In a nationally unprecedented move, the city of Chicago installed tax-funded, rainbow-colored pylons along North Halsted Street in 1997 as a way to celebrate the area’s sexual diversity. The $3.2 million dollar streetscape made “Boystown” the first officially designated gay neighborhood in the United States.
“This has been a labor of love,” Mayor Richard Daley announced to the cheering crowd on the day of its unveiling. “I knew from the beginning it was about fairness—fairness to this community. I am thanking you for what you (the GLBT community) have done for North Halsted Street for many, many years.”
Some of us might question the investment of millions in highlighting an area like Boystown—especially with mounting evidence that the neighborhood’s demographics are shifting toward increasing numbers of heterosexual households. Is it possible, as the New York Times once so damningly put it, that “gay enclaves face prospect of being passé?”
About half of Illinois’s estimated 25,710 same-sex partner households live in Cook County, which includes Chicago and several suburbs to the north, south, and west. Forty percent of these households reside in the four northernmost neighborhoods along Lake Michigan. Lakeview, which houses Boystown, has the largest concentration. It is home to 1,106 same-sex households, or 12 percent of the city’s total, followed by Edgewater (951 households, or 10.3 percent), Rogers Park (736, 8 percent), and Uptown (635, 6.9 percent). Lakeview’s rate of self-reported same-sex households (2.1 percent) is above the city’s average (0.9 percent), but its sexual portfolio lately boasts many more straight people.
Demographers confirm that zip codes associated with traditional gay neighborhoods in the 100 most populous regions of the country are, in fact, “de-concentrating” and becoming less “segregated,” to borrow their words. Fewer same-sex households lived in them in 2010 than they did in 2000.
The RedEye, a free daily paper in Chicago,ran a cover story that lamented these changes. “Boystown, a haven for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community since the ‘70s, is losing gay residents,” the journalist announced, “while more heterosexuals are moving in.”
Why is this happening?
“The gay neighborhood? It’s pretty much all of Chicagoland.”
As I was writing my book on the alleged demise of gayborhoods across the country, I discovered two main reasons why these urban districts are de-gaying (GLBT people are moving out) and straightening (straights are moving in).
First, the ongoing integration of sexual minorities into the mainstream is reversing an earlier propensity for many of them to live in the same area of the city. Alderman Tom Tunney of the Forty-Fourth Ward, which includes Boystown, told me: “It’s not just one neighborhood. Gay is okay in major cities. Period. It’s just not as ghettoized. It’s not this pocket and this pocket. It’s everywhere.”
A gay man said in the same vein, “The argument can be made that the entire North Side is homosexual.” Another added, “The gay neighborhood? It’s pretty much all of Chicagoland.”
No longer limited to one small pocket, GLBT city dwellers are expanding their residential portfolios to include the entire city as a safe, livable place.
It’s a mistake to assume that GLBT people must surrender what makes us culturally unique in order to participate in the most foundational institutions of American society.
Second, many GLBT Chicagoans today feel culturally similar to their straight neighbors. “We’re just like them,” one lesbian told me. “We love the same way, we want to have the same sorts of fulfillment in our lives.”
Another explained how this affects her decisions about where to live: “We can live anywhere. You could live with us. And at the end of the day, that’s the happiest ending.”
Some people worry that this residential dispersion signals the dilution of our community. But I think it’s a mistake to assume that GLBT people must surrender what makes us culturally unique in order to participate in the most foundational institutions of American society. Full equality does not demand that we renounce our colorful queer citizenship.
History instructs. As a community, we have moved steadily northward in Chicago since the late nineteenth century and revived the gayborhood along the way: from Towertown to Old Town to New Town to Boystown—and now to Andersonville and Rogers Park.
This long-standing sequence demonstrates what sociologists call “homophily.” The idea is simple: birds of a feather flock together. As we leave an area in which we once clustered, we have used our creative energies to resurrect a new gayborhood somewhere else. We see this pattern in many major cities, including Chicago, of course, but also in New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
Furthermore, these cities, and many others, prominently feature a variety of commemorative markers, such as the rainbow pylons and the Legacy Walk in Chicago; permanent rainbow colored crosswalks in West Hollywood and San Francisco; rainbow flags under street signs in Philadelphia’s gayborhood; the designation of Frank Kameny Way in DC; and the dedication of Harvey Milk Street in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego. Such municipal markers preserve these culturally sacred spaces without naively denying the realities of residential change.
Gayborhoods may not have that je ne sais quoi, center-of-the-universe feeling that they once had, but this does not mean that they are passé.
Amin Ghaziani, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, is the author of There Goes the Gayborhood?