Where goes the gayborhood?
If you are gay or lesbian or transgendered, odds are you have looked for the “gayborhood” in many cities where you traveled. The gayborhood was the place where people like us found each other and celebrated our LGBT culture. It was a cozy place where we knew we were among our own, a place we could feel truly accepted.
Years ago, while building my company, YMLA, from nothing to something, I traveled across the country in search of the gayborhoods. Up and down the Castro in San Francisco there was one gay-owned boutique after another. West Hollywood was home to International Male, All American Boy, NY Jock, Sporting Club and many more. Then there were famous gay neighborhoods such as Halsted Street in Chicago, Dupont Circle in Washington D.C., Seventh Street in Philadelphia, Cedar Springs in Dallas, Duvall Street in Key West, Lincoln Road in Miami and Piedmont in Atlanta. When my travels took me overseas I was intrigued to find the gayborhoods in Paris and Seoul, in Montreal and Taiwan (where the gayborhood was underground in the basement of an old warehouse). Of course in New York City there was Christopher Street, the most famous gayborhood in the world, and the first authentic gayborhood in America.
Today gay boutiques in those neighborhoods are hard to find. A stroll down New York City’s Christopher Street says it all — the gayborhood has moved. First it moved up to Chelsea, and now it’s in Hell’s Kitchen. It seems like we are always on the run for something affordable. We build communities with a cool gay vibe, and people from all over come to visit us, intrigued by our lifestyle. Eventually, new money pours in, and the gayborhood becomes the “gay-friendly” neighborhood.
The decline of the gayborhood also is happening, in part, because some things have changed for the better. When I grew up it was a far-fetched if not impossible dream that two guys ever would be able to marry. When I hear a friend introduce her girlfriend as her wife, it still makes me tingle. Now our culture is everywhere, and it’s no longer unusual to meet a pre-school girl with two mommies, or to see two daddies standing tall at their son’s graduation.
I think of all the changes in our own West Hollywood gayborhood. What once was unique about our local gayborhood has changed. It seems New York City has moved in, bringing Gym Bar, Flaming Saddles and Here Lounge. Gone are the Palm and every other business catering to lesbians. New faces and corporations have taken the place of gay-owned and -operated businesses. For example, P.U.M.P. and Flaming Saddles in Boystown are owned and operated by gay-friendly straight women. SBE, whose founder, Sam Nazarian, is straight, has gobbled up The Abbey. Gone are the Scott Forbes’s and Richard Grossi’s. Today the Boystown scene is a TV set with paparazzi swarming our gayborhood every day.
As the owner of the Block Party, “the gayest store on earth” (that sign that we placed up for Pride has tourists stopping to snap photos), I’ve seen the changes first hand. The go go boys have almost disappeared, and we have had to widen the store aisles for strollers. One time this guy from Minnesota came into my store, bought a couple of pairs of shorts and tank tops, and asked the hot girl (a lesbian) at my cash register: “Where is the sports bar?” My very pretty cashier pointed down the block to Gym Bar. Twenty minutes later the guy returned, saying: “that’s a gay bar!” Then he lifted up his bag of clothes and asked, “are these clothes gay too?” I was in the background laughing. “Hey dude,” I said, “go up to Saddle Ranch and have a blast.”
Then there was this group of eight tourists from the Far East who walked in with cameras on a slow Sunday morning asking “Where are the gays?” And their translator said again, “Where are the gays?” I looked up and said, “Look around, We’re everywhere! ” These people were coming to the gayborhood as if it were a zoo, and the gays were the attraction.
In the old days the thought of a wacky, tacky, fun, gay and affordable store in the middle of the gayborhood made sense. But Boystown is slowly changing day by day. There’s a paradigm shift in the demographic. There are as many hot woman as hot guys in the neighborhood during the day.
So it’s time for a change. Our five-year lease at Block Party is up. I’ve loved these years – open seven days a week till 2 a.m. and every single holiday, with the payoff for me being a life at the center of our LGBT community. But it’s increasingly hard to pay the rent (and our new rent is skyrocketing). So the “gayest store on earth” is going to have to re-invent itself to stay alive. Coming soon will be a new idea — a pop-up shop for men and women, straights and gays — a shared economy retail space with vendors as partners
But while the gayborhood has changed, the dream behind it still lives on in West Hollywood. If you have any question as to who we are, or where we live, or where the gayborhood has gone, take a ride down Santa Monica Blvd and glance at our new rainbow flag on top of City Hall. That flag says to all, “You’re welcome here,” to West Hollywood, the biggest gayborhood in the world.