By Elizabeth Aguilera, CalMatters
Wedged snugly between two of the most popular gay bars on Santa Monica Boulevard is Block Party, the “gayest” store in West Hollywood, selling men’s tank tops, swimwear and short shorts, party-themed cowboy hats and everything Pride from rainbow beanie babies to vivid striped jumpsuits.
On this stretch of what is loosely considered Boystown in the historically gay city these three doors are some of the last gay-owned and gay-oriented businesses after a steady march of mainstream restaurants, bars and other retail have moved in.
“We lost our community in the last three or four years,” said Larry Block from the sidewalk in front of his shop. Most of the other gay-owned clothing and retail owners have closed. Block opened Block Party in 2009 and has had retail businesses in West Hollywood for more than three decades.
He points to new restaurants and bars up and down the street that operate out of the former sites of gay men’s clothing stores. One of the oldest shops, Los Angeles Sporting Club, is having its final closing sale. Block places part of the blame on the city for freely issuing liquor licenses.
“This was the community in which the guys would come to shop. You know, gays like things a little tighter, a little shorter, a little skimpy or a little shearer. They like it a little sexier,” Block said. "Now, we’re just becoming a kind of big city. Money comes in, developments come in, restaurants come in.”
Experts say gay neighborhoods, once a haven for mainly gay men, have been shifting for more than a decade, driven by gentrification and other social factors including a wider acceptance of LGBTQ community. To make matters even more complicated, and expensive, Zillow released research in May showing that gay neighborhoods are so popular that buyers pay a premium to get in, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In California’s biggest enclave – the city of West Hollywood – change is afoot too, but it looks different, and the city is working hard to maintain much of its gay population and continues to keep them front and center in civic activities and benefits. The California dream many young gay people found there in the ’70s and ’80s, to be able to be themselves, to be safe and to be part of a community, is still alive albeit more expensive.
“California has long sought to make itself a place to welcome people who would feel more marginalized in other places,” said Gary Gates, a retired UCLA professor who spent his career studying LGBT communities. “Apart from the Brady Bunch version of the California dream, it’s been one about people going to a new place to feel more free, open and accepted.”
And that is still true in West Hollywood where longtime LGBTQ residents and younger people just arriving or visiting find a sense of community even with all of the change.
“West Hollywood is still our paradise,” Block said. “This is our Jerusalem.”
Manny Lopez tried on a sparkly sequined top at Block Party in West Hollywood. He was looking for the perfect tank to wear to the pride celebration in San Diego. He lives in San Bernardino but he treks to WeHo as often as he can for the “community” heElizabeth Aguilera / CalMatters
What is nipping at the edges of the gay community in West Hollywood has already swept through other gay neighborhoods across the country including Chelsea in New York, Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. and The Castro in San Francisco.
High prices aren’t the only drivers of the change, said Alex Bitterman, professor and chair of architecture and design at Alfred State College in Upstate New York. Bitterman is co-writing a book about the evolution of gay neighborhoods and what factors are at play.
These neighborhoods that have beckoned LGBTQ youth for decades have also been impacted by technology which makes it easier to find community and relationships online, broader social acceptance and whether young people feel the need or desire to live in enclave neighborhoods.
“The need to band together and to bolster one another is changing,” Bitterman said. “I don’t think it’s going away but the way we, as an isolated or ostracized community, gather is changing.”
In San Francisco’s Castro district, Terry Beswick, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, sees the high housing prices and the greater acceptance across society as the biggest factors for the hollowing out of the Castro.
“There’s less necessity to move into gay neighborhoods for safety,” he said. “We have more apps and online communities to find each other and find support for each other as we move into the post gay marriage era.”
But there is a generational difference, experts say.
Baby boomers and Gen Xer’s who created and flocked to gay neighborhoods grew up in a time when it was taboo to be gay and sometimes dangerous to reveal their sexual identity, even to family and friends.
“Young people are coming out in a different way, and what it means to them and how they live and the opportunities they have are different than previous generations. So their desire for exclusive gay options may be different than past generations,” said Gates. “They are growing up in a world that is quite different.”
Unlike other places, West Hollywood has been able to maintain a healthy gay population and is committed to its mission as an LGBTQ city, said Mayor John D’Amico.
According to city surveys, its population remains about 45% LGBTQ - mainly gay men. By and large gay neighborhoods were established by gay men and are home to very few lesbians, transgender folks and gays of color.
West Hollywood is different because of its cityhood and that may be its saving grace, Gates said. It is able to do what bigger cities can’t, focus on the LGBTQ residents by providing services, support and events. The city is known for its gay-centric focus. It started the first registry of domestic partners, offers health services and has a HIV zero campaign to stop the transmission of the virus.
“It was founded to be an LGBT haven,” Gates said. “It is unique among LGBT enclaves”
Before it became a city, the 1.9 square-mile area was unincorporated and had been home to mobsters who served alcohol during the Prohibition, the first movie studio and, eventually, gay nightlife.
In 1984 it was incorporated as West Hollywood, home to more than 37,000 residents, many of them gay. It continues to be a beacon for LGBTQ folks though it is much more expensive to move in than when D’Amico or councilwoman Lauren Meister arrived decades ago.
“They want to be here either to live or to work,” said Meister, who is not LGBTQ. “We have that edge. But I think it’s changing, and it’s changing partly because of the housing; and I think it’s also changing partly because of acceptance.”
For West Hollywood, where gay couples, who can now marry and have families, may be leaving for more suburban environs and some seniors may be retiring elsewhere there are still many aging gay residents who plan to stay.
That is creating a new moment in the city, said D’Amico.
“We haven’t lost our identify as an LGBTQ center for Los Angeles,” he said.
D’Amico said there’s an assumption that the city isn’t as gay as it used to be but he says it’s just that younger, straight professionals who pull up a bar stool are more visible than the senior immigrants who have lived in the community previously.
Block is skeptical about the numbers the city touts. He has seen friends and neighbors move away – many to the latest gay mecca of Palm Springs – or to other parts of the city that are more affordable.
It’s important, Block said, because there are still young people, who like him, show up to come out or to find a safe place. That’s true even if the city can’t provide cheap housing anymore.
“We got you,” he said. “I mean, you're amongst your own. I think that's the most beautiful part of the community is that we are able to do that.”
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