Are gay neighborhoods dying? There’s been ceaseless chatter the past couple of years that the Castro is turning straight, and that San Francisco’s unaffordability is making it almost impossible for new generations of young LGBT people to keep the torch lit. But until now, no one had attempted a comprehensive look at just how things might be changing.
Amin Ghaziani is a sociologist and the author of There Goes the Gayborhood
(Princeton University Press), a steely glance at North America’s most prominent pink ghettos and the demographic transitions they’re undergoing. In anticipation of his appearance at The Green Arcade (1680 Market St.) this Sunday, Aug. 17 at 6 p.m. to talk about his book, SF Weekly
had the opportunity to chat with Ghaziani about the Castro’s forthcoming rainbow crosswalks, the importance of gayborhoods to non-residents, and whether Oakland is charting the future of these enclaves.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.
SF Weekly: Chicago’s Boystown is your primary example, but you touch on the Castro and San Francisco. I’m wondering if you see the “high gentrification” of the last couple of years factoring into the disappearance of gayborhoods.
Yes, definitely. There are basically three sets of numbers we need to keep in mind that do a nice job illustrating the economic effect here. One, we know that areas that have a large concentration of gay and lesbian households have seen greater increases in housing prices than the national average, typically at one-and-a-half times the rate.
Second, we know that same-sex households earn on average $15,000 less annually than opposite-sex households. As of the 2010 census, we’ve found that 20 percent of same-sex households were living in poverty, compared to nine percent for opposite-sex households.
Finally, straights will always outnumber gays: 1.6 percent of the population identifies as gay or lesbian, and an additional 0.7 percent identifies as bisexual. Together, these numbers pose puzzles for gay neighborhoods. We know that the areas experience greater increases in housing costs, yet gays and lesbians who comprise that small proportion of the population earn less than heterosexuals. So it raises the question, are gay neighborhoods sustainable? From an economic perspective, they will not be unless gays never move out or they never sell to non-gays, and neither is plausible.
One of the best terms your book brought to my attention was that a neighborhood such as Boystown is, as you put it, “municipally marked.” The city of Chicago installed rainbow-colored pylons to declare officially that “This is a gay neighborhood.” It’s funny because the Castro, Castro Street in particular, is about to get rainbow crosswalks and a Gay Walk of Fame embedded in the sidewalk. Since the Castro is already several decades into being a well-established, nationally-recognized gay neighborhood, do you see that sort of municipal marking would have any effect?
Gay neighborhoods are changing. That in itself is not necessarily surprising, because all neighborhoods change. Yet there are still ways in which we can preserve the cultural vitality of these urban districts without naively denying the realities of residential change. We’re seeing both a “de-gaying” (gay people are leaving) and a “straightening” (straight people are moving in). So when you move forward with these types of endeavors — I call them “civic commemorations” — they preserve an area’s heritage or history in a way that is mindful of the fact that the residential portfolio is actively changing, but which nonetheless anchors the cultural identity of a group in space and place.
Now these neighborhoods have become a marketing asset, which is why I think cities like Chicago, San Francisco, West Hollywood, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Manchester, have a municipally marked gayborhood that both locals and tourists can consume. It contributes to the economic bottom line of a city.
Do you think that top-down intervention by a city government can propagate a neighborhood? I’m thinking of the people who come to a neighborhood like the Castro and aren’t necessarily middle-class homeowners or tourists. As you say in the book, there’s a lot of marginal populations — low-income people, trans people, youth of color — and I’m wondering if that sort of civic marking of a neighborhood might be like having a conversation at cross-purposes with some of the demographic groups that might rely on them the most.
I think there are two main ways in which cities can preserve heritage and history of these spaces. The first of these are what we just discussed, civic commemorations. The second, which often occurs in tandem with the first, is what I call “anchor institutions.”
These are organizations that are especially powerful or resonant for the local population. It can be a particular bar that has been there for decades, a community center, or a bookstore. When we see them together, it contributes to those economic factors — increasing revenues, generating tourist dollars — but at the same time it also appeals to locals who may not necessarily live in the Castro. But they would still be able to enter the district and participate in its organizational and institutional life, and that kind of participation does not necessarily depend on their ability to afford living in that neighborhood. Which is why it’s effective, especially when the two occur together. It’s not just an artificial, commemorative marking that’s devoid of the heart, life and soul of the neighborhood, because these anchor institutions that invite people to remain present in the life of the neighborhood.
