Thursday, August 16, 2007

On Gayborhoods

While I'm on the topic of gayborhoods ...

Once upon a time, Detroit did have a bona fide gay neighborhood in the Palmer Park area at McNichols/Six Mile and Woodward. As I've heard it told, this was in the 70's and into the 80's, and encompassed the neighborhoods east of Woodward full of single family homes as well as the numerous beautiful deco apartment buildings across from the park. Gay businesses were plentiful in this area, and it was completely normal for people to walk to bars and restaurants.

Still pretty: entrance to a deco apartment building in Palmer Park.

I have a few memories of this area from the early/mid-80's when I would ride the school bus through there. I remember passing The Gold Coast (in it's old location on the south side of the street ... 'where gentlemen meet') and Chosen Books, which was originally on McNichols, I think. Later when I had a car I would drive past Backstage, the gay restaurant, with its neighboring piano bar Footlights, hoping desperately to see some actual living gay people.

Palmer Park was a lot like the emerging gay neighborhoods in other major cities at the time ... Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, Lakeview in Chicago, the South End in Boston. Great housing stock in a mature neighborhood, varied housing styles, bars and restaurants and retail, walkability, density, a university in close proximity, a liberal and tolerant local population. So if these other areas went on to become major gay centers in the US, why did Palmer Park fall apart? Crime mostly. The story of Palmer Park mirrors the story of many of Detroit's other neighborhoods. By the 80's there was rising street crime, and the gay population moved a few miles north to Royal Oak and Ferndale. The Metro Times took a good look at this story back in June, and if you haven't read that article it's worth a look.

At the end of the 80's Detroit was in the same place as these other major cities. While those cities' governments managed to keep their gay areas liveable, and their citizens did not get so fed up that they felt forced to leave, and their police forces actually fought crime, Detroit did not. Well, what can you do?

"Hey, we tried!": A rally against nighttime street violence in Palmer Park c. 1980

25 years later one might ask if we even really need a gay neighborhood in the city. Doesn't Ferndale/Huntington Woods/Royal Oak suit our needs? Aren't there gay people in every Detroit neighborhood? Haven't we come far enough in terms of mainstream acceptance that creating a gay ghetto works against our better interests?

These are valid points, but I really do think Detroit needs a gayborhood. First off, the Ferndale phenomenon has not been enough to stop gay people from fleeing the area in droves. The 'Dale is probably a decent reflection of a gay community that is widely dispersed throughout the suburbs, but it is cohesion and density that so many gay people move away to find. I personally find Ferndale charming, and lived there briefly myself long, long ago. But I don't think it offers enough to be the hub of a gay community.

Secondly, there certainly are a large number of gay people in Detroit's neighborhoods. And many people will say that's a testament to the acceptance of gay people in this city, the fact that we live everywhere, and that we can go pretty much anywhere and be ourselves. And this is a true, great fact about Detroit. But the gay community is not integrated in Detroit, it is invisible. There is a huge difference. Sure, you can be gay and go to anywhere you like, and you might even see other gay people there. But where can you reliably go to meet new people, for friends or dating? What do you do when you are new?

It is my opinion that Detroit needs to get to a point where there is a visible gay center BEFORE it can get to this whole "integration" theory. I just think there are certain things that contribute to gay quality of life in a city, regardless of whether you spend a great deal of time mingling with the gay community:

* having places to socialize like bars, restaurants, coffeeshops, etc. And not like the shitholes we have in Detroit. The calibre of the gay businesses in a city says a lot about how the gay community views itself, and that would indicate Detroit's gay community is still stuck in the self-loathing 80's.

* and as an addendum to that, having activity in more than one place on a given night. When was the last time anyone found two hoppin' places on the same night in this city? Shit, you can barely find one. The close proximity of businesses with gay appeal helps promote business for everybody.

* having opportunities for networking with other gay people to promote and foster business growth

* being able to find a gay doctor (go ahead, give it a try, it's remarkably difficult) or other professionals that cater to the unique needs of gay people

* having a hub for community services for gays, lesbians and transgendered, including HIV prevention/education/testing, resources for young people, etc. Not just a hotline or a drop-in center, but a place where information is shared among people on the street or in coffeehouses.

