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18 min

Is the gaybourhood unravelling?

Besieged by soaring rents and beguiled by online community, North American gaybourhoods are in flux

GAYBOURHOOD TENSIONS. Several factors including new forms of online community, gentrification, soaring rents and the growing divide between rich and poor gays are contributing to the re-shaping of our physical queer communities. Credit: Brandon Gaukel photo

If US census data is any indication, the number of same-sex couples in uber-pricey San Francisco — where a cramped, dumpy studio on skid row is considered a bargain at $1,500 — dropped by about five percent in the first five years of this millennium.

Of course queers weren’t the only ones packing their bags.

But for every straight couple fleeing the city, more than twice as many queer couples made a beeline for the ‘burbs. Many of them set up housekeeping in San Jose, Berkeley and Oakland, whose gay populations jumped by 34, 14 and eight percent respectively.

Merchants too are feeling the pinch as rents go up and up. There has been a high turnover of Castro businesses in recent years.

But it’s not just San Francisco.

Gaybourhoods everywhere are changing.

In large cities across the United States, GLBT populations are shifting away from gay urban villages [GUVs] into the suburbs, the outskirts, and beyond.

Chicago’s gay community continues to move steadily north from its original location near the downtown core. And it costs a pretty penny to hang your hat in Chelsea and Greenwich Village, New York’s original gay enclaves.

Some folks have moved into still-iffy Hell’s Kitchen with their colour swatches in hand but you just know that a realtor will be at the door the minute the paint has dried. Others have headed to Brooklyn, following the artists, writers, musicians, performers and intellectuals who also contributed to lower Manhattan’s desirability, and also unwittingly priced themselves out of the place.

Seattle, Houston, Philadelphia, Atlanta: they’ve all experienced a drop in the number of gay people living close to the core.

The author of the recent book Greetings from the Gayborhood, which chronicles the history of GUVs in 12 US cities, points out that affordable accommodation, easy access to public transportation, the desire to get away from unsupportive families and the chance to live free of social stigma are all reasons that we congregated in neighbourhoods that no one else wanted and made them our own. That was, however, not their original attraction.

“Gay neighbourhoods evolved from the late ’70s and early ’80s when they were isolated, insular areas where mainly white guys went to have a good time. That’s who the village existed for,” Donald Reuter says by phone from his home in mid-town Manhattan. “I have yet to find one [GUV] where that wasn’t the case.”

Since then, the growth of gay neighbourhoods has been organic, Reuter says.

But now that we’ve gentrified our urban spaces, Reuter believes gay villages won’t be able to withstand the wrecking ball as developers increasingly look to the neighbourhoods we created as development hotspots.

He’s not alone.

Last May the health publication AIDS Care published a report entitled “Are Gay Communities Dying Or Just In Transition?” by BR Simon Rosser, William West and Richard Weinmeyer. It’s a synopsis of a study that looked at how and why gay communities are changing and the implications for HIV prevention planning.

HIV prevention experts, researchers, and gay community leaders attending the eighth AIDS Impact Conference in Marseille, France in July 2007 shared the data they had collected in surveys of 17 cities in 14 countries including one Canadian city, Toronto.

According to the report, the online gay community is now larger than the physical community. Gay populations in all cities are stable or growing but gay urban village populations seem to be in decline as people head for the ‘burbs.

The study reported an overall decrease in the number of gay bars and clubs, less attendance at gay events and shrinking volunteerism in gay or HIV/AIDS organizations.

Reasons cited include urban gentrification, newfound civil rights and social acceptability, a dynamic virtual community and changes in drug use.

The authors claim that our “assimilation” has led to a breakdown in “gay infrastructure, visibility, and community identification.”

The report suggests that another reason communities are going through a shakeup is the sense that there is a growing divide between poor and affluent gays. Plenty of us can’t afford the gaybourhood anymore.

Last year, at a talk for San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society, Reuter said urban gay communities are “unravelling.”

Are they really, or is that a premature prognosis? Maybe they’re just going through a mid-life crisis — and who’s to say what shape they’ll be in once the hot flashes settle?

What does all this mean to the gay community here in Vancouver? What does the future have in store for queer residents of the West End and non-residents who come downtown to enjoy the Davie St gaybourhood and share in its sense of Pride, place and belonging?

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“I don’t want to sound negative but when I was in Vancouver about a year and a half ago visiting the Davie Village I didn’t get a sense that much was going on,” says Reuter.

“My impression was of post-gay gentrification. There wasn’t much energy. Maybe it stands out [as gay] psychologically but not physically. It needs to be about where gay people live as well as work and play.”

