Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

State of gay neighborhoods debated


Dawn Phillips at the recent gay neighborhood forum presented by the GLBT Historical Society. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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The state of gay neighborhoods was discussed at a recent GLBT Historical Society forum, with speakers pointing out that future development projects could significantly change San Francisco's Castro District.

The historical society's third forum in the series, "Queer in the City: GLBT Neighborhoods and Urban Planning. The last one is planned for March 27.

The series "emerges amidst an upsurge of dialogue about the potentially imperiled future of the Castro as a GLBT neighborhood and global destination," according to the historical society's Web site. "Major redevelopment plans are being put into motion that may profoundly alter the Castro's demography and cultural landscape in ways that could both benefit the community and, potentially, threaten it."

The February 27 forum, "What Makes Neighborhoods Queer?" featured Dawn Philips, an East Bay activist for people of color and housing rights; Don Reuter, who is developing a book on the rise and imperilment of U.S. gay neighborhoods; and Gayle Rubin, feminist scholar and University of Michigan anthropology professor.

Don Romesburg, historical society board co-chair, facilitated the discussion. He explained that the newly formed Castro Coalition was co-sponsoring the event. The coalition was formed in August to discuss the growing redevelopment that has begun on Castro and Market streets and to "ensure that GLBT neighborhood issues lead 'community improvement.'"

Members have discovered the transformation and disappearance of gay neighborhoods around the country, "a story about traditional gay and lesbian neighborhoods that have surfaced and then disappeared [due to] redevelopment É all over the country and in fact beyond the United States," said Romesburg.

Reuter spoke about 12 cities with gay neighborhoods he is researching for his new book about the history of gay neighborhoods and the common survival challenges each faces.

He explained that, historically, the rise of gay neighborhoods has occurred because of things such as affordable housing, accessibility via public transportation, institutes of higher learning, opportunities for leading a "secret" or "hidden" life. and abandonment by middle-class white heterosexuals with families. The cities Reuter is studying are: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, New Orleans, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco.

Today, each city's gay neighborhoods are undergoing transformation.

"The bliss of our golden age could not last forever," he said. "Soon, a few lifestyle-altering things happened. One, here in San Francisco, Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated and although it was a localized tragedy, the moral message under the surface was unquestioned. So, too, was the sentiment sent out nationwide when [Ronald] Reagan defeated [Jimmy] Carter [for the presidency] and the appearance of AIDS and HIV. What resulted in the wake of these events was a total neighborhood makeover. They went from dens of inequity to areas cleansed of the soil of sex."

Following these events, Reuter said, gay neighborhoods entered what he calls their "poster boy stage." Residents of gay neighborhoods tried to exude an image of the gay man as monogamous and non-threatening. By doing so, gay neighborhoods lost a lot of what made them havens for gay populations, such as the feeling of freedom to be oneself no matter what the straight world thinks.

Phillips spoke about global gentrification as well as gentrification on a local level, arguing that queer people have acted on both sides of the phenomenon.

"Part of our understanding of what gentrification is about is that it relates to a history of development and underdevelopment, which happens globally but it also happens within cities and within neighborhoods," he explained. "For a long time in this country, specific government policies and investment was put in the suburbs at the expense of urban areas."

"Gentrification is not just a housing problem É it's a set of policies that are being supported by the state and really actively pushed by capital to meet the goal of more profit," he said.

He spoke about former Oakland City Council member Danny Wan's 2004 plans to create a gay enclave in the Eastlake District in Oakland, explaining that one queer population wanted to create their idea of queer space. Their plans, however, only took a small group of peoples' ideas into account. Wan wanted to bring in bars, boutiques, and bookstores but wasn't thinking necessarily about working class queer people or queer people with children, for example, Phillips said.

The gay district never materialized.

Phillips also spoke about the ongoing attempted policing and displacement of young queer people of color from the Christopher Street Pier neighborhood in Manhattan.

Rubin discussed the history of San Francisco's South of Market District and early research on gay neighborhoods in San Francisco and Los Angeles. She also spoke about the collapse of some neighborhoods and the causes of these collapses. "If institutions É can't continue to draw on resources and consume them effectively, they are going to collapse, which has actually happened to a lot of our institutions over the last couple of decades."

"In a way, the question of what makes neighborhoods queer is a question of how queer populations manage to build social structures that can mobilize and utilize resources over time in some geographic area and when that begins to fall apart those areas tend to fall apart," Rubin said.

The last in the series, "Queer Neighborhoods of the Future," will take place on March 27 from 6 until 8:30 p.m. at the historical society, located at 657 Mission Street, Suite 300 in San Francisco. For more information, visit

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