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When it comes to rejuvenation, what can Toronto learn from other gay-friendly cities?

Credit: Illustration by Paul Dotey

As Toronto prepares to host WorldPride in 2014, Xtra takes a closer look at what makes a gay village. In the final article in a five-part series, Kaj Hasselriis explores what makes other gaybourhoods tick.

Last summer I went to London for the 2012 Olympics and met up with my old friend Aly. After a day spent wandering the parks and riding the tube, inhaling the energy of an international event, there was only one place I wanted to end the night: the city’s gay village. No matter what big city I visit, I’m always drawn to the land of my people.

Aly and I strolled down the cobblestone streets of Soho, stopped in at a cupcake shop to admire the treats (including a hot Brit behind the counter) and then settled into a bustling, noisy restaurant called Princi Pizzeria. A long counter right along the window where we could chew on gourmet pizza and check out the street scene instantly attracted us to the place. Also attractive: the twink I found myself sitting next to, a charming Mexican grad student named Gabriel.

Aly’s Hungarian friend Helena joined us and, pretty soon, we were a chatting, laughing foursome. After dinner we wandered in and out of stores and stopped for gelati. Eventually, Gabriel and I ended the night at a gay bar. As gay villages go, Soho was my idea of a good time. I easily met a cute boy, enjoyed a delicious meal and partied with my tribe.

But the gay villages we visit for one night and the gay villages where we live and work are often two totally different places. Soho has gentrified over the years, and the whole neighbourhood has an upper-class atmosphere that makes it feel a little too exclusive. The guys on the street, not to mention their straight friends, look like they just got home from a day of insider trading. Many of London’s gay pioneers have moved on and established other queer-ish neighbourhoods that are less touristy and more livable.

Now, if you’re reading this at Church and Wellesley while sipping a low-grade, brand-name latte and thinking, “I wish this were a posh neighbourhood like Soho,” you’re probably not alone. But if you’re a Village shopkeeper, you might be relieved that London’s exorbitantly high rents haven’t taken over our strip (yet). Or perhaps you’re thinking about Gabriel the cute Mexican and reminiscing about a time when you could strike up a conversation on Church Street with an under-25 sans smartphone.

Toronto’s beleaguered gay village has haters, lovers and everyone in between. We’re a city that constantly frets about how we compare to others, and that includes other people’s gay villages. But how are those other Church and Wellesleys really doing – and what can we learn from how they’re evolving?

The other day, I called up an old friend, Deborah Kelly. She’s an artist in Sydney, Australia, who’s currently raising eyebrows with a series of paintings that depict queer immaculate conceptions. Kelly is one of the most creative, insightful people I know. When I first met her, she was visiting my hometown of Winnipeg at the same time as activists in the city began protesting a plan to demolish our historic Eaton’s building to build a hockey arena. Kelly gathered with local artists, asked one simple question – “What is that black thing that hockey players pass to each other?” – and quickly came up with the rallying cry for the movement: “Get the puck out of Eaton’s!"

Earlier this year, Sydney celebrated its 35th Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and, shortly after, I called Kelly to ask about the state of the city’s gay village. She was still reeling with excitement about a different march, to protest police brutality against a couple of Mardi Gras partygoers. “We had an absolutely fantastic demonstration,” she said. A thousand people had shown up, she said – the largest non-parade crowd she’s seen in Taylor Square, the heart of gay Sydney, in ages.

Kelly was relieved that Oxford Street could still muster up a gay demo on short notice. For years, the gayness of the strip has been fading away, mostly due to high rents that are putting independent shops out of business and leaving low-income gays scrambling for affordable housing. “There’s an unbelievable breed of landlord here,” Kelly said. “You have to pay an enormous amount of disposable income just to find somewhere to live."

Fortunately, Sydney’s gays and lesbians have something Torontonians (at the moment, anyway) can only wish for: “We have a very, very pro-queer and quite wonderful mayor named Clover Moore,” she said. “We love her.” Under Mayor Moore’s leadership, the city has made it a priority to keep Oxford Street gay by renting out its public buildings in the neighbourhood, at below-market rates, to queer non-profits.

Kelly also told me that Sydney is investing in cultural infrastructure. Public art is now flourishing, she said, including on Oxford Street, where the latest thing to catch everyone’s attention is a rainbow-painted crosswalk. “Every time you cross, it makes you feel like an epic character in history,” Deborah said. “You feel really happy."

The other piece of art that’s making Kelly happy is a giant mural on the side of an empty building right on Taylor Square. It’s by an aboriginal artist named Rico Rennie and includes this proclamation: “Always was, always will be.” It’s supposed to be a statement about aboriginals’ right to land, Kelly said, “but you could think it was claiming Taylor Square as the permanent home of the gay community."

If Sydney’s Oxford Street is the gay mecca for Australia, San Francisco’s Castro District remains the queer Shangri-la of North America. I don’t know anyone in the City by the Bay, so I did a Google search for the one thing I expect to find in any gay village, a queer community centre. The next thing I knew I was talking to executive director Rebecca Rolfe. “We just had our annual fundraiser the other night,” she bragged. Rebecca reported that 1,000 people paid $95 to $125 each for a gay soirée that raised almost one-fifth of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center’s $2 million annual operating budget. (Toronto’s 519 Community Centre’s annual budget is similar, but it counts on much more public money.)

Rolfe couldn’t talk long, but she immediately suggested someone else. “You should talk to Eugénie!” she said. “She’s from Canada!” Rolfe’s second-in-command is Eugénie Fitzgerald, a Mississauga girl who told me that she used to schlep drinks as a cocktail waitress at Buddies in Bad Times. As director of economic development, she’s in charge of micro-loan initiatives, trans employment services, a first-time home buyers’ program and plenty of other community services. Fitzgerald also sits in on meetings of the local neighbourhood association and says that’s where she feels the political pulse of the community. “That is a place to hear some colourful conversations, let me tell you,” she said. One of the most recent debates was about whether to continue letting people go nude in public. Now that the area is gentrifying and baby strollers are rolling in, the voices of new parents (including gay moms and dads) are getting louder.

