How Does a Community Become a Gay Mecca?

In his now seminal book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida used rankings on diversity, bohemia, and openness to gay people to show how creative types — the people who create value out of nothing but their innovative ideas and designs — are attracted to cities that are open-minded, liberal, and gay-friendly. In a session at the American Planning Association conference in Los Angeles, city officials from two communities on the The Advocate magazine’s gayest cities index explained how small, seemingly random communities have become “gayest” and boosted economic development in the process.

Thomas Eddington, with Park City, Utah, which The Advocate said is the gayest city in the U.S., said some 3.8 percent of Americans (or around 9 million) are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, making this group the second smallest minority, right after American Indians. However, he said the data is at best a “guestimate” because the U.S. census doesn’t ask single residents about their sexuality. Now, there are about 650,000 same-sex couples in the U.S., and about 20 percent are raising children.

In the past, gay communities “congregated and created their own place.” A few examples come to mind: Provincetown, Massachusetts; Greenwich Village, New York; The Castro, San Francisco; and West Hollywood, California. However, in their recent list, The Advocate pushes these well-known locales further down in favor of smaller communities many haven’t heard of, largely through of their use of “qualitative factors, not real numbers.” Eddington thought that while The Advocate exercise was far from scientific, it may indicate that “gay is changing.”

Well-known gay neigborhoods all have liberal, tolerant populations that feature “coffeeshops, bars, cafes” in high-density mixed-use areas with lots of housing. They are often near universities. For gays and straights alike, “these are cool areas so economic development has often followed.” However, now, people are looking for “urban sophistication without urban gentrification.” As more of the country becomes tolerant, “gay people in Kansas can just go to Kansas City, they don’t need to go to D.C., New York City, or San Francisco.” 

As GLBT groups go mainstream, they may be diverging from the traditional gay areas, “going to places where people didn’t expect.” GLBT populations may be “assimilating more than we thought.” Still, Eddington thought that wherever these groups go, “community is still important.” And where the gay population lands, more educated, minority, and other creative populations often soon follow, “creating new centers of growth.”

One example is Wilton Manors in Florida. Hedi Shafran, who leads community outreach efforts in that city, said this “all-American small town has become the 2nd gayest city in the U.S,” using The Advocate’s approach. There are about 140 same-sex couples per 1,000, with an overall population of 11,863. She said that makes Wilton Manor very high on the list in terms of per-capita couples, but it’s total gay population is still very small in comparison with Ft. Lauderdale (the gayest mid-sized city), and D.C. (the gayest state).

Wilton Manors didn’t achieve its position through “gay gentrification, but through displacement.” In the 1990s, a number of factors came together to bring in gay populations: a growing affordable housing stock freed up by an aging population; a great location near the beach and Miami; attractive Florida-style homes; and economic opportunity. Shafran said local zoning changes combined with real estate investment basically triggered the gay migration.

In the 1920s, Wilton Manors was billed as a “upscale resort community.” It never really became that. A hurricane came through, the market crashed, and many of the dreams of the town’s founders went down the tubes. The town was almost exclusively white in a sea of Florida’s diverse population. There were even rumours of local KKK groups in action and “charges of homophobia.” Shafran said: “This place didn’t become a gay mecca because it was accepting.”

One community, Victoria Park, had become a “gay ghetto,” but “non-gays moved in because of the concentration of amenities.” The result was very steep rents, so gay people moved down the road into the more affordable Wilton Manors. There, after the community started to take root, the main strip was rezoned as a “arts and entertainment district.” Developers basically told the city council, “we can turn this into a gay mecca.” The city council, said Shafran, gave the thumbs-up as long as there were “no fortune tellers, no nudity, and no porn.” They said “this can’t become a seedy part of town.”

One result was booming commercial rents. In the arts & entertainment district, and the new transit-oriented development (TOD) that recently expanded the area, occupancy rates hit 100 percent and per square footage lease rates went from $8 to $32. The major increases in property values then increased city revenue, which was then funneled back into 10 new parks and other amenities. Shafran said “through gay-straight alliances, an old park was updated with gay money.” There has also been increased diversity. The town is now only 71 percent white, with a large number of Haitian immigrants moving in as well.

She said a really mixed town still has its own challenges though. The population is decreasing, particularly the share of the population under 18. While many of the businesses, which have names like “GaySha Sushi,” are popular among the gay residents, “we’ve heard that when straight people see a rainbow flag, they think it means ‘Don’t come in. You’re not welcome here.'” There are limited cross-cultural or really any cultural activities. Undoing a local zoning ban, a porn shop has opened (and it’s run by straight men). As rents increase in Wilton Manors, there has also been “gay suburban migration.”

So, one message was that while open, tolerant places do attract gay communities, which in turn help to bring in creative professionals, other minorities, and economic development, it’s really smart zoning that helped grow Wilton Manors. Shafran said arts & entertainment districts, business incubators, and film studio zoning all help build the foundation.

Image credit: Wilton Manors / Wilton Manors Real Estate

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