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Gayborhoods :: Victims of their own success?

by Lisa Leff
Saturday Mar 10, 2007
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Even on a weekday in winter, the Castro district vibrates with energy, most of it male. Men holding hands, walking dogs and lounging at cafes have long been the main attraction in a neighborhood known as a gay mecca the world over.

Yet where visitors see a living monument to gay pride, longtime community leader Brian Basinger sees a cultural enclave at risk of becoming a faded museum piece - or worse, a place where men who love men may one day feel like they don’t belong.

"When I see a stroller now, I see it as someone who evicted a person with AIDS, right or wrong," said Basinger, president of the Harvey Milk Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transexual Democratic Club.

For more than 30 years, most big cities have had a district either explicitly or implicitly understood to be the place to go if you were gay - the West Village and Chelsea in New York City, Washington’s Dupont Circle, Boston’s South End.

But as gays and lesbians win legal rights and greater social acceptance, community activists worry these so-called "gayborhoods" are losing their relevance. Like the bedsheet-sized rainbow flag rippling majestically at the intersection marking the entrance to the Castro, they are at a historical crossroads.

"What I’ve heard from some people is, ’We don’t need the Castro anymore because essentially San Francisco is our Castro,"’ said Don Romesburg, who co-chairs the GLBT Historical Society.

Don Reuter, a New York writer who is researching a book on the rise and fall of a dozen gay neighborhoods in the U.S., has observed the same trend in cities as far-flung as New Orleans, Philadelphia and Seattle. He found "Disneyfied" places boasting chain stores, restaurants catering to a diverse clientele and "cleared of any reference to sex."

"What makes these neighborhoods gay? Not much," concluded Reuter, who predicts that outside New York, San Francisco and a handful of other cities, neighborhoods with a significant gay presence will not survive.

In the early 1970s, an atmosphere of wild abandon prevailed in districts often referred to as "gay ghettos." Men who had kept their sexual orientations hidden reveled in the freedom of leading openly gay lives for the first time. The nonstop party dragged to a painful halt in the 1980s with the onset of AIDS, Reuter said, but the crisis also solidified gay communities even as it decimated them.

Now, as the fear of AIDS has abated, the neighborhoods have become attractive to developers and investors trying to encourage families and empty-nesters to return to city centers, said Reuter.

Besides the brigades of baby strollers in the Castro, ominous signs include the security gates installed last year by a local hotel to discourage "cruising," and the recent closings of two longtime stores, one that sold leather goods and the other bath products. National retail chains like Pottery Barn and Diesel now occupy prominent Castro locations.

Several nonprofit agencies serving the gay community have also moved out due to rising rents. Meanwhile, 500 new apartments and condominiums are planned for the area, half of which have been designated as "family housing."

But no one is suggesting that the Castro has been overrun by heterosexuals just yet.

After the Cape Cod resort of Provincetown, Mass., the neighborhood has the nation’s highest concentration of same-sex couples, according to 2005 census estimates. And San Francisco as a whole ranks first among cities, with gay and lesbian residents making up 15 percent of the population.

"I think people are looking for something to worry about," said Betty Sullivan, a writer and event producer who lives in the Castro. "I take the fact that some straight people want to live here as a compliment."

But some activists point to cities with less-established gay districts as a sign of what could happen.

Honolulu’s Kuhio district stands vacant after its gay bars were dispersed in the late 1980s. In Atlanta’s Midtown, once the gayest area of that city, gay nightclubs recently have given way to condominiums.

When Basinger walks through the Castro these days, he see the apartment building where he watched friends with AIDS die, too pricey these days for someone young, old or sick to afford. Or the corner where his efforts at community organizing are met with yawns. Up the street, the raunchy window displays at sex toy shops have brought complaints from parents, both gay and straight.

"We have Chinatown and Japantown and so forth, and that’s important for minority communities in this country, to have a place where they can get a sense of being the majority," said Joe Curtin, an architect who serves as president of Castro Area Planning Action. "But if you took those away, you would still have China and Japan. If the Castro goes away as a gay neighborhood, there is nowhere else."

From 2000 to 2005, the 10 states with the biggest increases in the percentage of gay couples were all in the Midwest, says Gary Gates, a demographer for the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA that specializes in sexual orientation and the law.

"Thirty years ago, if I lived in the Midwest and I was gay, my thought was I would go to San Francisco or New York," Gates said. "Now, a person can go to Kansas City and find a fairly active and open gay community."

Sandy Sachs, a nightclub owner in gay-friendly West Hollywood, has started promoting special dance nights for straight Iranians, Israelis and Russians because her gay clientele has fallen off. Club owners in other cities told her they are doing the same.

"I still maintain gay nights at my club, but I’m not solely gay," said Sachs, who noted that many gay men and lesbians now prefer to meet potential partners on the Internet. "The community doesn’t support that kind of thing anymore."

Another factor contributing to what Reuter calls the "devolution" of gay neighborhoods is the attitude of young gays and lesbians who feel comfortable mixing with people of different genders and sexual orientations.

"We don’t want to ostracize ourselves," said Matty Lamos, 20, who moved to San Francisco from nearby Petaluma three years ago.

Basinger, Curtin and other San Francisco activists agree it’s a good thing that gay people no longer feel restricted to the Castro, but fear younger generations will overlook the struggles that went into building the neighborhood.

"When you are a minority, you have to be the wedge, and the Castro is it," he said. "The people who are coming in here and colonizing the Castro, they are exercising their priorities. Whether they are heterosexual priorities or economic priorities, they are not our priorities."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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