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The rise and fall of American gayborhoods


Growing up in a straight family in Greenwich Village has left me with an appreciation for the virtues of America's big-city gayborhoods. When I lived in Boston, there was something about the South End that felt more like home to me than anywhere else in the city. And it's probably not a coincidence that I live in DC's Logan Circle now. To the casual eye, it seems clear that these gay clusters are "less gay" — more moms at brunch and fewer leather shops — than they were when I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s.

Amin Ghaziani, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia and author of the new book There Goes The Gayborhood?, noticed the same thing living in Chicago's Boystown in the early aughts, and so did his friends.

"We noticed more straight couples holding hands on the streets, more baby strollers pushed by straight families," he tells me. "I would notice that a sex store would close and a nail salon would open in its place."

The difference between Ghaziani and me is, he actually put in the work and did the research. The Census Bureau doesn't study whether people are gay or straight. But it does ask people about their living arrangements. That lets us see how many same-sex couples there are living together in the United States and in its various sub-divisions. Same-sex cohabiting romantic couples are obviously a serious undercount of the overall LGBT population, but they work as a rough proxy. Ghaziani's research tells us that between the 2000 and 2010 Census, the number of same-sex couples living in key traditional gayborhoods declined, often as larger trends in urban life made those neighborhoods newly desirable destinations.

At the same time, the Census now finds same-sex romantic couples living together in 93 percent of America's counties. The gay population is becoming less concentrated as its legal, political, and social reality is increasingly accepted.

That acceptance itself is clearly a good thing. But the decline of the gayborhood may be a negative consequence of declining homophobia. Ghaziani notes that the American political system heavily rewards geographically concentrated voting blocks. Gays and lesbians are a relatively small minority in the United States, but when they cluster in hubs, the politicians who represent those hubs become key champions of their issues.

"We have no reason to believe that homophobia will die," Ghaziani cautions, even as legal rights advance. "You can simply ask yourself has racism gone away or has sexism gone away?"

Part of the drive is basic economics. Gayborhoods originated in the aftermath of the Second World War. Ghaziani explains that "gay men and lesbians who were discharged from the military for their real or perceived homosexuality remained behind in major port cities" rather than return home in disgrace. That's left gayborhoods as an especially prominent feature of exactly the kind of coastal cities most likely to be experiencing critical shortages of affordable housing. In some cities, even as traditional gayborhoods straighten, adjacent neighborhoods are getting gayer as younger LGBTQ  cohorts find themselves unable to afford the old hubs.

But Ghaziani says the "national public conversation surrounding gay neighborhoods tends to over-emphasize economic factors at the neglect of other important variables."

Fundamentally, the urgent need for safe spaces has diminished as a result of growing equality. But both politics and culture can suffer from the collapse of gay neighborhoods. A return to the less-tolerant attitudes of the 1970s and 1980s is obviously not a realistic solution. But Ghaziani advocates other strategies to help nudge cities to nurture the value of these communities. One strategy is commemoration, with special street decorations — often rainbow-themed — on key commercial centers in gay hubs. The other is to maintain, with subsidies if necessary, the "anchor institutions" (community centers, gay newspapers, iconic bars) that formed in these neighborhoods in their heyday

"Areas of concentrated minorities groups have been crucibles to cultural innovation," Ghaziani observes, and they have inspired expressions from music to fashion, poetry and literature." Preservation strategies can help us hang on to some of those valuable gayborhood contributions, as well as perhaps retaining a critical mass that's necessary for political mobilization.

But nothing, he cautions, will freeze the gayborhoods of yore into place.

"All neighborhoods change," Ghaziani says and these strategies won't change that.
"Gay neighborhoods are not an exception to this most basic insight of city life."

Matthew Yglesias: Most people are aware that there are these traditional gay hubs in a lot of major cities but can explain what is the origin of these gayborhoods?

Amin Ghaziani: These gayborhoods first formed following World War II. At that time, gay men and lesbians who were discharged from the military for their real or perceived homosexuality remained behind in major port cities and other urban centers rather than returning home disgraced. Those are the early origins of these areas. They flourished, however, following the Stonewall riots of 1969. That coincided with demographic movement that geographers and historians call the "Great Gay Migration." It happened in the 1970s and the 1980s and that's where we historically witnessed the blossoming of areas like the Castro District in San Francisco, the Village in New York, Chicago's Boystown and other major urban areas.

MY: As visibility grew in those neighborhoods, people from elsewhere in the country knew that that was a place that they could move and feel welcome?

AG: That's right. A friend would write a letter to another, people would hear by word of mouth. Many individuals from smaller towns or if they were living in small or medium sized cities that were not as progressive or welcoming would flock to these major urban centers. A lot of gay men and lesbians perceived them as beacons of tolerance in a sea of heterosexual hostility. They were safe spaces.

MY: And this happened at a time when city centers in the United States were often in a lot of decline and distress, right?

AG: The flourishing of these gay neighborhoods in the '70s and '80s were part of a larger cycle of urban renewal effort in the United States. Federal interventions fueled the first which was a response to inner city decline that light flight caused in the 1960s. That led to isolated investments and what sociologists call islands of renewal and seas of decay. Gentrification then resurged in the late 1990s in a second wave that corresponded with rising home prices, changes in the financing system, and the demolition of public housing. It's inside of this second surge and that's where we also begin to witness pretty significant changes in these gay neighborhoods.