* having openly gay people who are public figures - this includes politicians, business owners, neighborhood activists, philanthropists, educators ... all role models for young people and a sign that you can thrive in a particular city

* creating visibility for the gay and lesbian population. The GLBT community has essentially no voice in city politics, and socially is not an influence. Contrast with Chicago, where the city now recognizes how (in the words of Mayor Daley at the Gay Games Opening Ceremonies), "the gay community has been at the forefront of every quality of life issue in the city." Hell, the city even provided major funding for the new GLBT community center in Lakeview (which was an incredible historic preservation project). Detroit's community needs a voice, and that only comes from banding together

Detroit needs a neighborhood with a variety of housing options (for the young renter as well as the homo-owner), relatively intact housing stock, a commercial district with potential, one or two NICER gay bars or restaurants, a few visionary people leading the way, and an official "welcome" from the mayor's office (believe it or not, I know several suburban gay people who feel that they are explicitly UNwelcome in the city of Detroit). A gayborhood will only burnish the city's image in the eyes of urbanites around the country, and maybe we can keep some of our gay people from fleeing to greener pastures.

So where could it go? I have my ideas, but what do you think? Weigh in with a comment if you want.


Anonymous said...

Supergay, I think that this is perhaps your most well-written, thoughtful entry to date. I can share a number of thoughts on the topic. First some history (as I see it). I missed the living in the Park experience; but I certainly remember when Palmer Park was our community's center; but it was not the first gay neighborhood in Detroit.

The area around the New Center, Seward, Delaware, Virginia Park were streets that had a gay presence. Then, when the Jewish community started to move from the apartment buildings on Boston and Chicago Blvds., the owners began renting to gays. When the gays all left, the owners rented to Blacks. That was back in the 60's. There is virtually nothing left in this area now. It was milked for all it was worth, abandoned, and finally torn down. The old buildings were of similar style as those in Palmer Park; but the apartments were somewhat larger.

In the 60's, Palmer Park was not particularly gay-friendly. It certainly was not open to Black residents. Most available apartments were not openly advertised. You had to know somebody to get in many buildings. There was a very large Jewish population in Palmer Park. Temple Israel was in the center of the neighborhood.

Then things changed. The Jewish community left and landlords welcomed gays in the early 70's; Blacks were still not welcomed. And they were not welcomed until the gay community began its movement northward.

Certainly you are correct when you cite crime as the reason for the gay exodus; but it was more complex than just crime. Certainly, the lack of adequate parking was a factor. Until the late 60's it was quite respectable for a middle class person to take the bus; you did not absolutely need a car to get around. But at some point, everybody had a car and needed a spot to park that car. The building of the swimming pool in the park was a problem. As owners began renting to more and more Blacks (because white gays were not moving in), this caused stress to some gays. Then really, when they started renting to single mothers with children, that ended it.

No matter how cool your apartment was, it was no longer cool or safe to live in Palmer Park.

I written enough for now. Probably I'll return later with more thoughts.

SupergayDetroit said...

Hi Anonymous - thanks for the comment and that additional info!

I do spend a lot of time thinking about the state of gay affairs in this city, and the desire to create at least some kind of resource was the genesis for this blog. This post has been a work in progress for a while.

Thanks for the extra history! I am by no means an expert, although I do like to act like one. Please add more if you are so inclined!



Anonymous said...

I'm back.

If I were the mayor of Detroit, which clearly I'm not, and I were inclined to assist in the revitalization of the Boston - Edison Neighborhood (and adjoining areas), the first thing I would do is hang rainbow banners from the lamp posts at all the streets in that area declare it to be a National Gay Heritage Site. (I'm referring to the single family homes, not the old apartment neighborhood. That area, as I mentioned in my previous post was quite gay; but in 2007 it's virtually nonexistent.)

I'd have the State of MI put one of those Historical Site markers in front of Prophet Jones' house on Arden Park. Not one of those boring green ones, mind you; but perhaps opalescent or maybe simply lavender. Perhaps, in the manner of an Infant of Prague statue, it could be draped in velvet or even mink for special occasions.

If you've never heard of Prophet Jones, and have an interest in reading about one small facet of our Gay Detroit history, please go to the following link. However, the News has incorrectly pictured his house. The address is correct; but the picture is not.

Adam said...

While Ferndale and (more so nowadays) Royal Oak have become the "gay hub" for the Metro region, hasn't Woodbridge shown itself to be the closest thing to a gay-friendly neighborhood within the city proper?

