Don Reuter was on a vacation holiday at a resort for gay men in Fort Lauderdale, Florida last winter. As he stood by the pool surrounded by the glistening bodies of gay men, his gaze drifted toward the ocean and a prickly row of construction cranes lining the beach.
“It was a cathartic moment,” he says. “It was one of those sunny Floridian afternoons and I was thinking what a nice gay utopian existence it was. There was an underlying homoeroticism about it. Here we are all together in our swimsuits, or not.”
But the cranes along the beach, each one rooted on the site of a high-rise condo development, led him to wonder if days spent lounging by this pool with brothers and lovers might be numbered.
“Those condos are built for a certain part of the population that may be gay-friendly, it may be more enlightened, but by-and-large it’s positioned for what the world is; not for our little segment,” he says. “People are going to be standing on their balconies looking down on two dozen naked gay guys frolicking by the pool. They’re going to have their little kids and they’re going to say, ‘We can’t be looking down on naked guys. Those places have to go.'”
The moment inspired Reuter to start work on a book about the state and future of North American gay neighbourhoods. He’s so far toured 12 American cities, plus Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, and he’s come to realize what many already suspect; that spaces where gay men are free to express their sexuality are disappearing.
“We have gained a great deal of acceptance but it’s a neutering process,” he says. “We’ve all become Will from Will & Grace. We’re the gay guy who doesn’t seem to have any sex. We can talk about being gay, but we can’t be gay.”
For Reuter, the threat to gay villages is no longer so much a product of conscious or even subconscious homophobia, rather he sees widespread homogenization of cities and cultures as the culprit.
“There’s this global force of corporations that are trying to make every individual, every neighbourhood and every city somewhat identical,” he laments. “Unfortunately most people are sheepish. If they get enough of what they want, they’re not going to fight. There are developments in the Castro and the Davie Village where we’ve become part of a corporate economic force that we were never a part of 40 years ago. We were antiestablishment.”
You have to be living in a cave crammed with gold doubloons not to notice that making ends meet for those living in Vancouver’s gay village gets harder every year.
According to the Vancouver Foundation, real income (income after taking the effects of inflation on purchasing power into account) actually declined four percent between 1999 and 2004. But home prices in Vancouver West rose 25 percent between June 2005 and June 2006. Average rents for one-bedroom apartments rose 14 percent. Between 2002 and 2005, the number of homeless people in the city grew by a staggering 106 percent. And the gap between the richest 10 percent and the poorest 10 percent of people grows wider every year.
As well, the assimilation of queer people into mainstream society makes living openly outside of gay enclaves more attractive to gay men.
So that’s one powerful economic disincentive to living in gay neighbourhoods and one powerful social incentive to move out of them.
What impact might these trends have on Vancouver’s queer neighbourhood?
“I think the Davie Village is going to age,” says urban planner and former Vancouver city councillor Alan Herbert. “It’s going to age anyway because that’s the demographic of the country. It’s going to be people who can afford to live here. You’re going to get the younger gay community looking for other locations that are less expensive, and they’re tough to find in Vancouver.”
Herbert says some of the key successes queer people have achieved over the past generation, both regionally and nationally, have sprung from the Davie Village. AIDS Vancouver and the British Columbia Persons with AIDS Society were born and grew from the Davie Village. The march in reaction to Aaron Webster’s 2001 murder came from the Davie Village. Little Sisters’ ongoing censorship battle emanates from its Davie Village location, and The Centre, Xtra West, the Vancouver Pride Society and a host of other queer organizations, gathering spots and businesses call Davie St home.
Herbert says it’s critical for Vancouver’s queer community that the village’s queer character is preserved, but he sees wider changes to the West End that might put it in jeopardy; changes like the ones Reuter saw in queer neighbourhoods across North America.
“When I was living in the West End in the 1980s it had a cachet,” says Herbert. “People wanted to say they lived there. The truth is, the West End has lost its cachet. It’s getting dog-eared. Unless there are some changes, the future road for the West End is downhill.”
So what might Vancouver’s queer community be like in the generation ahead?
“Wide,” says Jim Mann, who worked to formalize the Davie Village’s queer identity by helping to envision the Davie Village Business Improvement Association in the late 1990s. “It’ll be in the West End, it’ll be on Commercial Dr, it’ll be in Surrey; you name it. Queer communities everywhere in the GVRD will create their own communities around them. Will it be all focused or centered around Davie St? I don’t know. I’m not convinced.”
Herbert agrees but feels certain that the queer character of the Davie Village will be preserved.
“It is unique among neighbourhoods in that it plays not just to a local market, but also to a regional market,” he says. “The gay community might be a little more in Kits and the Fairview Slopes. It’s still in the West End and it may also go into some of the other adjacent areas like Strathcona. But the downtown core of the gay community is the Davie Village and that has to be supported.”