San Francisco LGBTQs flock to Palm Springs
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With an hour-plus commute to his executive assistant job at a tech company on the Peninsula, Chuck Gutro was longing to eliminate the time on the road.
But when the city shut down in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gutro (known to many by his drag name, Mutha Chucka) realized he really didn't want to stay cooped up in his San Francisco walkup, where he'd already spent a year recovering from a bout of cardiomyopathy.
The 59-year-old gay man, who had a regular gig at the Midnight Sun, realized that with funds from stock options, he could afford a home in either the Palm Springs area or Sacramento.
He spent time in both and, last year, chose the former.
"I decided it was time to cut bait," he said, and leave his home of several decades.
Gutro found a single family home with a pool in nearby Cathedral City with a mortgage payment "that is less than my rent for a 700 square foot apartment," he said in a phone interview earlier this month.
"I love it down here," he said. "I've lost 50 pounds and my blood pressure dropped." He adopted a rescue dog, which he was unable to do at his San Francisco rental.
"Yes, I miss my friends," he said, "but I'll be back for Pride" this year. "And [longtime friend and fellow drag performer] Heklina is practically my neighbor. It feels like home.
"I usually work outside in the morning until it gets too hot — my days start very early here — the dog gets me up at 5 and we go for a walk and I'm usually in front of the laptop by 7 a.m., working on my day job or digital drag content," he added. When it was cooler outside, he said, "I could be out there through lunch and into the afternoon."
Gutro doesn't miss the city other than his friends and the nightlife: "The magic of living in San Francisco," he lamented, has disappeared.
Others made the decision to move long before the pandemic hit.
David Wichman, a gay man, had lived in San Francisco "most of the time between 1987 to 2012" when he moved to Palm Springs. In the city, Wichman was a sex worker and dog walker as well as a prolific writer, he said.
Priced out of the housing market in San Francisco, Wichman, 52, moved to Palm Springs after two boyfriends encouraged him to rent a room in their house. Finding that he "loved the weather" and wanted to stay, Wichman bought a home and continued his writing, publishing "Every Grain of Sand" in 2020. He's now working on a self-help book on men's sexuality.
In Palm Springs, Wichman works as a massage therapist and, now that travel is possible, is returning to his previous work doing international adventure trips with gay men.
He owns three dogs, has a swimming pool, and "finds I'm happy with what I have, not always striving for more," like he did as a tenant in San Francisco.
When he returns to the city now, he said, "each time, I realize I miss it less and less."
"I used to think San Francisco would be my home forever," he said. "I came to Palm Springs on a whim and a chance and didn't know if it would last two months — or maybe two years at most — but I feel so at home here now."
Women moving South too
Queer women are moving too, although apparently not at the same rate as gay men.
Jeanne Jennings, 60, who identifies as gender-fluid, packed her bags four years ago after living at San Francisco's Integral Yoga Institute, where she also taught yoga.
Jennings, a registered nurse who worked in hospice care for decades, made a career change to a less stressful job, doing medical pedicures at home for elderly people.
One of the first to establish such a business in San Francisco, Jennings observed many seniors — including her mom — who had difficulty keeping up their foot care.
After a rigorous study program she designed with the help of medical professionals, Jennings' business, Lotus Foot Care, grew as she networked with health professionals and regularly updated her online presence.
When she decided to make the move to Palm Springs, Jennings opted to return to the city monthly to care for her clients, while her practice down south grew. The plan "has worked really well," said Jennings, who says her phone "is ringing seven days a week" with people seeking appointments.
"I like the pace in Palm Springs," said Jennings, who rents a room in a friend's condo. "In San Francisco, I always felt like I was unable to do enough. I realize I work best in second gear."
She's still in love, Jennings added, with "San Francisco's 55- to 75-degree climate," as Palm Springs has "100 days over 100 degrees." Despite the heat, "there's a feeling of relaxation" in Palm Springs, said Jennings, who enjoys the local LGBTQ entertainment and recently began an informal yoga class in a park near her home.
Pandemic killed SF biz
For Arlen Lasater, the longtime owner of Daddy's Barbershop at 19th and Castro streets in San Francisco, "the pandemic killed my business," he said, as the B.A.R. recently reported.
Once the shop was able to reopen, customers came back slowly, he said. But as demand increased, Lasater found he was unable to find barbers who wanted to work. The shop that had three-hour waits on weekends, prior to the pandemic, was practically empty.
Three years ago, Lasater, a gay man, opened a Daddy's in downtown Palm Springs, visiting once a month. When Lasater couldn't find employees for the Castro shop, he decided it was time to close up and move permanently to Palm Springs, where his shop has eight chairs that are "busy seven days a week," he said.
When Lasater announced the closure of the San Francisco Daddy's on Facebook, the response was "overwhelming," he said. "It brings tears to my eyes. I got over 200 messages from people from all over the world who had visited us.