His, of course, is an outsider’s perspective.

“I live here, I enjoy it, it’s part of the fabric of my life,” counters Dale Essar, a retired school teacher who has lived in the West End for almost 40 years and gives informal walking tours of Vancouver’s gay history.

We’re sitting on a bench in a charming parkette on a side street that slopes down the hill toward Sunset Beach.

“I’ve identified pathways [of Vancouver’s gay history] throughout the downtown core going back to the ’50s,” says Essar.  He’s mostly talking about bar culture and areas where sexual connections occurred.

“Part of my tour is about how things moved through darkness and nighttime to daytime and a multiplicity of places to go — to meet people, to see people, to be yourself.”

“That the Davie Village is now evolving is a positive thing, especially from the standpoint of safety and social cohesion.” says Richard Borbridge, who recently wrote a thesis paper, Sexuality and the City: Exploring gaybourhoods and the urban village form in Vancouver, BC. 

Still, he uses the word “tenuous” to describe the hood’s foothold in Vancouver these days. LGBT communities have no prior history of development and consequently no precedent. Traditionally we have been invisible transients occasionally visiting ever-shifting neighbourhoods far from prying eyes — neighbourhoods, as Reuter stated, that originally existed almost exclusively for gay men. Now, Borbridge writes, we must “reconcile the many-faceted needs of various communities within.”

 “My original intention was to examine the relationship of the gay village and city, and how one has an impact on the other,” he says.

Borbridge has a Masters in City Planning from the University of Manitoba and works as an urban designer with an architectural firm in downtown Vancouver. He lives in the West End.

“I’ve been interested in it for a long time because since I was an undergrad I’ve always been interested in marginalized spaces. Winnipeg has never had this kind of a cohesive gay neighbourhood. I’d move back if it did.”

Borbridge, 27, contradicts a recent US survey of younger gay men, 40 percent of whom said that they felt no connection to the gay community.

Whenever I mention the younger generation’s lack of community connection to men from my generation they immediately assume the reason is easy access to sex online, an assumption that seems to be borne out by studies like the one published in AIDS Care.

The most recent results of BC’s Sex Now survey suggest a similar trend. The study found the percentage of men who have sex with men hooking up online increased from 17 to 58 percent between 2002 and 2007. This coincides with an increase in riskier sex among men under 30, in part because it’s harder to do outreach online than in traditional meeting places like parks, bars and baths where “safe sex” campaigns once flourished.

 “Over the years there has been a noted decrease in community involvement and an increase in internet use,” says Phillip Banks of the Health Initiative for Men.

But Borbridge insists that he and his friends are “over” the internet, although he generally thinks it’s a positive force in the community.

It was great when they were coming out and wanted to get connected, he says. Now that they are connected, they prefer to get together in person to socialize and sexualize.

Similarly, the group Vancubz uses the internet to organize events and get-togethers in physical spaces. Vancubz was started by younger gay men as a social group for cubs, bears and their admirers and has grown exponentially into hundreds of local members of all types and ages.

“The internet has done the exact opposite of stopping us from connecting [with one another in person],” says Matt Allan, 32, one of the group’s early members.

“It’s made it easier for people who are afraid to come out, who don’t live in the city. We see so many new guys coming to their first [gay] event once they reach a comfort level.”

Clearly not everyone is using the internet as an alternative to gathering in community spaces.

Let’s not forget that the internet has proven invaluable for political organizing, community development and the dissemination of gay culture since it achieved widespread popularity in the mid-1990s. Gays were, after all, among the first to embrace BBS message postings. In many ways, it has since broadened the range and scope of discussion about gay rights, extending the voice — and visibility — of the gaybourhood worldwide.

Of course, new forms of online community are not the only changes and challenges potentially re-shaping our physical communities.

As Borbridge points out, the cultural and historical ties that have held our community together for decades in the Davie Village are now increasingly coming under siege from a variety of market forces as well.

Outside pressures made headlines this summer when the West End Business Improvement Association voiced its intention to take down the gaybourhood’s rainbow banners, then backtracked when the community voiced its outrage.

“Symbology of space becomes central to defining the village,” Borbridge says. “If you take them [symbols] away then the substance of community has the potential to dissolve.”

Add to that the compound threats of gentrification and soaring rents — plus the growing divide between rich and poor gays who can and can’t afford to live in the village — and the ties that bind the gaybourhood begin to show signs of tension.

“There is a sense that when you climb up the [socio-economic] ladder you don’t need the community anymore. You’re buying into a market instead of developing any kind of an identity of your own,” says Borbridge. “There’s also a bit more of a balkanization of the gay community. It used to be about human rights and now there’s a sense we don’t have to worry about it anymore.

