Opinion
8 min

The gay village as ethnic enclave

When it comes to preservation, what can we learn from Little Italy?

The gay village as ethnic enclave 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 second of a five-part series, JP Larocque explores the lessons those worried about preserving Toronto’s gaybourhood can learn from established ethnic communities.

The village is dying.

It’s a familiar statement, especially to anyone paying close attention to the transformation of the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood over the course of the last decade. As independent stores and local bars give way to established chains and rising real-estate prices drive out long-time residents, there has been a growing sense of unease about the changing face of queer Toronto. So much so, in fact, that community organizations have spearheaded various well-documented initiatives to help establish a more permanent sense of the strip’s queer character — including the unveiling of the Alexander Wood statue in 2005 and, more recently, through the introduction of the somewhat controversial rainbow gateway markers and the plan to paint murals on the sides of buildings.

But for all these attempts at historic preservation, Toronto’s queer population continues to spread out to more affordable areas of the city, and the chasm between Toronto’s lived gay neighbourhoods and its historic one only grows larger. Even with the best of intentions in place, are these initiatives achieving their desired goals or are they merely recognizing a version of the community that no longer exists?

“Cities are dynamic. They’re always changing, and they can’t stay static or they die,” says Michael E Levine, professor of urban planning at Pace University in New York City. “We’d rather be in our own gay villages, but they can’t last, and there’s nothing that can be done to Toronto to stop it. It’s much too vibrant and international a city.”

When Levine’s grandparents first arrived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the last century, the island had almost twice the number of inhabitants that it does today — 2.8 million to the current 1.8, according to his estimates — with immigrant families packed four to a unit inside squalid housing tenements. The city acted as a gateway for various ethnic groups looking for opportunities in America, and the newly established communities — Little Italy, Chinatown and Harlem, among others — helped to shape the city into the distinct neighbourhoods that exist today.

Now many of those old Jewish tenements in the Lower East Side have been transformed into high-priced loft apartments occupied by young urban professionals, while the community itself has evolved and moved to other areas of the city. New immigrant populations have moved in, and the neighbourhood has become a diverse melting pot. Levine notes that the synagogues his grandfather would visit in those early years are now churches. “Sometimes you’ll go by and you’ll see it’s a church, and then you’ll look up and you’ll see the Star of David on top.”

“You can’t keep them — the Jewish population is now gone — and you shouldn’t.”

The dispersal of the city’s gay community has been no different. “Greenwich Village was the gay place in New York City,” Levine says. “That’s why I moved here in 1967 when I graduated from college… There were gay bars everywhere. It was a whole different kind of thing. Today, that’s simply not true.”

Instead, various ethnic restaurants have replaced many of the gay businesses on the strip; much of the queer community moved to the comparatively affordable Chelsea area and later to Hell’s Kitchen and other pockets of the city. With a growing awareness and acceptance of queer rights, there has been less of a need to stay in unified cultural ghettos, or as Levine puts it, “Do we really need to have neighbours that are gay when gay people can live in every neighbourhood?”

He cites Chicago’s gay village as an example. “Boystown, about 20 or 30 years ago, put up large stanchions on the sidewalk with gay pride flags and the street signs on the lampposts that say ‘Welcome to Boystown.’ Now there’s hardly any gay population left. The neighbourhood has changed enormously. It has gentrified; straight couples have moved in and very few gay people live there anymore.

“Whenever you put infrastructure in to recognize an existing population… you have to realize that the population will change.”

Still, while economic factors and shifting demographics have also had an influence on many of Toronto’s cultural enclaves, various groups have found ways to preserve their ties to specific areas in the city. “Our community has continued to thrive not by rejecting change, but by embracing it,” says Howard Lichtman, a spokesman for Greektown on the Danforth. “If you look at the street, not all of the businesses are Greek, and we see that as a positive thing. We want our neighbourhood to be a microcosm of Canada — celebrating the cultural mosaic rather than being a melting pot.”

And even as many second- and third-generation Greek families have moved out of the neighbourhood for more affordable housing in the city’s outlying suburbs, those who remain continue to celebrate their heritage by actively supporting long-established businesses and by finding ways to gesture to the area’s history while simultaneously acknowledging its diversity — installing Greek and English street signs, for instance, or including a stage for international acts at the annual Taste of the Danforth festival.

“People who come to [Greektown] love that it’s a living, breathing community. It is possible for everyone to coexist,” Lichtman says.

Tony Cauch, chair of the Roncesvalles Village Business Improvement Area, agrees that a key ingredient in the success of his own community has been a combination of maintaining longstanding cultural institutions and supporting the active efforts made by residents and the business association to embrace the diversity found within their neighbourhood. “It takes a lot of committed people to build a neighbourhood — to build it and maintain it. We all have a keen interest in our history here, but keeping people engaged is not easy.”

