their services on those streets. It is, much like Paris is Burning (1990), an authentic document of a place as it used to exist, what happened, and what it’s like now. What happened is that the Manhattan neighborhood was rapidly gentrified after the 1980s. The clientele that once perused those streets became the people who now lived there. Trendy travelers now fill the markets with tourism, a bright strip of modern comforts and consumer culture, paved over an industrious neighborhood that once sold sex and invented the Oreo cookie.
Queer history gets to be told by the community who lived it and Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s incisive documentary allows just that opportunity. The film conveys first-hand accounts of all the systemic problems which lead to someone needing to sell their bodies but is also about bodies and the people who occupy them. The narrative directly speaks to the experience of black trans women at a certain point in history, reclaiming their stories against the changing tide of New York politicians who whitewashed their histories. Making the movie is a kind of rebellion but for many of the subjects, just doing anything has been made to feel like an act of rebellion against a system that is designed against them.
There is a beating heart here, sympathetic and adequately aligned in praxis with a marginalized community that does not get its own side of the story told often enough. We even see allies from just outside the community and how they fail to support their trans sisters — we see Ru Paul tour the district and teasingly poke fun at the people working the streets and underlying that is yet another segment of culture that has failed an entire subset of their own extended social group. We see a life lived against every expectation and opportunity commonly afforded to cis heterosexual people and through rebellion and an ironclad sisterhood of sex workers, solidarity begins to emerge from within the group.
The documentary functions as a special insight into a lost culture. As politicians bring in police and seemingly endorse violence, a community begins to disperse. Their history is as invisible as they can often feel. What The Stroll does is preserves this unique moment in American Life and presents, without scorn or judgment, an understanding portrait of sex work in the Meatpacking District, while also telling us a story about a place that used to exist and the diverse groups impacted by the changing sociological conditions.