“But the village is important for the people that need that space,” he maintains.

As part of his thesis research, Borbridge handed out digital cameras to several gay men and lesbians who live in the West End and asked them to go to Davie St and take pictures of whatever they thought was important. There were some photos of popular watering holes and quite a few of the rainbow banners. But the vast majority were of people.

“We flocked here in the ’60s and ’70s because you could find a peaceful life,” says Rob Joyce, sitting in his beautiful condo on Beach Avenue near Stanley Park, across the street from English Bay. He moved here from Newfoundland in 1975. Back then, an uncloseted life in Cornerbrook was not in the cards.

“Literally hundreds of us came out here [from Newfoundland] in the ’70s as the word spread. But we don’t own the village. Individuals and families come to the West End from all over the world for the same reason, to make a life for themselves. Most West End residents are actively pro-gay and the people who come here and don’t like it usually leave [for another neighbourhood] pretty quickly.”

Joyce is a successful West End realtor who has been a high-profile gay community activist, journalist and volunteer. In the ’70s he was a member of Gay Alliance for Equality, one of Vancouver’s earliest gay rights groups, and later the editor of Q, a defunct gay and lesbian publication.

“It’s getting very difficult to find anything,” says Joyce. “My advice as a realtor is to get your hands on a studio or anything because it is going to become like New York or San Francisco.”

Asked why, Joyce bluntly states that the reason is “pure greed.”

Last April he coordinated a forum with the West End Residents Association (WERA) to address growing concerns about the loss of affordable rental stock. Hundreds of concerned tenants attended.

Not only are developers and speculators cramming as many condos as they can onto the downtown skyline in adjacent Coal Harbour and Yaletown, they’re finding ways to “massage” density bylaws in the West End by striking deals with City Hall; concessions such as the inclusion of extra units of non-market housing can buy extra height, for example.

Joyce opposes any loosening of height and density restrictions.

“Right now we have a height restriction of 60 feet, about four or five stories. They’ve destroyed downtown with tall high-rises so now they’re looking at these older buildings [in the West End] to tear down and landlords are not being responsible; they’re letting them become dilapidated.”

It’s not so much that density is the problem, but the kind of density. Joyce thinks the quality of life provided by the West End’s many treed, low-rise streets could be lost and, literally, overshadowed. As well, when they replace those dilapidated apartment buildings, only a fraction of the original rental units will be replaced along with them.

Joyce believes that more community forums are needed. So does Alan Herbert.

According to the former city councillor, who has written extensively about Vancouver’s gay community, the City arbitrarily imposed height restrictions in 1983 without a clear reason why. He thinks the debate about density is clouded by confusion.

“We need focused public debate about density and what affordable housing actually means. And [we need to] increase supply for everyone from the down and out to the up and in,” he says by phone.

“Doesn’t it make more sense to tear down one of those large four or five storey apartment blocks and put in a slender tower?” asks Bob Rennie over cookies and coffee in a restaurant in the Hotel Vancouver. “There would be more units and it would cast less shadow.”

A homeboy who grew up in a lower middle-class family in East Vancouver, Rennie is a self-made success story. The so-called “king of condos” created the concept of condominium presales and exported it to the world. He’s also a generous supporter of the arts and various health and community groups. He lives with his partner near Granville Island.

He’s happy to talk about income disparities and affordable housing, and possible solutions.

“I think we should have streets where people with jobs walk alongside people without jobs,” says Rennie, whose company purportedly earns an average of $50,000 for every suite it sells. “We need development that will make the extreme edges go away: the drug dealers and elitists.

“When the trees fell in Stanley Park, people didn’t have any problem opening their wallets,” Rennie continues. “We need to put the same energy into doing something about the homeless. We need to stop taking baby steps. We need to relax zoning laws in favour of more density. Density is sustainable but there’s a resistance to density.”

He thinks the City should provide better incentives to encourage developers to build extra non-market units, and cap the profit from them at 10 percent. He suggests that for every three market units, there should be one non-market unit.

WERA thinks the ratio should be one for one. (“Where’s the money coming from?” Rennie writes back in response to my email presenting him with this information.)

According to WERA, more and more people in the West End are calling every day worried that they’ll be evicted. More than 80 percent of the people who live in the West End rent. The area’s vacancy rate is 0.2 percent and not expected to change in the near future.

When I checked out Vancouver rentals on Craigslist to see what was available over a 24-hour period, out of approximately 450 rental ads for the city at large, only 12 were for the West End. The average price for a modest one bedroom is $1,200. Buying one will set you back about $350,000.