This is the first article of yours that I've read and, having never really been to Woodbridge, I'm curious about your opinion of this neighborhood.

In a perfect world the gay community would be welcomed back to Palmer Park, I love those buildings. And I'm so bored with Boystown.

Anonymous said...

Here's my latest posting on your Gay Neighborhood topic.

I've spent a bit of time this past week mulling over the ideas you posited in your final two paragraphs of this posting on possible gay neighborhoods in Detroit. I'm not at all satisfied with where my thinking has led me because, for the most part, I'm dwelling on the past gay-friendly neighborhoods and how they could be resurrected. Perhaps our best future lies in the an area that is yet completely below our radar - one that I'm just not seeing.

Anyway, here goes. Your criteria are right on the mark. The variety of housing options, as you mentioned, is critical. There needs to be a place for the student, recent grad, artist, waiter, and musician to rent for a song. Also there needs to be suitable housing for older, more substantial gays and lesbians.

Palmer Park meets these criteria for a range of housing options; but at tis point, I believe that PP would require too big of a leap to make a comeback as a major gay neighborhood right now.

Lafayette Park, perhaps Detroit's most sophisticated gay-friendly neighborhood, is too antiseptic to meet the criteria that you laid out, I think. It may be one of the best areas in the metro area; but it's not at all "edgy," although, if the old Shaperio Hall becomes entry-level, sort of illegal lofts, then maybe. But also, there's really no commercial space except up on Gratiot. Lafayette and Jefferson establishments already draw a straight, young Black crowd.

Boston Edison, IV, Palmer Woods, University District, etc. do not offer a range of housing.

Now let me discuss some possibilities. Areas that might work rather than those that, I believe, given your standards, won't work.

One of the problems for gay Detroiters is that many of the Black ministers are so homophobic. (At least out in public they are. Anyone remember the good Rev. Nicks from St James MBC?) This behavior I find to be downright hateful. It works to our collective disadvantage because many of our political leaders pander to those people. I'm saying all this as a prelude to suggesting the Eastern Market area as a possible gay neighborhood now that the Eastern Market Association (Kate Bebe's group) now has a major say in the Market area. The local politicians have given up a lot of the control. To me, it seems that the direction that they (Eastern Market Assoc.) want for the market is a natural for loads of gay participation. The downside is that there is not much housing there now.

The West Village neighborhood has seen a slump in the quality of renters in the past few years. That's due, I believe, because the gay community has lost its focus on creating our own neighborhood. There is a great range of housing, rental and owner-occupied. There is are commercial strips on Jefferson, Van Dyke, and importantly, Kercheval (now mostly vacant and available). Significantly, there are no major homophobic churches nearby. Messiah (on EGB), St. Charles, Jefferson Ave. Presbyterian are at least gay-neutral or even very gay-friendly. There already is a substantial gay base in West Village and IV upon which to build. If you were to find the worst block in WV, imagine what it could look like with 7 or 10 more gay households. It would not take a great effort to turn WV into a real gay neighborhood.

Another good possibility, albeit a longer shot, is the New Center area. There is a range of housing. Take a good look at the apartment buildings on Delaware and especially Seward. However, to me, a big unknown is the current state of the Abbington on Seward near the Lodge. Is it still a big Black Christian Nationalist HQ? If that's still the case, maybe not this area. Or maybe I'm making too much of this issue. I'd like to read what others think on this topic. GM rehabbed a large chunk of the area 20 or so years age so there's plenty of housing for even the most pretentious and least handy of us. There are lots of commercial opportunities in the actual New Center and along Woodward. I'm guessing that the major churches along Woodward would be gay neutral on average and that's a good thing, to quote Martha.

My last suggestion would be the Jefferson Chalmers Neighborhood. Isn't there already somewhat of a lesbian presence there? There is less of a range of housing. It seems to be mostly single family and flats. But given that, there is a variety and I'm sure both rental and owner occupied. The commercial strip on Jefferson offers lots of possibilities. It's a multi-ethnic area and the neighborhood organization seems to need and accept all offers to help revive that area.

Supergay, thank you for providing this forum to discuss our gay community's common future.

Anonymous said...