One example of successful community engagement is the Roncesvalles Polish Festival. Now entering its eighth year, the annual celebration was created to recognize the Polish community that has called the area home since the end of the Second World War. It — along with the artist-driven Roncy Rocks! – has helped to give the neighbourhood a reputation for being fun, diverse and inclusive.

To Cauch, a sense of continuity is also tremendously important to the survival of a neighbourhood. “We were able to engage with the residents’ associations and to clearly articulate why our interests are aligned. I live and work here, and oftentimes the residents’ kids, their first jobs are in Roncesvalles Village, on this street, and what happened over the years is that we developed a great deal of institutional trust where we’re working together on things.”

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), thinks this lack of generational continuity in the queer community is a possible factor in why gay villages have struggled to survive. “I feel like in a lot of ways the dynamic is even more open to change because one of the elements that has to do with whether or not a neighbourhood changes… is whether or not your kids stay in the neighbourhood or move somewhere else. Gay people do have kids, but their kids aren’t necessarily gay. So the fact of the matter is that one of the main conduits of continuity in a neighbourhood doesn’t really exist for gay people.

“So it’s really just a matter of where do the new gay people move to,” he says. “And understandably, over time, that changes.”

Although the central mandate of the GVSHP is the physical preservation of historic buildings and neighbourhoods in Greenwich Village, the East Village and NoHo through advocacy and zoning and landmark designations, the organization also focuses on the area’s cultural heritage by calling attention to sites of specific historic importance. One such site was The Stonewall Inn, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. It was later designated a National Historic Landmark by the federal government.

But even with the preservation of a historic building, the organization can do little to help save the community businesses that reside within them — as was the case when the Oscar Wilde Bookshop closed in 2009. “Landmark designations apply to the exterior of a building, but they absolutely do not regulate what goes on inside the building,” Berman says. “We have been looking at and working in coalition with other groups to find ways that there can be legal mechanisms to help save businesses that folks want to save or to encourage small independent businesses in some cases to discourage large chains. Currently, there’s virtually no legal mechanism that exists in New York City to do that.”

Instead, the GVSHP has created initiatives such as the annual Village Awards, which are designed to call attention to businesses, organizations or people of importance to the community. “There’s usually several hundred people there, and it’s a way of celebrating and highlighting the contribution [of these businesses or groups]. In terms of selecting the awardees, which is done by committee, one of the things we really look at is if this is a place that’s endangered and if the attention we can bring to it might help.”

The Oscar Wilde Bookshop was an award recipient a year before its closure. “It’s an interesting situation because there the landlord had been incredibly helpful for years and had been cutting them slack on the rent, and as I understand it, as generous as the landlord was, they ultimately just couldn’t make money anymore. The bookselling business has changed so much with the internet. I almost got the impression that if their rent was free, they weren’t going to be able to stay open.”

So, in returning to the question of historic preservation, is a landmark designation worth it if it can do very little to preserve the actual lived community?

Yes, Berman argues. “Landmark designation is a very, very powerful, direct tool for preserving the physical fabric of a neighbourhood. It can also indirectly be helpful in preserving the other very important aspects of a neighbourhood — like who lives there, what their history is, [and] what their character is.”

“Some people will say, ‘What I really care about is preserving small businesses’ or ‘What I really care about is making sure people can stay in their homes,’ or ‘What I care about is that I want it to stay this kind of neighbourhood.’ And for most of those things… there isn’t necessarily something that you can secure that makes that happen [in the same] way that landmark designation does,” he says. “But what I say to people is — if you preserve the buildings, you have a fighting chance to preserve the businesses that are in them, to preserve the homes of the people who are in them, to allow people to continue to stay in those homes.

“But if the buildings are torn down, it’s virtually guaranteed the businesses will no longer be there, [and] the people who live in those buildings will no longer be there.”

As a participant in the original riots back in 1969, Levine views the historic recognition of The Stonewall Inn as important but sees designating the overall neighbourhood “gay” as a mistake. “In the year 2000 [the Gays and Lesbians in Planning division of the American Planning Association] had the annual conference in New York City. I led a tour of the gay West Village… and we started at The Stonewall Inn. The upstairs was like a museum, and [the bar itself] is only half of what it had been. So we did the tour there and people loved it. We took our picture under the sign for the co-naming of Christopher Street [as Stonewall Place] and posed next to the silly statue outside that everyone loves. But I said, “That’s really all we need. We don’t need anything else.

“The park is used by homeless people and drug dealers at night. It’s not a gay gathering place anymore.”