Twenty years ago this spring, I had a long, candid conversation with Timuel Black, one of the lions of the civil rights movement in Chicago, a man whose activist career dates all the way back to his youth in the 1940s.
We were discussing the challenges and opportunities that black people had dealt with in the years since segregation, when all of a sudden Black sighed and said something that startled me. "You know," he said, "sometimes I think we made a mistake leaving the ghetto."
He didn't mean that literally. But he was lamenting the disappearance of all the black-run institutions that gave the city's segregated black neighborhoods an atmosphere of security and autonomy in the face of widespread poverty and discrimination from the commercial and political elite that governed the city at large. He was talking about black-owned bars and cafes, close-knit community churches, social clubs, gambling joints, insurance and mortuary businesses, and a host of other entities that brought energy to neighborhood life but disappeared or declined almost overnight once the invisible walls of the ghetto came down in the 1960s.
Strange as it may seem, I found myself thinking of Tim Black as I read a new book about Chicago by Amin Ghaziani, a sociologist who was educated at Northwestern University and now teaches in Canada. Ghaziani's book deals with gays, not African-Americans. Titled There Goes the Gayborhood?, it expresses some of the same ambivalence in dealing with the combination of state and local laws and changing norms that has induced Chicago's gay population to move into districts all over the city, leaving behind the places that had earned the nickname of "gayborhoods" in the preceding two or three decades. "The entire city is now a place where gays and straights blend together," Ghaziani writes. "Ironically, however, we risk wiping queer sexualities, cultures and communities off the map."
Historians writing years from now will likely see 2014 as a landmark year in the campaign by gay Americans for equal rights. It is a year in which laws against same-sex marriage have been overturned in state after state, affording gay couples legal protections that seemed all but unthinkable just a short time ago. At the same time, 2014 is a year in which the media has ramped up its reporting on a phenomenon to which it had paid relatively little attention before: the decline of cohesive gay enclaves in some of the country's largest cities.
In Chicago, whose Boystown neighborhood on the North Side was the nation's first gay village officially recognized by city government, a local website recently published an article that began "Goodbye gayborhood. Hello strollers." The gist of the article, which made liberal use of research by Ghaziani, suggested that gays weren't so much fleeing Boystown as being replaced through attrition by young straights, many of them with small children. The annual gay pride parade down the streets of Boystown has reached the point where, in the words of one gay participant, "There were more straight people than gay people."
The Seattle Times ran a story in July under the headline "Is Seattle's 'gayborhood' vanishing?" The story focused on Capitol Hill, Seattle's recognized gay village, and noted that between 2000 and 2012, the number of same-sex households citywide had increased by 52 percent. In Capitol Hill, however, it declined by 23 percent. "We're everywhere in Seattle now," one former Capitol Hill resident told theTimes.
In truth, debate over the future of gayborhoods has been going on within gay circles for at least two decades. As far back as 1994, the editor of Out Magazine, James Collard, wrote in The New York Times that a "post-gay" generation was emerging -- a cohort of same-sex couples and singles that felt secure almost anywhere in the city and had no preference for living in an all-gay or mostly gay enclave. "The New Jerusalem gay people have been striving for all these years," Collard wrote, "won't be found in a gay-only ghetto, but in a world where we are free, equal and safe to live our lives."
That may have been a minority position within the gay community in 1994; it seems to have become the conventional wisdom in 2014. As the cochairman of the GLBT Historical Society of Northern California told Ghaziani, "We don't need the Castro anymore because San Francisco is our Castro."
In 2004, the British sociologist Alan Collins proposed a four-stage model for the rise and fall of gay neighborhoods. First, there is the Pre-condition: the existence of a marginalized area of town characterized by low property values and rental costs. Then comes Emergence, the stage in which gay bars proliferate at a rapid rate and there is a significant increase in the gay male customer base. Third is the period of Expansion, in which the residential population increases and a gay service sector develops, including health clubs, lifestyle accessory stores, bookstores and cafes, among other establishments. Finally there is the period of Integration, in which the clubs and restaurants turn mainstream, the area begins to attract young and straight professionals as residents, new apartment buildings begin to sprout up, and most of the early gay colonizers move away.