"Who knows? Maybe I'll be back in San Francisco someday in another shop," he added. "But I was really glad I was able to come down here permanently because for me, San Francisco became impossible."
Until recently, Lasater said Palm Springs was "dead after Memorial Day" when the heat became unbearable for part-time residents. But during the pandemic, gay men from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix came to Palm Springs, and many, like Lasater, have become year-round residents.
"There's a gigantic gay community" in Palm Springs, he said. "Once I get back on track, my plan is to get involved with the community to do volunteer work. Right now I have a lot of work ahead of me, clearing out the shop and moving equipment down here."
William (Bill) Vastardis, 65, who worked in financial services and invested in restaurants in San Francisco, wanted to retire in 2016.
"But my phone kept ringing with consulting jobs," he said.
Vastardis, who is gay, had purchased a vacation home in Palm Springs, where he visited occasionally and, in 2017, he and his partner bought a bar, Chill, which he still owns. Now about to open another business, a supper club with entertainment, Vastardis said he "would not even consider" moving back to San Francisco.
"I used to think it was the most beautiful city in the world but now I see it as second rate. The politicians ran it into the ground," apparently unwilling to come up with solutions to the problem of homelessness, Vastardis said.
"It's as hot as hell — 115 degrees today — but you get used to it. It's also beautiful in the winter," he said of Palm Springs. "The economy is booming here. Housing prices are starting to climb. So much for my idea about retirement. I'm busier than ever now."
Travis Ginnett, 67, grew up on Santa Catalina Island and lived in San Francisco for 30 years, where he worked in training in the hospitality and travel business. He "seriously considered" leaving San Francisco for several years but he "just didn't know where" he wanted to go.
Ginnett, a gay man, visited Palm Springs, which he liked, and decided to move there. "It was one of the best decisions I'd ever made," he wrote in an email to the B.A.R.
Immediately, Ginnett upgraded his living situation from "a small one-bedroom" to a mid-century modern single family home.
"I'd never move back to San Francisco and only a remote chance I'd move anywhere. Palm Springs is my home now," he said.
There's much he likes about the area. "The weather, the desert environment, the cool mid-century architecture, the openness and freedom of the 'gay lifestyle' here, the city's progressive politics, and the close proximity to nearby cities," he said.
While Ginnett had loved San Francisco "and all the things that came with city living," he missed "having summers," and was fed up with "the high cost of living, the overcrowding and homelessness, and the sad reality that over the years, the whole feeling of the city changed for me with the influx of high-tech workers, the fact that neighborhoods such as the Castro lost their uniqueness."
Hot real estate market
Realtors confirmed the boom in Palm Springs.
Carl Borey, 56, has been selling real estate in Palm Springs for six years, after living in Massachusetts and Florida. He estimates that 90% of his clients are LGBTQ.
"We don't have predominantly gay neighborhoods," Borey, a gay man, said, "It feels like almost every neighborhood has many gays living there."
He's sold properties to former San Franciscans. "I check back with clients from time to time and those from San Francisco still love it here," he said. "Actually, I've only met one person who said they hated it here — but it had to do with his love life." The man moved to Austin, Texas, he said.
At the beginning of COVID, Borey and his partner opened a new real estate brokerage firm, Platinum Star Properties. "People thought we were crazy but we wanted to create a brick-and-mortar business with a mission of giving back to the communities we serve," he said. "We now have 11 agents on our team and our business continues to grow. We are very happy with our decision."
In Palm Springs, "the people are friendly, the weather is great most of the year, and there is a real sense of community here that is welcoming, unlike other places I have lived," he stated in an email to the B.A.R.
"The median price for a detached home in [Riverside] County is $580,000 and you can get a really great home with a pool and a yard," Borey stated. "It can take a little longer to find the perfect home because inventory is very low. On June 1, there were less than 700 properties for sale, compared to the prior year when there were almost 2,800."
Palm Springs is in Riverside County, along with other areas frequented by LGBTQs such as Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage. San Francisco real estate agent Joe Marko, 55, with Compass Properties, confirmed the trend.
"Nobody I know who has moved there has come back," he wrote in an email.
"I think Palm Springs has built a pretty active [gay] community and the people I know that moved there from SF love it more than they even thought," Marko, a gay man, added. "I think they found a 'scene' not centered around the 20-30 crowd, a place for older people to be social without being reminded how freaking old we are.
"I have to say the first time I went there I was pessimistic on what I would think about it; I hate hot weather and I think the dessert is just a pile of unattractive dirt, but I actually liked it," Marko stated. "Not sure if I see myself ever living there, but as more and more friends call it home, I guess it's more of an option than I ever thought. Prices however have gone up significantly. Maybe the influx of cash-heavy SF people had an effect on values or it's just becoming a year-round destination."
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