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After AIDS, gay
neighborhoods in U.S. may be victims of own success

After AIDS, gay
neighborhoods in U.S. may be victims of own success

The Castro district in San Francisco vibrates with energy, most of it male. Men holding hands, walking dogs, and lounging at cafes have long been the main attraction in a neighborhood known around the world as a gay destination.

Yet where visitors see a living monument to gay pride, longtime community leader Brian Basinger sees a cultural enclave at risk of becoming a faded museum piece or worse, a place where men who love men may one day feel like they do not belong.

"When I see a stroller now, I see it as someone who evicted a person with AIDS, right or wrong," said Basinger, president of the Harvey Milk Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transsexual Democratic Club.

For more than 30 years, most big cities in the United States have had a district either explicitly or implicitly understood to be the place to go if you were gay: the West Village and Chelsea in New York City, Washington's Dupont Circle, Boston's South End.

But as gays and lesbians win legal rights and greater social acceptance, community activists worry these "gayborhoods" are losing their relevance. Like the bedsheet-size rainbow flag at the intersection marking the entrance to the Castro, they are at a historical crossroads.

"What I've heard from some people is, 'We don't need the Castro anymore because essentially San Francisco is our Castro,'" said Don Romesburg, who cochairs the GLBT Historical Society.

Don Reuter, a New York writer who is researching a book on the rise and fall of a dozen gay neighborhoods in the U.S., has observed the same trend in cities such as New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Seattle. He found "Disneyfied" places boasting chain stores and "cleared of any reference to sex."

"What makes these neighborhoods gay? Not much," concluded Reuter, who predicts that outside New York, San Francisco, and a handful of other cities, neighborhoods with a significant gay presence will not survive.

In the early 1970s an atmosphere of wild abandon prevailed in districts often referred to as "gay ghettos." Men who had kept their sexual orientations hidden reveled in the freedom of leading openly gay lives for the first time. The party dragged to a painful halt in the 1980s with the onset of AIDS, Reuter said, but the crisis also solidified gay communities even as it decimated them.

Now, as the fear of AIDS has abated, the neighborhoods have become attractive to developers and investors trying to encourage families and others to return to city centers.

Signs of change include the security gates installed last year by a local hotel to discourage "cruising" for gay sex, and the recent closings of two longtime stores, one that sold leather goods and the other bath products. National retail chains like Pottery Barn and Diesel now occupy prominent Castro locations.

Several nonprofit agencies serving the gay community have also moved out due to rising rents. Meanwhile, 500 new apartments and condominiums are planned for the area, half of which have been designated as "family housing."

But no one is suggesting that the Castro has been overrun by heterosexuals just yet.

After the Cape Cod resort of Provincetown, Mass., the neighborhood has the nation's highest concentration of same-sex couples, according to 2005 U.S. census estimates. And San Francisco as a whole ranks first among cities, with gay and lesbian residents making up 15% of the population.

Some activists point to cities with less-established gay districts, however, as a sign of what could happen. Honolulu's Kuhio district stands vacant after its gay bars were dispersed in the late 1980s. In Atlanta's Midtown, gay nightclubs recently have given way to condominiums.

"We have Chinatown and Japantown and so forth, and that's important for minority communities in this country, to have a place where they can get a sense of being the majority," said Joe Curtin, an architect who serves as president of Castro Area Planning Action. "But if you took those away, you would still have China and Japan. If the Castro goes away as a gay neighborhood, there is nowhere else."

From 2000 to 2005, the 10 states with the biggest increases in the percentage of gay couples were all in the Midwest, says Gary Gates, a demographer for the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA that specializes in sexual orientation and the law.

"Thirty years ago, if I lived in the Midwest and I was gay, my thought was I would go to San Francisco or New York," Gates said. "Now, a person can go to Kansas City and find a fairly active and open gay community." (Lisa Leff, AP)

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