Yet the West End has the second lowest median household income of all Vancouver neighbourhoods except for the downtown eastside.

Meanwhile, many landlords are raising the rent the moment someone moves out. I know of a place on Haro St, for example, where the price of a one bedroom jumps from $950 to almost $1,500 when someone leaves. I’ve been told time and time again by a number of people that this is happening across the ‘hood.

Some property owners have also found sneaky ways to get around the legislated yearly rent increase of 3.7 percent for continuing tenants. They evict tenants for cosmetic renovations and then almost double the unit’s rent for the next tenant.

Others are asking tenants to sign time-limited leases, rubbing their hands in anticipation of the Olympics. When the lease is up, the tenant must either move out or negotiate a new lease with an unrestricted rent increase.

WERA has a list of 17 buildings that have implemented or tried to implement mass evictions over the last couple of years. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard about seniors kicked out onto the street, three or four roommates shacking up in studios and one bedrooms to cut costs, and people renting someone’s living room. Even that’s not affordable for a growing number of GLBT people forced by the marketplace to leave the West End.

Michael Cowan works part-time at Little Sister’s bookstore and sees people come in all the time to check out the bulletin board for apartments in the West End

“Several people have come into the store the last few weeks dying for an apartment,” says Cowan. “One of these guys works for the Olympic committee. He’s moved here from Toronto and is spending $175 a night on a hotel room and can’t find any apartment. He wants to live in the West End because he’s queer.”

Cowan tells me about several people he knows who have been victims of mass evictions.

“Affordability is a big issue. You can’t work for $10 an hour and afford an apartment here. You need two or three jobs. It’s a struggle to pay the bills.”

And there’s little recourse for tenants, he points out.

BC is down to just three Residential Tenancy Branch offices, one in Burnaby, one in Victoria and one in Kelowna with limited services. “There used to be six,” says Cowan. “If you have an eviction notice and want to do something about it, you have to go way out of your way and know how to do it — and you’ll need to win a lottery to afford it. I expect higher rents, more condos and the Miami-zation of the West End.”

“It’s a catastrophe! All the trans people are moving to Surrey,” says Raigen D’Angelo.

D’angelo is a former sex trade worker and current president of the Trans Alliance Society. Priced out of the village, she and her husband bought an apartment above a liquor store on East Hastings by the PNE, not too far from my apartment near the Drive, where I moved from the West End last year. We’re chatting over coffee at a cheerful little coffee shop next to her place called The Laughing Bean.

“I love the West End because you see so many familiar faces when you go down the street. I curse the day we bought because I miss the West End,” she says.

In the early ’80s, D’Angelo escaped the horrors of small-town northern Alberta.

“There were no doctors or support services or community,” says D’Angelo. “When I came here I met a lot of trans women just like me. When trans people come out they lose family and friends — even in the gay community. The village has an infrastructure. I won’t go down Robson. I won’t go down Granville. If we lose the Davie Village, we lose a safe place to go.”

 “When I came here [in the late ’70s] you knew where to go: Davie St. But stay away from Granville and the Downtown Eastside,” echoes Chuck Lafferty, a youth and school support worker with the Urban Native Youth Association. (Like D’Angelo, he is speaking on his own behalf, not the organization’s.)

We’re sitting in Lafferty’s office at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre on East Hastings, a few blocks down the road from where I had coffee with D’Angelo. He too used to live in the West End but now he lives in Port Coquitlam because it’s cheaper.

“Things started to change when the euphoria [of gay liberation in the seventies] ran into the business forces that came out in the ’80s,” he says. “There’ve been a lot of demographic changes. It’s not so much about the rainbow flags as it is issues of inclusiveness, have and have-nots, and class.”

Lafferty knows quite a few people who have had to leave the gaybourhood for economic reasons and feel completely cut off from the community. They’ve had to move pretty far out and can’t afford the bus fare into town. D’Angelo told me the same thing about her circle of friends.

“It’s not a gay issue, it’s becoming a class issue,” says Patz McMillan by phone. “The younger generation don’t have the funds. Soon the elite are going to be the only people who can afford to live here [in the West End].”

Like Joyce, McMillan is a successful realtor who lives in the West End. She gets a lot of people calling about rentals. Although she tries to help them out, the low vacancy rate and high prices are big obstacles.

At the same time, she’s seeing a lot of lesbian couples leaving the ‘hood for the suburbs where they “are living the dream of a home and a yard.”

McMillan says she’s really noticed a difference since same-sex marriage was legalized.

