A ferry ride away, Vallejo continues to attract SF gays
by Matthew S. Bajko
A 10-minute walk from Vallejo's ferry building lies the port city's Old Town area and hills dotted with renovated Victorian homes in the Heritage Home District. In early June the marquee of the restored Empress Theatre advertised a gay night out at the movies and screenings of the gay surfer film Shelter .
Blocks away from the movie house is gay dance club R Bar and the gay-owned tavern Town House. The landscape resembles San Francisco's Castro and Eureka Valley areas minus Twin Peaks looming overhead.
"My sense is we are a mini San Francisco. It is a very tolerant city, something like 64 percent are registered Democrats," said the Most Revered Lou A. Bordisso, the auxiliary bishop for the American Catholic Church's Diocese of California. "We have the same architectural styles in the Heritage and St. Vincent's Hill districts."
More than two decades ago gay couples began snapping up the run-down but structurally sound older homes, many built in the late 1800s to early 1900s, for less than $100,000. As word spread among LGBT people looking to buy a home but priced out of the Castro, many more gay people moved in and home prices surged. According to the Solano County Assessor's office, the median home price in 2006 was $445,000.
Compared to the million dollar price tags of Castro homes, Vallejo's housing prices are still a bargain. And if there were any doubts about the city being gay-friendly, they were erased after the November 2007 election when the town narrowly elected the Bay Area's first openly gay mayor, Gary Cloutier, albeit briefly, as a recount pushed him out of office a week after being sworn-in.
Even the recent news of Vallejo becoming the first California city to declare bankruptcy doesn't appear to have impacted the steady stream of LGBT people moving in, particularly to the recently decommissioned Mare Island Naval Shipyard. In July, several same-sex couples are planning a joint wedding ceremony inside the island's St. Peter Chapel.
Based on 2006 data, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are 3,475 unmarried partner households in Vallejo, whose population numbers more than 120,000. According to data from the secretary of state's office, as of February of this year, 194 same-sex couples in Vallejo had registered as domestic partners.
"There is more visibility of gay couples here in Vallejo than what one would normally expect in a town of this size," said Bordisso, who moved from Walnut Creek to Vallejo with his partner six years ago and recently bought a home on Mare Island. "As word gets around that it's a city that is warm, it's hospitable, and it's really friendly, we are seeing more and more gay and lesbian people moving in."
Four years ago Mark Reed and his partner of 15 years, Marco Villa, took over the Town House bar downtown. They moved to Vallejo 13 years ago from Pleasant Hill due to the city's cheap housing stock.
"The price of real estate brought me here," said Reed, who also works as a real estate agent. "What you would pay a million dollars for in the city you pay $300,000 for here in Vallejo."
Prices have remained relatively affordable due to the local school system's poor reputation, said Reed. Most young couples with kids choose to live elsewhere.
"For a gay person it is not a big concern. A large percentage of us don't have kids," said Reed. "It is an ideal location, just down the road from Napa, and we have a great casual carpool to the city here."
The main difference Reed finds between city life and living in Vallejo is that most of the city's LGBT population doesn't go out at night. When he first arrived in town, Reed met most of his friends during his commute by ferry to his job in the city.
"Most of the gay community comes here to nest," said Reed. "Most people still work in the city and just commute home. It is a shame because there are a lot of neat people here in Vallejo."
Vallejo's LGBT residents have resorted to meeting one another online through the Web site of the Vallejo Gay Network. Its annual picnic in the park, now in its 10th year, is a high point of the social calendar.
"It's our version of San Francisco's Gay Pride Parade and festival," said Bordisso, who unsuccessfully ran for city council last year and may run again in 2009.
Rick Duran, who now runs the Vallejo Gay Network, said the group started in 1998 with a barbeque event among neighbors of the same residential block. Today it hosts monthly potlucks, in addition to the yearly picnic, and boasts an e-mail list of 500 people.
"The average potluck gets 30 to 70 people. We have them in member's homes or business," said Duran, who moved to town with his partner of 23 years, Richard Johnson, a decade ago from San Francisco.
Initially the men thought they would only invest in property in Vallejo. But shortly after buying a fixer-upper in the Heritage Home District they changed plans and moved out of the city.
"After two months of being here, we had met more people in the gay and lesbian community here than we ever did in our old neighborhood in Hayes Valley where we lived for six years. Real friendships were being struck up," said Duran. "We gave up on the idea of moving back to the city and invested in Vallejo. We have three other properties in Vallejo besides our house."
Unlike in more urban gay centers, where people are more apt to connect through a gay bar or gay organization, in Vallejo people bump into each other around town, said Duran.
"Vallejo in many respects is very much a small town," said Duran. "We have two gay bars here in town but most of the gay people kind of meet each other by word of mouth. You will run into someone at Home Depot or the farmer's market. The Saturday farmer's market is a great social place."
This August the Georgia Street Grill will mark its third year in business in the Old Town section. The eatery, owned by Vallejo natives Debbie and Dan Rojas, sports a rainbow-colored sticker on its front door and has become a gathering spot for the local LGBT community. Debbie Rojas said she affixed the gay pride marker to her restaurant's entrance shortly after opening in 2005.
"We have a fairly significant gay community here. I had heard of them not being welcome in some places elsewhere in town and I wanted to make sure they knew they were welcome here," said Rojas, who is now fielding requests from her gay customers to cater their weddings.
The sticker, she said, "definitely helps" attract business.
"There are a lot of straight people who don't know what it means so it doesn't hurt either," she said.
Having been born and raised in Vallejo, she said the influx of LGBT people has not been much of a surprise. Recently, she said she has seen more and more gay male couples coming in to eat with children.
"When property became so unaffordable in San Francisco, they came over here in droves and fixed up some of our Victorians," she said. "I think the bankruptcy has given us a new start. We will again be the most affordable place in the Bay Area."