There’s a colleague of mine, Theo Green, at Northwestern, who has this beautiful concept he uses, the “vicarious citizen.” The idea is, increasingly, LGBTQ individuals who do not live in a gay neighborhood nonetheless feel a sense of entitlement or ownership to that space and feel like they can make claims on that space.
Do you foresee the possibility of a gayborhood ever becoming something like New York’s Little Italy, where in the 2010 census they found that not a single resident was actually born in Italy. The neighborhood is still very much a destination, and marked by street festivals, red-white-and-green bunting, lots of Italian restaurants. It feels like an Italian neighborhood in spite of the demographic reality that it largely isn’t.
That’s something I heard quite a bit in my conversations with Chicagoans both gay and straight. It’s also something I read in the national media coverage. I think the positioning of gayborhoods alongside ethnic enclaves as entertainment districts certainly signals a shift in how the State perceives these areas. And it may signal that they function in ways that are comparable to these ethnic enclaves like Chinatown, Little Italy, Greektown. Even if there’s a lack of concentration in those neighborhoods, it raises the question of whether we’ll reach similar residential dilution in gay neighborhoods.
Have you gleaned any further wisdom about the future direction of gayborhoods? I’m thinking of Oakland, and the incredibly fast demographic shifts in the Bay Area generally, but especially within the LGBT community. The fleeing en masse and settling in the East Bay seems to have accelerated.
Some of the demographic statistics in my book about Oakland — it does have a large concentration of same-sex households.
Yeah, but there’s no real gay neighborhood, municipally marked or otherwise.
That’s right. So it’s quietly becoming home to more lesbian couples per capita than any other big city in the nation, and ranks third for gay and lesbian households combined behind San Francisco and Seattle.” The quote I have in the book is “Oakland is the largest major American city without a pink ghetto.” No Castro Street or Greenwich Village, even if it was second behind San Francisco as the hometown for same-sex couples married this year.
Do you think that makes Oakland an anomaly, or is it charting the future?
I’m not sure that it’s either. I think it’s too early to say what Oakland is. The increasing concentration of residents in Oakland is a fairly new phenomenon. It could be that Oakland represents the early stages of a resurrecting gayborhood. Maybe there’s no Castro Street yet, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be an emergence of a large cluster of gay bars or other organizations, a community center, a school. Typically, though, the pattern is the reverse. The organizations come first and then the concentration happens.
I discovered a variety of surprises, and one of those pertains to the pluralizing of the urban landscape rather than the shriveling of possibilities, which is often how we’ve heard members of the media talk about this. ‘Gayborhoods are dying, they’re disappearing, they’re becoming passé,’ as the New York Times talks about that. But in fact, we live in a moment of the opposite, a pluralizing of the options rather than a shrinking of options.
We’re now seeing the development of distinct areas for particular subgroups. For same-sex households with children, for instance, they’re making systematic choices about where they want to live.
Because you have multiple places, you’ll have one typically more visible entertainment district where more gay men live, but then there will often be a secondary [area] that has more lesbians living there. One particular hot-button topic these days pertains to the development of retirement communities for aging gay men and lesbians. There are now more places that have a distinct association with same-sex sexuality than we’ve ever witnessed before.
So to bring it all back, a lot of the more apocalyptic talk about the decimation of gay neighborhoods is, if not misplaced, but premature.
I think it is misplaced. I don’t think the framework of prematurity is relevant here; I think it’s how we interpret the demographic data. Existing gay neighborhoods are deconcentrating. This is true. But the apocalyptic claims imply that this is a linear trajectory, that fewer same-sex households lived in them in 2010 than they did in 2000, and this trend will continue until dissolution, which is the inevitable outcome. I think those claims are unfounded.
No matter how much positive social change we see, no matter how much societal acceptance there is, there will be moments when LGBT individuals want to be with other individuals. Not necessarily because they feel safer with them or because straight people discriminate against them, but just because sometimes you want to be with others who are similar to you. And that will have an effect in terms of where people decide about where to live and how to socialize. Sociologists call this homophily. Quite simply, it’s a fundamental tendency that human beings have that like attracts like, or that birds of a feather flock together.
Amir Ghaziani will deliver a talk at the Green Arcade, 1680 Market St., on Sunday, Aug. 17, at 6 p.m.