From "gay neighborhoods" to "gay regions," how LGBTQ community spaces are changing - Marketplace (2024)

Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

It’s pride month, when festivals and parades take place around the globe often in so-called “gayborhoods” or “gay neighborhoods,” a sort of catch all term for LGBTQ+ communities. Think West Hollywood in LA, the Castro in San Francisco, Northalsted in Chicago, or the West Village in New York City.

Gay neighborhoods are spaces – often in major cities – where LGBTQ+ people across the rainbow umbrella often congregate for safety and community, but a lot of those neighborhoods have gentrified, some even face hyper-gentrification, pushing residents out.

The economics behind the transition we’re seeing in gay neighborhoods prompts an important question – are these historic neighborhoods fading away?

For more on the history and current state of gay neighborhoods, “Marketplace Morning Report” host, Nova Safo, turned to Alex Bitterman, who teaches urban design at the State University of New York and researches the past and current evolution of gay neighborhoods. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation:

Nova Safo: To start off, help us understand what gay neighborhoods are and their cultural significance, how they came to be?


Alex Bitterman: In the second half really of the 20th century, LGBTQ people flocked to post industrial, sort of forgotten spaces in large cities across America, and as industry sort of pulled out of these spaces that left behind large residual buildings where gay residents typically set up shop, literatively, figuratively, primarily to avoid persecution by the police or harassment by the police, and also to sort of escape the judgmental eye of a heteronormative society. And most of the gayborhoods that sort of emerged after World War II, they sort of emerged in large cities, Boston, New York, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco – coastal cities. So people from the center of the country sort of moved from rural areas or more rural states to these sort of central locations.


Safo: It’s been certainly decades since World War II and I’m wondering how you’d describe the change in those neighborhoods, from forgotten places to I think we can safely say very, very bustling, well known places.


Bitterman: They are very well known now. And it’s interesting because as different challenges presented to LGBTQ people – for instance, the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s – helped to sort of give rise to gay neighborhoods as they became the epicenter of the fight and the struggle, not just for civil rights or for the rights of good health care, but for very basic human rights. So in a lot of ways, these gay neighborhoods were doing the work that our government couldn’t or wouldn’t do, and now some of these neighborhoods have evolved – so places like the South End in Boston or West Hollywood in Los Angeles or Dupont Circle in D.C. – and have become some of the most valued areas of the cities in terms of real estate and really the demand for inclusive and very high quality communities.


Safo: Is that because of the broader trends of gentrification and affordable housing shortages, etc. that all cities are seeing broadly? Or is there a more specific reason for gay neighborhoods in terms of their hyper-gentrification?


Bitterman: Really ultimately, LGBTQ people, as we moved into these neighborhoods, put in a lot of blood, a lot of sweat, a lot of tears, to build these neighborhoods and to make them places where we felt safe, and as heteronormative people became visitors to these spaces more and more, what we found is that they, too, wanted to live in safe, happy communities, and that helped to sort of hyper, hyper gentrify, if you will, the real estate values in some of these neighborhoods, and unfortunately, that priced a lot of people out of these neighborhoods. However, the interesting thing is, the sort of ripple effect of that has had interesting ramifications, both for our research as well as for the LGBTQ people that have been pushed out of these neighborhoods.


Safo: Don’t leave us in suspense. What are those ripple effects?


Bitterman: Those ripple effects are actually very exciting, because using the same template that gay neighborhoods were sort of forged through when LGBTQ pioneers in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and into the ’80s developed these marginal, liminal spaces in American cities. Now what we’re seeing is LGBTQ people that are moving away from cities and reclaiming some of the disused, or in some cases abandoned, rural and suburban spaces. So what we’ve begun to see, especially fueled after the COVID pandemic, is a push towards sort of an LGBTQ or a gay regionalism. So instead of just being one neighborhood in a city, what we’re seeing is small communities in suburban or rural areas just outside of cities that are helping to serve multiple metropolitan areas and help to link LGBTQ people across various regions together. So what we’re starting to see, particularly a good example is the Hudson Valley in New York. And during COVID, lots of LGBTQ entrepreneurs left New York, left Boston and moved into that area to set up businesses. And now what we’re just starting to see is the beginning of sort of an LGBTQ region that stretches, really, from Boston down through P [Provincetown] town into the Hudson Valley, through New York, through Philadelphia and into DC. And that’s what we believe, what we’re tracking in terms of our research, we believe that to be the first in the world.


Safo: Wow, that’s very fascinating. Does this kind of regionalism of gay culture differ greatly from the previous kind of urban centralism? How would you characterize the change?


Bitterman: It is quite different, and that mirrors sort of the social change and social acceptance among heteronormative society of LGBTQ people. So originally, gay neighborhoods formed in cities in a way that were focused around shelter and shared interest. And as LGBTQ people were permitted to become married, adopt children, the values of the LGBTQ community changed. And now we’re looking for things like neighborhoods and good health care and playgrounds for our children. And that’s a little bit different than the more traditional gay neighborhoods that we might think about 50 or 60 years ago, that were lots of gay and lesbian bars and maybe a restaurant or two and some sort of seedy shop that might be included. So they have changed in character. They’ve spread out in terms of space, and they tend to be more inclusive and more welcoming. And heteronormative families and people feel, I think, equally as comfortable there, or at least that’s what we’re finding in our research.

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From "gay neighborhoods" to "gay regions," how LGBTQ community spaces are changing - Marketplace (2024)

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