You’d never know it from the sleek glass Apple store and velvet rope hotel clubs that stand there now, but New York’s Meatpacking District was once a hub for Black and brown trans women to earn an honest living. Even if you know your history, it can be hard to conjure an image of fabulous heeled goddesses walking the cobblestone streets now littered with luxury retail stores. For the ones who lived it, the experience is even more disorienting. That’s one of the bittersweet revelations present in “The Stroll,” a hauntingly poignant documentary that attempts to excavate and preserve that fractured history — while those who lived it are still here.
Directed by Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker, “The Stroll” is a film by and about trans sex workers, a rarity for depictions of an all-too-often sensationalized and dehumanized group. The film takes its title from the block of 14th street between Ninth Avenue and the Hudson River where many once found their trade, which the gals called The Stroll. In interviews with many women formerly “in the life,” dating from the 1970s through the early aughts, “The Stroll” captures the essence of what it must have been like to walk the stroll. Enduring racist policing, violence, poverty, and employment discrimination; they also found joy, humor, sisterhood, and community. By celebrating these women’s humanity and spirit without minimizing their hardships, that duality is what makes “The Stroll” so markedly different than what’s come before it.
Adding a fascinating layer of media commentary (without overly intellectualizing, as has become an indulgent trend in some recent trans documentaries), the film opens with Lovell reviewing footage of her younger self in a 2007 film called “Queer Streets.” “My mission is to tell this story before we’re gone,” she says, now firmly in the director’s chair. “I feel like I could get it right, if I was the one to tell it.” As co-director, Drucker brought a vast archival knowledge; the filmmaker is an expert on early trans cinema and film footage. “The Stroll” uses many of these early images to create a clear visual of the Meatpacking District, painting a nostalgic portrait of a grittier, gayer, more livable New York.
One less than flattering discovery that may ruffle a few boa feathers is an early tape of a young RuPaul, in a ’90s precursor to the kind of street interview show that might live on YouTube or TikTok today. With a flippant and almost taunting tone, he waltzes down The Stroll lightly interviewing a few girls, all the while making sure to distance himself from them with every joke. In contrast to the very harrowing survival stories, RuPaul comes off as classist and cruel. It’s a shocking reframing made all the more stark thanks to Lovell’s personal perspective.
The cognitive dissonance continues with the rapid gentrification of the area, first by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then Michael Bloomberg. One New York Times headline reads “The Shantyown of The He-Shes,” atop an article about the outdoor shacks by the river that trans rights pioneer Sylvia Rivera once called home. A former neighborhood organizer named John, who agreed to be interviewed for the film, proudly recalls a banner he hung from what is now The Highline threatening to expose potential Johns by using their license plate numbers to identify them and call home (which he did). “I can’t believe how many times I had to go to jail for this Highline Park to be built,” Lovell remarks bleakly.
The filmmakers assemble an impressive bench of talent from the early days, introducing each legend with her years active on The Stroll. They include Egyptt LaBeija, who appears in the final credits as “Overall GodMother of the House of LaBeija,” and Ceyenne Doroshow, founder of G.L.I.T.S., which recently opened the first housing complex owned by Black trans women in New York. Along with the other surviving interview subjects, they provide colorful anecdotes alongside an overwhelming breadth of trans herstory. For every one of them, there are ten who didn’t survive, a fact they live with every day.
Where limited archival footage falls short, “The Stroll” uses dynamic black and white 2-D cutout animation to illustrate some of the stories in the film, a technique Drucker used on her excellent HBO docuseries “The Lady and The Dale.” It’s a smart way to add visuals without relying on recreations, and it also safeguards the film from depicting violence against sex workers while still being able to address it.
The film lays out in stark reality the many decks stacked against trans sex workers of color that still resonate today: The corrupt NYPD, horrific conditions at Rikers, and the legacy of both Giuliani’s broken windows policing and Bloomberg’s unchecked real estate development. More than just a character study of some dynamic trailblazing women, “The Stroll” really strives to tell the story of what has happened to New York over the last few decades through the lens of The Meatpacking District and the women who once called it home. The result is poignant, heartbreaking, and maddening, a bitter truth that must be reckoned with.
“The Stroll” premiered in U.S. documentary competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It will be released by HBO Documentary Films.