MY: The title of your book comes from the idea that these traditional gay neighborhoods or dissipating or moving. Are gay men and lesbians leaving the Castro, leaving the Village?

AG: First of all, I would like to emphasize that the title of the book has a question mark at the end. I think that the changes that we are witnessing in these neighborhoods are quite complex and that the story is not simple or that it can be summarized by singular factors.

My curiosities began while I was a graduate student living in Chicago's Boystown neighborhood from 1999 to 2008. I began to notice changes on the ground informally, and they became central preoccupations of my friends and me as we would try to figure out what's happening in the neighborhood. We noticed more straight couples holding hands on the streets, more baby strollers pushed by straight families. We also began to notice that some of the straight couples who were living in Boystown or walking through its streets would make faces — of disapproval, perhaps — when they would see a same sex couple holding hands. I would notice that a sex store would close and a nail salon would open in its place. These types of casual conversations provided the motivation for me to do this book once I had completed graduate school some years on.

I then looked at census data and other demographers have looked at census data, and there is widespread consensus that these areas are de-concentrating. In other words, when we compare the 2000 US Census to the 2010 US Census, we see that there are fewer male and female same sex partner households residing in gayborhoods than there were 10 years earlier. Now same sex partner households reside in 93% of all counties in the United States.

MY: Is it possible to get solid, quantitative information about sexual orientation of single people?

AG: No, this is a major limitation of the census data. When we look at the statics, we are necessarily underestimating the gay and lesbian population. The Census, for instance, excludes those who are not partnered. It also excludes those who do not live with their partner, those individuals who are not willing to self-identify as gay or lesbian, those who self-identify as bisexual and those self-identify as transgender.

MY: How much of gayborhood decline is driven by economic factors and gentrification, and how much by increasing social tolerance in the larger community?

AG: I think both factors are crucially important to understand why these areas are changing. My concern is that the national public conversation surrounding gay neighborhoods tends to over emphasize economic factors at the neglect of other important variables as well. I cannot quantify which matters more, but what I can say is that we should think more critically about the effects of acceptance and assimilation on the decisions that both gay and straight people make about where to live. And then how that, in turn, affects the character, composition and the complexion of existing gay neighborhoods.

MY: As traditional gayborhoods decline, do we see new ones arise?

AG: Yes, I began by wanting to understand why these neighborhoods were sexually integrating, but along the way I discovered that new areas are forming. In Chicago, for instance, the existing Boystown neighborhood may be straightening, but there's a new emergence of same sex partners households in Andersonville. There are also many gay men and lesbians who are moving to even the next neighborhood north, Rogers Park. I know there's a similar movement that's happening in Washington, DC,  San Francisco, and San Diego. Perhaps we live in an age of plurality and multiplication rather than disappearance.

MY: Growing acceptance is a good thing, but is there something that's lost culturally when certain kinds of large concentrations of gay and lesbian couples move away?

AG: The tremendous rates of acceptance of LGBTQ individuals that underlie the census statistics is extremely positive. That said, we also need to find meaningful ways of preserving these areas or promoting the building of new ones.

There is a lot that is lost both politically and culturally if these neighborhoods disappear in theory. The loss of clusters may, for example, have implications for the LGBTQ community in terms of exercising political or electoral influence. And bigotry and bias will persist even as we move toward an era of complete legislative equality. A lot of peopl say that it's only a matter of moments before same sex marriage is the law of the land. But even after that happens, we have no reason to believe that homophobia will die. You can simply ask yourself has racism gone away or has sexism gone away?The same holds true for homophobia.

There are cultural concerns for us to think about as well. Historically, we know that such areas of concentrated minorities groups have been crucibles to cultural innovation and they have inspired expressions from music to fashion, poetry and literature. You might think about the Harlem Renaissance as one example that's not related to gay neighborhoods. In a similar way, non-heterosexuals have used gayborhoods to build rich, diverse, dynamic communities, celebrate human sexuality, to inspire artistic expression such as Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City.

MY:: If you're a city official or citizen who's concerned about this trend what are some measures you think we should be considering?

AG: I think there are at least two measures that I might propose and recommend.

The first is something that we might call commemorations or civic commemorations. Chicago, became the first city in the world to use tax funded dollars to municipally mark its gayborhood — Boystown. They installed art deco styled rainbow colored pylons along North Halsted Street, which is a main clear artery of the commercial and night life district in the city. We've seen versions of this in many cities across North America.

Philadelphia installed rainbow flags underneath the street signs that demarcate a portion of the Washington Square West neighborhood. Toronto did the same thing by installing rainbow flags underneath its street signs in the gayborhood. In Vancouver, recently, the city installed permanent rainbow colored crosswalks in the heart of the Davie Village gayborhood. West Hollywood has done the same thing.

These kinds of commemorative markers do not require us to deny the realities of residential change. All neighborhoods change. Gay neighborhoods are not an exception to this most basic insight of city life. These markers embrace that reality while still honoring the heritage and history of these particular neighborhoods.

The second urban measure that we might consider are the promotion of what are called anchor institutions. These are particular organizations or non-profit community centers, businesses that have particular importance or significance for the LGBTQ community. This could be something like the community center on Halsted in Chicago. It could be a particular bar that may have existed for a while that has special significance to the community. These anchor institutions will continually inspire people to visit and spend time in the neighborhood even if they no longer live there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity


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