Sundance 2023: The Stroll Review
Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s Sundance 2023 documentary shares the testimonials of trans sex workers in New York’s meatpacking district- the wider story of a rapidly changing neighborhood.
On the surface, the documentary The Stroll is about a very specific topic: Trans women, mostly Black or brown, who worked as sex workers in New York’s meatpacking district, mostly in the 1980s and 1990s.
But it’s also about a much broader topic: The way gentrification works in big cities, especially New York, the way neighborhoods change, and how it affects the least-powerful inhabitants of those neighborhoods.
The Stroll was co-directed by Lovell and Drucker, both of whom are themselves trans women; Lovell was herself a part of that scene, and we even see footage of her interviewed years ago in another documentary. Lovell, in particular, proves a highly compelling narrator and on-camera presence.
If you go to the tourism website of the Meatpacking District, it’s described as “a neighborhood like no other: a fusion of grit and glam, where old New York meets the frenetic 21st Century.” Needless to say, that’s not always been its identity.
For years this downtown neighborhood was, literally, where the meatpacking industry in New York operated. It was also known for a long time as a place where sex workers, many of them trans, would ply their trade. “The Stroll” was the name given to the part of 14th Street known for this activity.
We hear the stories of many of them, whose stories were similar- they were kicked out of their homes, unable to find gainful employment in any way, but were welcomed into the community of sex work.
But we get these that the interviewees took some pride in what they did, The Stroll doesn’t sugarcoat this life. There are a lot of stories of abusive johns and abusive cops, who, in some cases, were one and the same. Another bane of their existence was “quality of life” activists, who considered the presence of sex workers an affront to their rights as neighborhood homeowners even before Rudy Giuliani became mayor in 1994.
However, it was the next mayor of the city, the billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who set the neighborhood on the path to becoming the fancy urban mecca that it is today. In perhaps the film’s most heartbreaking scene, a woman describes returning to the city after a long prison stretch, only to discover not only that the neighborhood she knew is gone but that several of her old friends had died.
This is very different from many of the other narratives we’ve seen about trans people in New York in the recent past. AIDS is not a major subject of the film, while the film’s subjects do not appear to have been involved in the ballroom scene, as explored in the documentary Paris is Burning and the TV series Pose.
There is some shocking old footage of a young RuPaul interviewing participants in the scene with a mocking tone, which prefigures the sometimes tense relations between RuPaul’s Drag Race and the trans community.
And speaking of that scene’s odd fit in mainstream popular culture, it’s mentioned that on Sex and the City, they established that Samantha (Kim Cattrall) had moved to an apartment in the Meatpacking District, and one scene on the series had Samantha confronting a group of trans women outside her loft. On an odd personal note, I happened to be present when that scene was filmed; not for the first time, my then-girlfriend and I had been walking around that night only to stumble into the show shooting a scene, this time in a Meatpacking District that was starting to become a nightlife destination, circa the year 2000.
The scene hasn’t aged quite as poorly as I remembered — after all, Samantha even uses the right pronouns — but like in most scenes from that show, Carrie’s voiceover ruins it.
I’m not sure what the release plans are for The Stroll, but this is a film that is sure to be of interest to anyone fascinated by trans history or the way that city neighborhoods change and evolve.