On the one hand, she’s regularly approached by gay American couples who want to move here. On the other, couples who once would never have dreamed of leaving the West End are now comfortable with the idea of living in Burnaby, New Westminster or Surrey. (In fact, despite people’s qualms about BC’s second-largest city, the influx of gay men, lesbians and trans people into Surrey in recent years has resulted in a few gay-friendly businesses, weekly drag shows, Surrey Pride and an International Court System contingent.)

Reuter suggests that some gays are more assimilated than others.

“When I use the word gay I am using it as shorthand for everyone who is LGBT. We’ve gone from gay meaning a traditional version of homosexuality to a whole new definition. The white gay men had their moment, then the lesbians. Now it’s about [gay] ethnic youth or being transgendered.”

Right now the gaybourhood seems to be especially important to these more vulnerable members of our community.

Of course, there are also plenty of gay Vancouverites who’ve never considered living in the West End.

“I think it’s important it’s there for the people who need it, and because it’s part of what makes the city interesting,” says Janet Forsyth, who lives with her partner in a heritage house in Strathcona that she bought years before the market took off. “I’m an East End girl and feel just as comfortable on Main St or the Drive. I never felt it [Davie Village] was a necessary part of my life but I’m glad it’s there.”

Forsyth is manager of the legendary Railway Club, one of Vancouver’s great cultural party places, where no one cares who you sleep with or if you sleep at all.  Like me she came of age here in the ’70s and has generally felt comfortable being out. For her, being a woman in the music industry was the big challenge.

Randy Simpson and Drew Ryan, a young married couple who recently adopted a baby boy, Jack, have their own ambivalence about the downtown scene.

“I was always more of a country boy and Randy was more urban so we settled for something in between,” says Ryan, a professional health worker, by phone.

I met Ryan and Simpson, who work in the film industry, last year when I was helping to promote a documentary film that they were in, called Fatherhood Dreams. They were two of four gay men who became fathers in three very different ways. At the time, they had a house in New Westminster.

“No one cared that we were two gay men pushing a baby stroller,” quips Simpson on the other line.

“Yeah,” adds Ryan, “all people were interested in was our gimpy dog.”

Still, they decided to move in closer to the urban core because of Jack. They don’t want him to be the only kid in class with two dads or two moms. Now they have a house in the south Cambie neighbourhood.

“I guess the Davie Village has some importance for us,” says Simpson. “One Valentine’s Day when we were dating we wanted to go out somewhere where we could kiss if we felt like it without being self-conscious, so we went to a place in the West End.”

Clearly, the gaybourhood remains important as a social, recreational area where we can all belong — not to mention as a gathering place and tourist destination to a lot of people who don’t live in the West End.

“You need to be self-identified to be visible,” says Reuter.

“That sense of being in the majority, of safety in numbers, and the sense of ownership of place — everyone needs that once in a while,” Borbridge weighs in.

Lafferty thinks the evolution of the gaybourhood is a healthy thing and one ripe for discussion.

“People are afraid of change but change is a fact of life,” he says. “What’s happening right now is cathartic. It’s like a snake shedding its skin. It needs to happen.”

“I think a strong gay presence in the West End will continue,” Joyce predicts. “I saw so many gay men [at the WERA meeting] I hadn’t seen in 20 or 30 years. This was the kind of meeting we used to have. It was very exciting to look out and see that we were all there together working for a better life.”

Joyce thinks the entire West End should be declared a heritage site. That would tie developer’s hands.

Herbert goes further.

“We need to celebrate heritage in terms of the physicality of Davie Village,” he says.  “We fought for years [for rights] and we did it from the village. This is where our institutions are.

“You won’t find The Centre, Little Sister’s, St Paul’s Hospital, this newspaper’s offices, our bars and our clubs replicated anywhere else.

“We should have historical markers along and near Davie St that tell the history of the neighbourhood,” he suggests. “We need to focus on our stories and commemorate our history.”

 “I think it [Davie Village] is important because it creates a sense of identity and is a place where we can be around our own kind,” says Cowan. “That isn’t the case for many of us in our daily lives.

“I’d like to see a full-fledged, up-and-running LGBT community centre, more inclusivity of youth and seniors, housing for elderly gays, and better community policing,” he adds.

Borbridge’s thesis considers the importance of the gaybourhood’s visible evolution as something that can help inform the urban development of the City at large.

In Vancouver, the wide-ranging influence is palpable. Essar sums up the larger significance of our visibility and village in one simple sentence.

“Kids in Vancouver grow up thinking that if you have a parade you have to have drag queens.”