When It Comes to Gentrification, LGBTQ People are Both Victim and Perpetrator
The role queer people—and especially white queers—play in the history of urban inequality is thorny, to say the least
A pride parade in Chicago's Boystown. Photo via Flickr user nathanmac87
A few years ago, I was sitting in a friend's apartment when he said something curious: that he couldn't be a gentrifier because he was gay. He lived in Williamsburg, the most gentrified neighborhood in all of New York City, where rents rose nearly 80 percent between 1990 and 2014. The building was old. His room was tiny. And my friend, who is white, paid an astronomical sum for it, in an apartment divided among three other white people. How could he possibly see himself as immune from the process that so obviously surrounded him?
It's one question among many I tackled in my book, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood. The answer, I believe, lies deep in the history of how LGBTQ people have both been victims and perpetrators of gentrification, and the complicated relationship that exists between queer people, the cities they live in and their development. They've sought refuge in cities, fleeing the oppressive straightness of the suburbs and the rest of the US. But they've also directly benefitted from gentrification, and been used as pawns by real estate developers to help kick off the gentrification of neighborhoods and entire cities.
This history is important to remember if we're ever going to challenge the forces of gentrification. As cities—especially large, gay-friendly ones—become largely unaffordable to working- and middle-class people, untangling how LGBTQ people fit into the gentrification puzzle is necessary to ensure that they, and everyone else, can continue to afford to live in them.
Queer people flock to cities for an obvious reason: there's safety and community in numbers. For most of recent American history, it's been hard to find LGBTQ acceptance in suburbs and rural areas. You know the story: a kid grows up in a small town, feels like they cannot live their fullest life there, and flees to a big city, where they can find others like them.
But part of what makes cities good for gays is simple economics. Queers comprise a relatively small portion of the American population, making it hard to have a "gayborhood" without density. Any given suburb likely doesn't have enough LGBTQ people living within it to support multiple bars and stores, or nonprofits, or other aspects of queer culture—arts, pride events, and the like—that make for vibrant communities.
You see this play out in cities like San Francisco, where gay people (mostly gay men) flocked during and after World War II, when they were banished from the communities they'd come from before the war and kicked out of the military for being gay. And it was that concentration of LGBTQ people in San Francisco, as well as in New York and Chicago and other cities, that allowed queers to organize grassroots liberation movements, as noted in The City and the Grassroots, a study of urban activism by Manuel Castells. Density gave way to activism and organization, and organization allowed for liberation.
But looking at San Francisco and New York today, it's hard to tell they were once centers of radical LGBTQ politics. While plenty of LGBTQ people remain in each, the West Village (where I grew up) and the Castro are by no means "radical" in 2017. Those neighborhoods—alongside West Hollywood, Chicago's Boystown and many other LGBTQ-settled quarters—are largely Disneyfied, corporate-friendly versions of their former selves. So are their pride parades and their bars. Rent in the West Village averages about $3,500 a month as of this February. Stonewall Inn, once synonymous with anti-cop riots, now welcomes the cops with semi-automatic weapons that regularly stand outside its doors.
What happened? Two things: first, cities became more attractive prospects for real estate developers after a period of urban decline in the 1960s and 70s—decline brought on by developers and governments themselves, as local, state and federal agencies subsidized mortgages for suburban housing and "redlined" black and Latino neighborhoods, trapping poor people of color in cities, and decimating real estate values. (Those decimated city neighborhoods could then be bought back up for cheap.)
LGBTQ people happened to be concentrated at the center of those neighborhoods. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the AIDS epidemic freed up tens of thousands of previously-occupied apartments in New York's gentrifying neighborhoods, as revealed in Sarah Schulman's memoir of the AIDS crisis in New York City, The Gentrification of the Mind. As Schulman writes, it's no coincidence that neighborhoods now most synonymous with gentrification—namely the West Village, East Village, and Harlem—were gayborhoods in the past.
But LGBTQ people, especially white gay men and lesbians, also began to become complicit in gentrification. In Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, her study of gayborhoods and policing, University of Maryland American Studies professor Christina Hanhardt writes that the most mainstream (and therefore best-funded) post-Stonewall LGBTQ groups tended to focus solely on safety, often teaming up with police to make gayborhoods safer for their mainly white inhabitants and the white-owned business they frequented. In the process, they may have endangered other, more vulnerable LGBTQ people, namely people of color, who have a history of being disproportionately abused and arrested by police.
And as (white) gays became associated with safety in now-attractive cities, they became tools for real estate developers to enact gentrification themselves. In The Rise of the Creative Class, urban studies theorist Richard Florida lays out the argument that gay people were essential to the economic development of post-industrial cities. He theorized that tolerant, diverse cities that wooed young creatives would prosper more than cities that were not tolerant, and while he employed controversial data to back his claims, and they've been heavily critiqued, his work nonetheless became appealing to broke cities in search of an economic fix.
After all, it's easier to believe that gay tolerance boosts economies, rather than believe that American capitalism essentially means that some cities are now destined to become poor as industry and high-paying jobs flee to elsewhere. That could explain why Detroit even mulled creating a gayborhood out of thin air in an attempt to revitalize itself after the city went bankrupt in 2012.
There's no easy answer to what drives LGBTQ gentrification. I know queer people of color who consider themselves gentrifiers because they've moved into neighborhoods they're not from. But whiteness and queerness (especially gayness) have proven throughout recent history to make for an especially exploitable combination for real estate developers to raise property values. While my Williamsburg friend may not have purposefully gentrified Brooklyn, and while his larger reason for living there (he used to live in the rural Midwest, where he didn't know many gays) may be legitimate, he was nonetheless a cog in the machine, not because of his individual actions, but because of the history that followed his identity.