Feature Communities

What Does Marriage Equality Mean for Our Cities?

The gay neighborhood is not what it used to be. by Eric Sasson

August 14, 2015

This summer’s landmark Supreme Court decision on marriage equality was greeted with widespread jubilation and over 26 million “Rainbow-fied” Facebook profile pictures. “Gay marriage” is, at long last, simply marriage.

But there are unavoidable downsides when a minority culture loses its outsider status and blends into the mainstream. Despite enduring hardships like frequent police harassment and an AIDS epidemic that ravaged the community, America's LGBT culture has for more than a century flourished on the margins of our urban centers. There, gays and lesbians have reveled in their “otherness,” assembling in safe spaces while embracing the cosmopolitan milieu afforded by city life: fast-paced, social, sophisticated, and vibrant. Cities that eventually embraced their homosexual inhabitants were rewarded with spruced-up neighborhoods—boutiques, restored homes, trendy restaurants, and cultural centers.

The list of cities with once-derelict areas reclaimed and restored by gays and lesbians is long: Chicago’s Boystown district; Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.; Chueca in Madrid; Philadelphia’s aptly named Gayborhood. It’s become a cliché in real estate circles to tell investors to simply “go where the gays are.” Few indicators are anywhere as reliable of a marginalized neighborhood’s potential success than the presence of a committed gay populace. Renowned professor and urbanist Richard Florida gave this phenomenon a name: The “Gay Index”—detailed in an op-ed for the Washington Monthly titled, "Why cities without gays and rock bands are losing the economic development race"—measures a city’s openness to different types of people.

Cities thrive because cultures interact and differences are celebrated, not because we all blend into a homogenized goop.

One doesn’t have to dig too deep into our history to find compelling evidence of Florida’s claims. In New York at the turn of the 20th century, gay men flocked to places like the Everard Baths, which first opened in 1888. And under the Weimar Republic, Berlin in the 1920s was revolutionized by a thriving gay subculture, brashly open and radically progressive. Same-sex bars, nightclubs, and cabarets were omnipresent, while nearly 30 homosexual German-language periodicals appeared at least monthly. The first studies of transsexuality and transvestism weren’t overseen by Alfred C. Kinsey, but rather one Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (a.k.a.,“The Einstein of Sex”), a gay socialist Jew who in 1919 opened up the Institute of Sexual Science in his palatial mansion on In den Zelten, a once-fashionable street between the northeast corner of Berlin’s Tiergarten and the River Spree.

Nowhere was the influence of gay culture on the revitalization of a city more pronounced than it was in South Beach in the 1990s. For a good stretch in the 1960s, Miami Beach was America’s top tourist destination, the center of all things glamorous. But by the early 1980s, Miami’s sparkle had all but faded, and the once spectacular parade of art deco hotels lining Collins Avenue had mostly closed down. It seemed the only ones left were the drug dealers, Cuban and Haitian immigrants, and little old ladies who made prime targets for criminals.

But while some had written off Miami as just another failed beach town, many LGBT folk, particularly those in fashion, art, and club promotion, saw opportunity. Lured by cheap rents and a magnificent stretch of beach, these pioneers took to refashioning a forgotten paradise into something buzz-worthy and decadent, a year-round party for the perpetually tan: artists such as Carlos Betancourt, who rented a $300 studio back in the 1980s and whose work now hangs in the Met in New York. Drag queens like Elaine Lancaster and Shelly Novak, who ruled the nightlife circuit at clubs like Warsaw and Salvation, cavernous spaces where the young and chiseled could rub against each other. As word spread, the restaurateurs soon arrived, the developers, the hotel magnates, snatching up buildings like the Delano to restore them to their vintage glory. Bruce Weber lured in the fashion crowds. Gianni Versace bought his historic mansion on Ocean Drive in 1992. Madonna’s famous “gal pal” Ingrid Casares opened Liquid in 1995, soon to be legendarily mobbed by the beautiful and famous.

Thirty-odd years after the gay community took a chance on it, South Beach’s Lincoln Road swarms with tourists. Foreigners, particularly South Americans and Russians, have driven up prices to unprecedented levels, gobbling up apartments in newly risen towers that pepper both the beach and the bay. Miami’s draw as one of America’s most popular destinations has unquestionably been restored.  

But what happens now, when gay culture no longer perceives itself the same way? Will it lose its neighborhood-uplifting “mojo” now that it no longer maintains its outsider status or very real need for safe spaces? And what does that mean for cities like Detroit, now facing the hard times that Miami and others barely managed to escape?

By now, you no doubt have heard that Detroit is in desperate need of revitalization. Since 1950, the city’s manufacturing jobs have all but disappeared, along with over 60 percent of its population. In 2013, the city declared bankruptcy, around the same time the #ruinporn hashtag rose to prominence. Scroll through Detroit’s abandoned homes and buildings and you can’t ignore the skyline’s sickly pallor, as if the loss of industry has sucked the city of its color.

