Lifestyle & Health

There Goes the Gayborhood

SAN FRANCISCO — The artist John Criscitello of Seattle first became angry a few years ago about the changes in his beloved neighborhood, Capitol Hill, historically the city’s enclave for gay men and lesbians. The area had become decidedly more straight and, in his view, infuriatingly obnoxious.

“On Friday and Saturday nights, it’s like Mardi Gras,” Mr. Criscitello said. He called the area “a puke-and-leave drinking destination” for the city’s young heterosexuals, who seemingly have little regard for, and some hostility toward, the gay people who have lived there since the 1960s.

John Criscitello in his studio in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Upset with changes in the neighborhood, Mr. Criscitello responded with art, creating a series of street murals excoriated the invading masses as homophobic and insensitive. Credit Evan McGlinn for The New York Times

So Mr. Criscitello responded with art, creating a series of provocative and sometimes vulgar street murals excoriated the invading masses as homophobic and insensitive.

“I wanted to poke a stick at the beehive of what was going on,” he said.

A work by Mr. Criscitello on 12th Avenue in Seattle. Credit Conor MacBride

Similar culture clashes are playing out across the nation in historically gay districts, nicknamed gayborhoods. Places like Greenwich Village in Manhattan and the Castro district in San Francisco, once incubators for the gay rights movement, have “straightened” in recent decades, leading to incidents of resistance and some angst about the effects on the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

The changes are due in large part to the increased expense that comes with the rising popularity and gentrification of many inner cities. But growing acceptance, legally and societally, of the L.G.B.T.Q. community is also responsible. Less discrimination means more options of where to live, and many residents, especially millennials, no longer believe they must huddle among their own kind to survive and thrive.

Not long ago, gay men and lesbians had to create their own communities for safety and opportunity.

The Castro in San Francisco, one of the nation’s most expensive neighborhoods. Credit Bryan Meltz for The New York Times
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Many of America’s gayborhoods emerged during World War II, according to Amin Ghaziani, associate professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and author of the new book “Sex Cultures.” The United States military’s strict prohibitions against gay men and lesbians meant that anyone even suspected of homosexuality was discharged, most often in cities with major military bases, such as San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, Miami and New Orleans.

“The concentration of young gay men and lesbians in urban centers altered their cultural imagination,” Mr. Ghaziani wrote. “Bars that catered to them opened in larger numbers, and, over time, the first formal gay neighborhoods, or gayborhoods as we now call them, emerged.”

As news of these neighborhoods spread, they became magnets. It was a phenomenon called the Great Gay Migration, a phrase coined by the anthropologist Kath Weston.

Cleve Jones, the longtime gay civil rights activist and creator of the AIDS quilt, was part of this diaspora, moving to San Francisco from Arizona in 1973. He found relative safety, acceptance and a diversity that had been forged by America’s open enmity toward gay men and lesbians.

“When I came to San Francisco, all of us, regardless of skin color, or ethnicity, or economic status or gender, we were all criminals — in the eyes of the law, we were all unapprehended felons,” Mr. Jones said in an interview. “In many cities it was illegal for us to even gather. That outlaw status broke down many of the barriers that exist in the larger society.”

These initial gayborhoods offered the first opportunities for many to interact openly with people of the same sexual orientation. The concentration of gay men and lesbians also created political clout, Mr. Jones said.

Such a dense community could be rallied: In San Francisco, it helped elect Harvey Milk to the city’s Board of Supervisors in 1977. He had the highest profile among openly gay candidates at the time, and his election was a watershed in the national struggle for gay rights.

The seeds sown back then have led to greater tolerance and new rights, including marriage equality. Acceptance also means a growing number of heterosexuals have no qualms about sharing a neighborhood with gay men and lesbians.

But the main force driving the changes in the nation’s gayborhoods is economic.

The Castro district, one of the country’s first gay neighborhoods, is now seeing an influx of non-gay couples. Credit Bryan Meltz for The New York Times

The first L.G.B.T.Q. outposts were often in marginal or neglected urban areas that allowed people who were considered outcasts to find homes and start businesses with relatively little opposition or capital. (Even today, gay men and lesbians earn less than heterosexuals, according to national surveys.) As gayborhoods, these communities improved and flourished, eventually becoming affluent and desirable places to live.

The Castro, in San Francisco, for example, had been somewhat abandoned by a working class exodus to the suburbs, creating an opening in the 1970s for gay and lesbian residents. Today the area is one of the most expensive residential districts in the nation. The average single-family home there sells for more than $2 million, according to a 2016 report compiled by the Paragon Real Estate Group, which studies the neighborhood. Market-rate two-bedroom apartments rent for about $4,400 a month, according to Rent Jungle, a company that tracks rents.

“Cities are changing in a very profound and new way,” Mr. Jones said, “with the rich claiming the inner cities.”

In Seattle, nearly every city neighborhood had an increased concentration of gay and lesbian residents from 2000 to 2012, except for the Capitol Hill gayborhood, which saw a 23 percent decrease.

Mr. Criscitello said gay residents there were priced out and outnumbered as thousands of new housing units were built in response to the booming local tech economy. New residents tend to be “heavily straight and heavily male,” Mr. Criscitello said, and able to pay higher rents.

“It would be naïve for us to presume that gay neighborhoods were somehow protected from the tides of change that affect all other neighborhoods in all other cities,” Mr. Ghaziani said in an interview. “They’re not.”

But as many longtime gayborhoods change, others are emerging or growing. Mr. Jones said Palm Springs, Calif., had transformed in recent decades into a popular retirement community with housing less expensive than in San Francisco.

In Chicago’s Boystown, gentrification has replaced some gay-centric retail stores with more mainstream offerings. But in the neighborhood of Andersonville, a few miles north, the number of gay bars and businesses has increased in recent years. And just outside the city, the Village of Oak Park has become a destination for same-sex couples with children, a type of gayborhood few would have imagined in years past.

Efforts are also being made in places not well known for tolerance of gay men and lesbians. The group LGBT Detroit has established a new community center in the city’s Murray Hill neighborhood. “We’re in the business of changing some hearts and minds,” said Curtis Lipscomb, the group’s executive director, noting that people should not have to run off to San Francisco or New York City to be gay. “You shouldn’t leave family to be free,” he said.

In Providence, R.I., a section of the city’s downtown is strewed with rainbow banners on utility poles, advertising its gayborhood of bars and cafes. Plans are also in the works for an L.G.B.T.Q. community center.

“There’s a very large craving to have a space where you can meet like-minded people,” said Davide Gnoato, board president of Rhode Island Pride.

Mr. Ghaziani referred to these new efforts as “cultural archipelagos.” He warned that gay men and lesbians still face discrimination. But, he said, “Plurality is the name of the new game,” as shown by newly emerging gayborhoods.

Still, some worry that much could be lost as the old famed gayborhoods become watered-down versions of their former selves. Political clout, services and opportunities could be diminished.

“This is not about nostalgia,” Mr. Jones said.

He bemoaned a lack of thoughtful conversation about the issue. “The gayborhoods are going away,” he said. “Where do we go now? The old ways of organizing and defending ourselves are being changed. What are the new strategies?”

And those raising concerns are struggling to be heard. In Seattle’s Capitol Hill, there are few remaining neglected buildings for Mr. Criscitello’s protest murals, and when they do go up, “they’re taken down immediately,” he said.


A version of this article appears in print on June 25, 2017, on Page F6 of the New York edition with the headline: There Goes the Gayborhood. 

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