‘The Stroll’ Review: Poignant Tribute Documents Trans Sex Workers in Pre-Gentrified NYC

Sundance 2023: The film celebrates the resilience and strength of survivors of West 14th Street, even as it leaves us wanting to know more

The Stroll
Sundance Institute.

“I am my own liberation,” declares one of the participants in “The Stroll,” and the same could be said for everyone in this moving documentary — especially co-director Kristen Lovell, who was inspired by her own life to memorialize a time, place and experience that has been forgotten at best and vilified at worst.

If your primary images of New York’s Meatpacking District come from “Sex and the City” or shopping trips, you may not remember the neighborhood around West 14th Street before gentrification. As a longtime resident explains, “The S&M bars, the hookers, the meatpackers. That’s what was down here.” Yes, it really was home to meatpacking plants by day, before sex workers took over at night. Many of the latter were trans women of color, and these are the women Lovell and co-director Zackary Drucker  (“The Lady and the Dale”) aim to honor.

Lovell’s intimate connection to the subject forms the basis of the film’s power, which rests on a palpable pride in sisterhood. Like Lovell herself, most of the women she interviews were young, homeless and had no other way to support themselves when they arrived at the Stroll — their name for the 14th Street stretch they walked and worked.

Some stayed on the Stroll for a few years, others for decades. They were there as early as 1980 and as late as 2010. And they looked out for each other, when absolutely no one else would. As Lovell talks to Egyptt, Cashmere, Ceyenne, Carey, Lady P, Tabytha, and siblings Stephanie and Elizabeth, she draws a portrait of a time and place that is both long gone and still haunting the present.

Simultaneously, she and Drucker — aided by archival producer Olivia Streisand — fill out the picture with vivid footage that brings us back to the late 20th century. Noirish animation from LA shop AWESOME + modest evocatively recreates some of the women’s alternately wry and wrenching stories.

But they aren’t the only characters here. The police play a huge role, both as tormentors and customers. And as we move ahead chronologically, mayors Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg enter the picture as well. Soon, we see how trans women of color were pushed aside even as culture inched toward greater acceptance for LGBTQ+ citizens.

We also see headlines from the mid-‘90s — not so long ago, in context — like “The Shantytown of the He-Shes,” and we hear about all the times the women were sent to Riker’s Island. When Tabytha came back from prison after 14 years, she was stunned by the neighborhood’s transformation. “The only Highline we had was a crack pipe on the pier next to the water,” she observes dryly of the area that had become a tourist-packed park. “The Stroll was over.”

Although so much of society seemed to be moving forward, the women of “The Stroll,” every one of whom is unforgettable, were casually dismissed. It wasn’t until trans sex worker Amanda Milan was murdered in 2000 that things started to change — and even then, only because the women themselves insisted upon it.

Today, we learn of the hundreds of women who once walked the Stroll, most of whom are no longer alive. It’s a painfully bleak assessment, starkly contrasted with the apparent success of the movie’s participants. In fact, this is the project’s most significant lapse, an enormous question that remains unanswered: How, exactly, did the film’s subjects not only survive but also find ways to thrive? There’s a vast jump from stories of teenage homelessness, drug addiction and systemic trauma to their sophistication, activism and political savvy today. We want to know more, and see more, of each of them.

Still, by amplifying their voices and honoring their legacies, Drucker and Lovell have created both a necessary history and a powerful homage to inner strength as well as collective power. As Lovell herself says of the Stroll, “The longer you are there, it becomes more like a dead-end street.” At one point, she shares, she was reduced to sleeping in a movie theater: “I was like, this is as close to Hollywood as I’m gonna get,” she recalls. If only her younger self could see her now.

“The Stroll” will debut on HBO later in 2023.