Fitzgerald said the village council’s instinct is to embrace the gay. “The Castro remains a place for fun, freaky freedom,” she said. Merchants tried to work their way around the bare facts of their latest debate by suggesting that nudists put something between their butts and their seats whenever they sit down. “The twists and turns of our conversations are fascinating,” Fitzgerald said. “The way we wiggle around the issues speaks to wanting to have balance.” According to her, the face of San Francisco’s village may be changing, but most people still want to “keep queer culture alive."

About 4,000 kilometres away, in Montreal, keeping queer culture alive in the city’s gay village means bringing out the pink balls. Every summer since 2008, traffic along Rue Sainte-Catherine (Canada’s longest gay strip) has been eliminated so that businesses can decorate the neighbourhood and extend their patios right into the middle of the road. For the last couple of years, the decorative pièce de résistance has been a canopy of 170,000 little pink balls, all strung together over the street.

One of Montreal’s newest and most celebrated residents, Daniel Barrow, loves the summer-long block party. “It’s cattle-packed every weekend until 4am,” Barrow told me when I gave him a call. “You can pace back and forth all night. No one can bear to miss even a second of the action."

An award-winning artist who places disturbing drawings on an overhead projector to tell stories of sex and longing, Barrow moved from Winnipeg to Montreal three years ago. He bought a walk-up condo in the heart of the village, right around the corner from Sainte-Catherine. “I like it because almost every business is a gay business,” he said. “It’s quaint. Everyone in the pharmacy is gay. Even if it’s a jean business, it’s tailor-made for gay men.” Barrow travels frequently to art shows and galleries around the world and feels that Montreal is one of the last gay villages to remain truly gay. He loves going to old-school neighbourhood haunts like Bar Relax, “an old man’s gay cavern with stinky clients and their boy-toys."

Montreal’s village remains affordable, too. “It’s incredibly cheap,” said Barrow, who lives alone in a spacious two-bedroom. The area has gotten a reputation for being dodgy, but Barrow said it’s overblown. “In my opinion that’s falsely attributed. Drug addicts rummage through the garbage, but that happens everywhere."

Perhaps because it’s considered a little too dodgy or a little too cheap or a little too gay, Barrow admits that, for many, the village is no longer thought of as a cool destination, except for see-and-be-seen patio season. “It’s weird for me to tell other gay people that I live in the village,” he said. Often, he gets reactions like “Oh god, I never go there!"

"That irritates me. My love of the village is partly a reaction to the strange hipster disdain of it."

The hipster disdain that confronts Barrow in Montreal sounds familiar to something described by Toronto’s Shawn Micallef, the urban commentator and Toronto Star columnist who helped launch Spacing magazine and wrote a book of local walking tours called Stroll. “It’s been a long time since the cool kids hung out on Church Street,” said Micallef, who I met a few weeks ago through a mutual friend. “I’m not sure if it’s internalized homophobia or plain old snobbiness.” Whatever it is, Micallef doesn’t care. He’s lived in Toronto’s gay village for two years and compares it extremely favourably to queer communities like Chicago’s Boystown ("not a critical mass of people"), New York’s Chelsea district ("there’s not the same sense of it as a centre"), London, England ("it’s breaking off into nodes") and Berlin, which he thinks doesn’t even really have a gay village. The only village Micallef automatically thinks of as a rival to Church Street is the Castro. “It possibly beats Toronto in terms of gay density,” he said.

What impresses Micallef the most about Church Street is its 24/7 vibe. By day, the sidewalks are filled with people buying hardware and flowers. By night, out come the barhoppers. He also sees it as one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. “There’s a range of people who pour out onto the street,” he said. “The sidewalks reflect the whole city much more than the hot hipster neighbourhoods.” Micallef likes the class diversity, too. “There’s public housing next door to rather expensive condos,” he said, and a bar for every budget.

Finally, after surveying Micallef and the others, I logged on to Facebook and found Gabriel Zepeda, the cute Mexican grad student I met last summer in London. We started chatting and he told me all about La Zona Rosa, Mexico City’s pink zone, which he said is getting gayer and busier all the time. “It’s very diverse and affordable, and you can see couples holding hands or kissing,” he reported. “A good thing about the gay zone is that it’s very close to a business area, so guys go out of the office any day of the week and go and have drinks."

Zepeda didn’t just chat about Mexico City, though. He had just made a St Patrick’s Day trip to Chicago with his American boyfriend, so I asked for his assessment of Boystown. That’s when he reminded me of the secret to any gay village’s success.

"Gays are gays anywhere,” he typed. “You have all the labels: the older, the younger, bears, cubs, a few silver foxes, muscly guys, horny guys, drunk guys, flamboyant guys, people that think they’re great dancers (and actually aren’t), couples making out without inhibitions."

Then, without any prompting, Zepeda rated the locals. “Chicago guys are cute,” he typed. “Maybe not as hot as Londoners, but certainly more hot than Mexicans!"

That comment made me LOL. I had spent so much time interviewing people about high-minded issues like gentrification, arts and affordability that I almost lost sight of what most gays and lesbians really look for in a gay village. It’s the same thing I was looking for the night I met Zepeda in London: a cute companion. And like Zepeda, we always think the gays (like their gay villages) are hotter somewhere else.

Check out the first four parts of Xtra’s five-part Village series:

Village no more

The social media revolution

The gay village as ethnic enclave

The changing face of the gay village