Gays and gentrification -- it's a marriage unfettered by any DOMA debate. From San Francisco's SoMa in the '60s to Manhattan's West Village in the '70s to Los Angeles's Echo Park in '00s, the cycle of queer pioneers turning the dilapidated into destinations seems to be an intrinsic fact of urban life.
So goes San Diego's latest fashionable enclave, North Park, which has come into its own during the past decade as a more artsy-hipster adjunct to the neighboring gay ground zero Hillcrest. According to the 2000 Census, roughly 34% of the unmarried couples who live in North Park households are same-sex, although the area likely has many more LGBT residents, given that the Census did not identify single people by their sexual orientation. But whereas past gentrifications have often been viewed as gay-exclusive, North Park has taken a different route, harnessing the area's diversity of age and ethnicity to make it not so much a gay ghetto as a neighborhood emblematic of a changing gay-straight dynamic. Even more unusual, it all happened by civic design.
About 15 years ago North Park--bounded by Florida Street to the west, El Cajon Boulevard to the north, the 805 freeway to the east, and Juniper Street to the south--had lost its neighborhood soul. Big-box stores and malls had siphoned off local businesses' clientele. Mom-and-pop shops were boarded up, it was a ghost town at night, and among its tonier and tidier neighbors, it had a reputation for being a treacherous neighborhood. Although danger and crime were largely imagined -- thanks to the area's gritty look -- there was no doubt that North Park was an eyesore in perpetually sunny San Diego.
In 1996 city officials chose the North Park Main Street organization to revitalize and preserve the neighborhood's historic heart around 30th Street and University Avenue. Since then development has seen a notable upswing. Early on, the Mission (see sidebar), a gay-owned breakfast restaurant, along with the gay-friendly Claire de Lune coffee lounge and Caffe Calabria Coffee Roasting Co ., opened shop, jump-starting the area's reboot as a morning-to-evening destination. Today, roughly 15% of the 500-plus members of the Main Street program are gay- or lesbian-owned. Where 99-cent stores and urban blight once reigned now flourishes an eclectic blend of independent local shops, restaurants, bars, and galleries, along with retail boutiques and a variety of offices. Many of these businesses are housed in the neighborhood's numerous historic buildings, which were paradoxically saved from the demolish-and-rebuild ethos of the '90s by the locale's onetime undesirability.
Unsurprisingly, with its colorful mix of fashion- and design-forward residents, North Park has emerged as a player on the arts and culture scene as well. There are two monthly art walks (read: booze- and music-fueled shop hops) to choose from: the smaller but more established Ray at Night (RayAtNight.com; second Saturday) based around the Ray Street art galleries, and the more sprawling and younger North Park Nights (NorthParkNights.org ; third Saturday). The FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival will return to the historic Birch North Park Theatre this April 16-22.
Some locals lament the transition of classic strictly gay leather bars Wolf's/ReBar and Shooterz into the more straight-mixed venues Bluefoot Bar and Lounge and True North Tavern, but to many involved in the neighborhood's revitalization, assimilation is the point.
"Here you find gay and straight couples going out together," says Jay Turner, the out former executive director of North Park Main Street. "We built if that way from the beginning. It happened on purpose."
Where to Go
The Rubber Rose Expect high-end pleasure devices and frocks
to frolic in, plus locally designed gear, DVDs, zines, and plenty of
free, nonsketchy advice. TheRubberRose.com
Birch North Park Theatre Fully
restored to state-of-the-art grace by gay-managed Lyric Opera San
Diego, this 1928 theater beats as the historical-cultural heart of
North Park, drawing both the old guard and younger hipster gays. BirchNorthParkTheatre.net
The Mission North
Park owes a debt to this friendly "chino Latino" brunch joint for
bringing the soul back to the neighborhood just over 10 years ago.TheMission1.signsonsandiego.com
Lafayette Hotel and Suites North
Park's only hotel proper offers value accommodations in a
colonial-style manse. The Olympic-size terrazzo pool is particularly
key when San Diego's perpetual sunshine is too good to pass up. LafayetteHotelSD.com
Eclipse Chocolat Chocolatier
William Gustwiller whips up fresh pastries, thick cocoas, exotic
truffles, and candy bars in an assortment of exotic flavors. It's part
industrial-chic coffee-wine-beer bar, all chocolaty decadence. EclipseChocolat.com
Rufskin Denim This
line of high-end jeans, custom-fit leather and slim-cut swimwear keeps
it sexy at its brand-new flagship boutique. The '70s black-and-white
vibe meshes well (in mesh!) with its rugged American West, Tom of
Finland inspirations. Rufskin.com