Why Gay Ghettos Are Breaking Up

Published in: March-April 2015 issue.

There Goes the GayborhoodThere Goes the Gayborhood?
by Amin Ghaziani
Princeton University Press
360 pages, $35.


FIRST COMES LOVE, then comes gay marriage, then comes… a straight couple with a baby carriage. In cities across America, local residents and outside observers have become acutely aware that dense, visible, distinct gay neighborhoods seem to be disappearing from the 21st-century urban landscape. Are gay neighborhoods changing? “Of course they are … Every neighborhood will change at some point,” writes Amin Ghaziani in There Goes the Gayborhood, his breezy, thoughtful, and sometimes frustrating new book. But why is it happening, and should anyone care?

The names come quickly to mind—the Castro, Chelsea, Chicago’s Boystown, Dupont Circle in Washington, West Hollywood, Boston’s South End—urban neighborhoods, identified primarily with gay men, that emerged in the post-Stonewall era to serve many purposes all at once: restricted ghetto, imagined community, ethnic enclave, safe haven, property market, entertainment district. In the last two decades, every single one of these functions—and their counterparts in cities nationwide—has undergone a rapid transformation. Residential concentration of gays and lesbians was the first to go, followed by commercial decline. Every gayborhood has a story of used to be: bars, bookstores, coffee shops, gyms, and sidewalk culture that no longer exist. And there’s always an explanation for what happened. Queer urban pioneers were priced out by gentrifying yuppies. Fertility clinics fueled a baby boom that prompted suburban migrations. The internet ruined the gay bar (and buried the bookstore and community newspaper along the way). People stopped dying of AIDS. Such stories began as intuitions, circulated as gossip, and hardened into urban legends—each one half right and half wrong. What they beg for is social scientific analysis.

Along comes Amin Ghaziani, who sampled press accounts and interviewed 125 residents of the Lakeview and Andersonville neighborhoods of Chicago. “Instead of a single, clearly defined gayborhood in a big city, we now see cultural archipelagos: multiple settlements of gay and lesbian populations … in the suburbs and rural areas as well.” But why? Ghaziani sees an explanation in the emergence of a “post-gay” mentality: “In the post-gay era, many gays and lesbians feel like their residential imagination is expanding.” His informants agree: “It’s mainstream to be gay,” notes one Andersonville resident; “we just kind of blend,” says another. Observes Ghaziani: “Young people no longer see the need for a specific ‘gayborhood.’”

I’m not entirely convinced. Ghaziani is generous to a fault in taking his informants at their word, but he understates two key factors that might lead us to read his sources in another way. The first is gender: he repeatedly refers to these enclaves as “gay and lesbian” neighborhoods (which they sort of are), but doesn’t trace the simultaneous transformation of distinctively lesbian urban communities, from Park Slope in Brooklyn or L.A.’s Silver Lake to St. Paul, Minnesota, or Boston’s Jamaica Plain. (At one point he writes that Decatur, Georgia, is “not [a]place that comes to mind when we think about iconic American gayborhoods,” which would be news to anyone who’s ever heard of the Indigo Girls. And let’s not even talk about Northampton, Massachusetts, which Ghaziani describes as a “resort town.”) This is too bad, because some of the most interesting interviews in the book are the ones with Andersonville lesbians who have watched as gay men moved into the neighborhood over the last decade. One man, a recent Andersonville arrival, noted that “gay men just kind of push women out of spaces.” A local lesbian put it more starkly: “The straight couples are guests in our community. The gay men are coming in to pillage. Imperialism is coming up from Boystown.”

Imperialism? Maybe. Capitalism? You betcha. Ghaziani is right that culture matters, and it will never show up in economic studies. But he never really attends to the systematic gentrification and skyrocketing urban housing prices of our one-percent era. These neighborhoods are not becoming straight; they’re becoming rich, which has not pushed out all the gays, but only some of them. Might it be that some gay young adults choose to move elsewhere not because they’re “post-gay,” but because everyone they see in the Castro who isn’t a German tourist is rich or, let’s face it, old? We’ll never know, since Ghaziani didn’t talk to the gay twenty-somethings who don’t live in gayborhoods. Nor did he talk to the poor people of color—Latinos in Boystown, African Americans in the South End—who left these neighborhoods thirty or forty years ago. Gays who see themselves as victims of gentrification ought to remember that they have been agents of it.

So what is to be done? To the Chicago man who “just want[s]our little tiny piece of space in the sea of hostile territory,” Ghaziani offers the counterintuitive reassurance that “the survival of a gayborhood does not necessarily require that gays and lesbians actually live there.” Based on his observations of Chicago, Ghaziani identifies three factors that can save a gay neighborhood: “property ownership among queer business owners, institutional anchors of immediate relevance to queer communities, and historic preservation of sites that are meaningful for queer people.” Own it, use it, and mark it in a way that can’t be undone.

These sound like great bulwarks, but they’re actually slender reeds. Commercial property ownership is more realistic in St. Louis or Philadelphia than in New York or San Francisco. And, as any developer will tell you, everyone—everyone—has a price. Community institutions such as the LGBT Center in the West Village and Chicago’s Center on Halstead serve as anchors for gay communities, to be sure; but, as Ghaziani notes, affluent residents (gay or straight) have not always welcomed sites that draw queer and trans youth, the homeless, and people of color. Ghaziani is certainly right that contemporary urban politics would make it very difficult for any city to take down rainbow flags or historical markers without roiling a key constituency. As one of his informants observed, “You don’t move Plymouth Rock, right?” For now, GLBT people almost all vote one way, with city councilors who answer to them. If that ever changed (and it can, just ask American Jews), then the rainbow pylons on Halsted might go too.

Chinatown and Little Italy have something to teach us here. Visit either of these Manhattan neighborhoods today, and you’ll notice that they exist largely as tourist destinations. New migrants from China have headed to Flushing in Queens. So-called “ethnoburbs” are the norm for new immigrants, and in a nation where most people grew up in suburbs, live in suburbs, and work in suburbs, LGBT people—with or without kids—are making sociologically predictable choices. And, as diverse enclaves like Maplewood, New Jersey, show, Ozzie and Harriet these suburbs are not. Two generations ago, Italian-Americans abandoned the city (and their ethnic distinctiveness) for the suburbs, leaving Little Italy to function as a pilgrimage site for fans of The Godfather. That’s the most likely outcome for ex-gay neighborhoods: a few signature businesses (ever more of them chains) will hold on to serve tourists, suburban gays, school groups, and people who hold mass-mediated fantasies about the sexual liberation of the 1970s.

Perhaps the bleakest—but most probable—scenario is closer to that of Ybor City, which was once a dynamic and diverse Tampa neighborhood of Cuban, Spanish, Italian, and Afri-can American workers. Now it’s a restaurant and nightclub district, where a handful of performers traffic in stereotype and nostalgia for visiting suburbanites who dine on inauthentically ethnic foods served up by corporate chain restaurants. The Castro as theme park—but isn’t that the fate of everything else in our times?


Christopher Capozzola is an associate professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.