But such descriptions are facile in the face of Detroit’s current reality. Construction on Woodward Avenue's light rail has begun. Artisanal restaurants are opening up in Corktown. The city may launch its first-ever art biennial in 2016. Theoretically, attracting gays to these burgeoning cultural hubs would require far less investment than, say, using generous tax incentives to convince large tech companies to relocate.

It wouldn’t even be the first time: In the 1960s and ’70s, the Palmer Park Apartments—today, a registered historic district of buildings in North Detroit near the intersection of Woodward and McNichols avenues—once housed the city’s most active LGBT community. A poster from 1972, now part of a collection of historical artifacts housed in Menjo’s, the area’s only still-operating gay bar, dubs the neighborhood “Michigan’s gayest square mile” while pointing out the numerous bathhouses, bookstores, and bars that once overwhelmed it.

So why isn’t there a gay neighborhood in Motor City? In the 1980s, the crime levels were so high that even the gays dispersed and headed north—along with many others—to Ferndale or Royal Oak. Today, even in the midst of Detroit’s mini-renaissance, state policy may be preventing the LGBT populace from digging in their heels. Michigan was one of only 13 holdout states on the same-sex marriage front, and it has never put any statewide protections in place for LGBT individuals.

Yet with new Mayor Mike Duggan referencing gays and lesbians in his inaugural speech, and the Tigers’ first LGBT Pride day at Comerica Park, a few hold out hope. Curtis Lipscomb, executive director of LGBT Detroit, is at the forefront of a movement to create a gay neighborhood within Detroit’s city limits.

“Our approach is probably going to be different than most when it comes to a gayborhood,” Lipscomb said. “A lot of people would argue that it needs to be organic, and I would agree to some point, but I do know that you have to be intentional. … The approach is going to have to be culturally sensitive.”

Lipscomb is referencing the fact that Detroit’s population is more than 80 percent black and still primarily church-going. A gay neighborhood in Detroit wouldn’t share the character, flavor, or ethos of LGBT communities in San Francisco or New York. Case in point: Detroit’s annual “Hotter than July” LGBT festivities—Lipscomb says that highlights of the five-day affair include a candlelight vigil and Sunday church services.

“I am not interested in pushing anyone out, or telling someone that you have to love us, or forcing somebody to abide by our beliefs or our values,” he says. “A few things happen that are infectious. You plant a flower, you do some programming, you invite neighbors to your home.” Lipscomb is optimistic that this intentional revival of a gay neighborhood in Detroit isn’t just theoretical but imminent—an individual donor has already made a major financial pledge.

But will any amount of money or religion-friendly activities be enough to overcome mainstream culture’s broader shift toward LGBT acceptance? A new “gayborhood” in Detroit, no matter how intentionally established, likely won’t be the city’s savior. Gays and lesbians are no longer finding it necessary to pursue the kinds of revitalization projects for which they were once celebrated. Chelsea these days has been taken over by strollers, the Castro hit by sky-high rents. Even South Beach has lost its rainbow cachet—most of the gays have migrated north, to Fort Lauderdale.

These once-shabby neighborhoods have become victims of their own success—after they catch fire, the straights move in and drive up rents, while diluting the distinct gay flavor that made the area special in the first place. The Castro and the West Village weren’t merely charming enclaves, sporting the occasional rainbow flag. They were the stomping grounds of Harvey Milk and the home of the Stonewall Riots. In these streets, communities grieved and organized in response to an AIDS epidemic largely ignored by a callous federal government. By concentrating in specific neighborhoods, gays gained political power as voting blocs whose concerns could no longer be overlooked by politicians. It seems unwise to cede that power simply because the battle appears to be won.

In truth, it’s not just that cities need gay culture, but that gay culture needs cities, to inspire it and remind the community that gaining equality doesn’t require losing a sense of itself. If gays “win” when they become just like everyone else, then aren’t we essentially championing the erasure of an identity, elevating conformity as an ideal many gays don’t—and shouldn’t—aspire to?

In dozens of small towns across America, young gays and lesbians are still hopping on trains and buses every day to start fresh lives in cities that they hope will be more welcoming. If gayborhoods disappear, we are essentially robbing the next generation of the ability to collectively identify—asking them, just as they are discovering themselves, to forfeit this identity in lieu of a fuzzier, we’re-all-the-same ethos.

Of course an influx of gays alone will not save any city. But in tandem with the right policies and vision, it might the first of several dominoes to fall. Cities thrive because cultures interact and differences are celebrated, not because we all blend into a homogenized goop. By assimilating too much, gays may be succumbing to a kind of internalized homophobia: Downplaying the flamboyance and sexual freedom may have paved the way for greater rights, but it also tacitly acquiesced to the notion that these aspects of gay culture aren't pivotal. The pride for which the community has fought, and demonstrated in so many successful revitalized cities around the world, needs to persist. That revitalizing spirit is a defining part of the culture and should still be pursued, especially in places where it’s so desperately needed.

Hero illustration by Jean Wei

Map illustrations by Jean Wei and Tom Eichacker

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What Does Marriage Equality Mean for Our Cities? The gay neighborhood is not what it used to be.