Collins' model works pretty well as a description of what has taken place in several big-city gayborhoods over the last couple of decades. One measure, cited by Ghaziani, is a decline in the number of gay bars. Thirty years ago, in every big city, these bars were about the only practical means for gays seeking partners or just simple social contact to find either. The Internet changed that. Having lost the role they previously played, some gay bars have survived largely as tourist attractions, or gathering spots for visitors from distant neighborhoods in the city. But they have also fallen in number. In 2007, The Boston Globe reported that of 16 gay bars operating in Boston and Cambridge in 1994, a majority had closed. "As gay bars vanish," the Globe writer commented, "so go bookstores, diners, and all kinds of other spaces."
The shifting population of gayborhoods has led to some friction between gay community leaders and business associations that believe the time has come for a rebranding of the product. Philadelphia, for example, has long supported efforts to attract visitors to the small piece of territory on the outskirts of Center City known locally as "Gayborhood." It installed rainbow-colored street markers on some of the commercial thoroughfares.
But several years ago, merchants in the area changed the name of their commercial district from "Gayborhood" to "Midtown Village," on the grounds that "Gayborhood" was no longer demographically accurate. The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau made the change on the maps it distributed around the city. Longtime gay residents complained about the decision, enlisted the help of the mayor's LGBT liaison, and a compromise decision was made to call the community Gayborhood/Midtown Village.
Why, given the obvious advantages of an increasingly tolerant urban society, would a sociologist such as Ghaziani feel nostalgic for the gayborhood system that prevailed in the closing years of the previous century? The answer, it seems to me, recalls the reasons why Timuel Black mourned the loss of the black ghetto on Chicago's South Side. Ghaziani laments the disappearance of close-knit communities where gays dominated commercial and neighborhood life and where residents achieved a sense of belonging and ownership impossible to duplicate when the population becomes dispersed.
Ghaziani worries over two changes in particular. One is the loss of a refuge for lonely newcomers from other cities and for teenagers seeking to escape a hostile environment in less tolerant communities where they are growing up. He quotes one of his interviewees: "Someone who has been kicked out of their home because they're gay, they're sixteen years old, they need [a place where they can get organized help]. If they don't have it or if it doesn't really exist anymore because that's no longer a gay neighborhood, what's this kid going to do?" A city without a gay refuge, Ghaziani believes, is a city that has lost something vital to the gay community.
The other important issue for Ghaziani is history. He argues that young gays growing up in the dispersed demographics of the current era will end up ignorant of the struggle over gay rights that took place over nearly half a century in the years before they were born or came of age.
One might respond that plenty of monuments to gay history exist in the cities with large gay populations. Chicago spent $3.2 million to install taxpayer-funded rainbow-colored pylons on the Boystown commercial strip along Halsted Street. Those pylons will be there far into the future as a tangible symbol of Boystown in its heyday. In San Francisco, where the Castro District has lost much of its character as a gayborhood, an LGBT museum opened in 2011, the first of its kind in the United States. The Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village, site of an iconic battle between gays and police in 1969, is now in the National Register of Historic Places.
In the end, Ghaziani believes, gayborhoods won't so much disappear as morph into something different: smaller clusters of gay residents gathering together in neighborhoods all over the city. He notes the decision by many former Boystown residents to regroup in Andersonville, an old Swedish-American community just to the north. Ghaziani calls clusters like this "gay archipelagos," places where "gays and lesbians can take the tone of the primary gayborhood, which they have set, and creatively reattach it to many of the places where they are moving.
That may prove to be wishful thinking. The momentum of dispersal may prove more powerful than the lure of nostalgia in an era of increasing tolerance and a climate of legal equality. But Ghaziani isn't ready to concede. He proclaims his confidence that gay neighborhoods have a future in American cities, even if that future looks much different from the recent past. Whether or not he is right, he is echoing sentiments that have been expressed by a long series of minority groups as they have moved away from the "old neighborhood" and into a new reality of assimilation in the past century and a half of American urban life.