Detroit's lesbian presence is even less visible than that of gay men. Aside from a couple of bars (which are located in areas where, as a female, I feel unsafe driving to alone at night), where are the lesbians in the city? Or in the suburbs, for that matter?

Anonymous said...

The Woodbridge District is and has been the remaining gay neighborhood in the city of Detroit. It offers many housing options, it is walkable, charming, constantly improving and has a very committed and diverse population. Woodbridge is safe and close to Wayne State and the up and coming Midtown area. Many of its gay residents have lived in the neighborhood for years. Its neighborhood motto is "Neighbors helping neighbors." The neighborhood truely is one of inclusion and it prides itself on this fact.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if anyone mentioned Corktown as a possible gayborhood location. The neighborhood is home to one gay club (the works) and meets most of the criteria that previous posters mentioned. The neighborhood is very walkable, there is a good mix of commercial space, single family residences, and multi-family residences. Corktown is in walking distance of downtown Detroit and is located near many major freeways (to make easy access to attract suburban club goers). The neighborhood has already seen a great deal of redevelopment over the past decade, and home prices are fairly stable. I have a few friends who have either lived in Corktown or currently reside there, all of which are gay. I feel this is probably the most logical choice for a gay neighborhood in the city. Warrendale is another area that I feel could serve as a gaybourhood. The neighborhood already houses more gay establishments than any other neighborhood in the city (e.g. Adam's Apple, Diamond Jim's, Gigi's, and Escape). The neighborhood has seen some decline in recent years, but nothing compared to many other neighborhoods. The majority of homes in the neighborhood and businesses along W Warren are occupied. After a good face lift the Warrendale could be a great gaybourhood. The downside is the housing stock is mainly single family, the setting is very suburban and far from downtown. My last suggestion for a gayborhood is Copper Canyon (A.K.A Balduck Park). This area is north of Mack and west of Moross, and like Warrendale is nestled in the corner of the city. This neighborhood hasn't suffered from urban decay! A large portion of the neighborhood shares a Grosse Pointe mailing address and if I'm not mistaken belongs to the Grosse Pointe school district (which is perfect for Gays and Lesbians with children). If you're not familiar with the area you could easily mistake the neighborhood to be part of Grosse Pointe. The neighborhood served as ground zero for Detroit Police officers and Firefighters for many years, hence the name. The neighborhoods most redeeming quality is that its move in ready! We could start opening gay businesses and bars on Mack (across from Grosse Pointe Farms), and have the neighborhood up and running fairly quickly. Plus we could hold tons of gay events at Balduck Park (located in the center of the neighborhood).

Anonymous said...

I need your number, because me and you need to seariously have a sit down, pow-wow or whatever you want to call it!! I am there with you on everything that you have put in this article. I am currently living in another state and looking to re-locate back to the city, but in a GAYborhood!! Now, I know that gays and lesbians are accepted across the city and state. But, there is nothing like Plamer Woods and the Park. I am 31 almost 32 now and I grew up watching and hanging out with my GAY uncle and his friends in that area. I am a lesbian myself and I always wanted to live in that area when I got older. It was thriving and popping, and it was lit up with so much life back in the 80's, hell even the 90's. I look at pictures of the area now, and it is sad how it has been ran down by violence and the new breed of GAY people who got PRIDE alright, but not PRIDE in themselves and their own unique environment! They want to parade around with rainbow capes on their backs, but no real understanding and knowledge to what being GAY, Out and Proud, really mean and stand for. I want me and you together when I get back and make something happen in the area!! Can you get with that? LOL.. I am a multi-business owner who plans on relocating myself and my kids back to the area. If you are down with keeping HOPE ALIVE SuperGay?, then I am tooo... God Bless your soul for this article!!Keep pushing the pen across the paper BaBy!! Best Wishes, Isha..

Anonymous said...

Prophet jones wasnt gay you dumb fuck

Anonymous said...

I currently live in Milwaukee but am familiar with the Detroit neighborhoods. I have the opportunity to move back to Detroit but the area is not conducive to an urban gay lifestyle for the reasons discussed above. Royal Oak is very expensive and the houses are small and sterile in design. Too bad that Detroit's neighborhoods of the past have deteriorated to non-habitability for us gays that would love a great place in the city to live. Palmer Park wold be perfect for reasons stated above. I would buy there if it were more like gaybourhoods across the country in large urban areas. Keep this post going... very interesting.

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