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Harnessing Our LGBTQ+ Cultural Vibrancy Will Help NYC Survive and Thrive

Harnessing Our LGBTQ+ Cultural Vibrancy Will Help NYC Survive and Thrive

Image of Stonewall Inn at night

New York City's revival plans should include LGBTQ+ community, says Josh Wood.

By Josh Wood

I love New York. For someone LGBTQ+ like me, New York is the best city in the world. We have the most freedom here, and there’s widespread acceptance. There is the ability to succeed on one’s own merit, which means opportunity. There’s no “don’t say gay” here. As a gay man who has built his personal and business life in New York, and now a dad with two little girls I’m raising here, I want it to survive and thrive. And like many New Yorkers, I’m worried about our city’s future.

That’s why I welcomed the smart recommendations post pandemic revival from a panel of business and civic leaders assembled by Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams. But their plan, called “New New York: Making New York Work for Everyone,” does not go far enough. There’s no mention of the important role the LGBTQ+ community can play in New York’s survival and rebirth. Just like other communities in the city, LGBTQ+ people are invested in New York’s success, and we can and will help. And no group is better positioned to demonstrate why New York is so special.

New York’s unique brand of freedom plus opportunity is like no other. You can create social and professional networks here. People are friendly and welcoming, like one would expect from a “melting pot.” As a gay person, you can build a career, fall in love, and get married (we were among the first), you can go out and dance, and you can have sex. (Let’s remember that the gay liberation movement born here at Stonewall was originally about the freedom to have sex.)

I know New York can be challenging. When I first moved here in 1996 at 22 years old, I had very little money and I hated my job. All I had was hope. One morning before work I was watching the Today Show and Liza Minnelli sang New York, New York live from Rockefeller Plaza. I heard, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” and I thought, she’s right, I can make it. I was surviving on dollar hotdogs from Papaya King. I got clothes from trendy stores and returned them after I wore them. I found an apartment in Chelsea, where they had rainbow flags on the street and guys were holding hands and flirting. I still could not afford my fifth-floor walkup, but the feeling I got from the city was liberating and it made me stay, hustle, overcome challenges, and ultimately succeed.

My story is not unique. Every year a new crop of LGBTQ+ people arrive in our city to build a new life. Now, twenty-five years since I first moved here, I’m a fundraiser, philanthropist, and events producer focused on connecting people to raise money for social causes, and I’ve observed this phenomenon first-hand. I see it especially during Pride Month every June, including at a 3,000+ person dance event I host in Queens, which sells out online in minutes. New York still draws young LGBTQ+ people from across the country and the world because of what it has to offer.

The ”new” New York needs to reclaim its cultural vibrancy. I, for one, don’t want to have dinner at 6 P.M. Part of that requires bringing LGBTQ+ nightlife and culture back to Manhattan, where it is now too expensive for most people to try to start a business and the zoning is prohibitive. (Many clubs have moved to Brooklyn and Queens, taking their customers with them.) That’s one of the reasons people are moving to the hip areas in the outer boroughs -- the culture and nightlife are there too, so there’s no reason to come into Manhattan. Trust me, if you bring the nightlight back to Manhattan, people will go to their offices in Midtown. We must have the most exciting culture in Manhattan. The city needs to loosen its grip. People will come back. It’ll be worth the commute.

Public policy should also foster the creation of diverse cultural communities. Chelsea used to be a haven for gay people, and Greenwich Village before that. Now Chelsea is a shell of its former self and Greenwich Village seems reserved for hedge funders and the Wall Street crowd. Why not re-zone areas to permit unused, empty retail and office space to be used as cool theaters, clubs, and other cultural spaces? The beloved, and recently closed, Chelsea Cinema on 23rd St., for example, would be an ideal spot for a new cultural installation or club (two of the world’s most famous nightclubs, Studio 54 and The Saint, both started out as theaters). Our city and state officials need to be thinking about these things imaginatively. The panel assembled by the governor and the mayor only alludes broadly to ideas, but again, there is no mention of the LGBTQ+ community. The panel’s recommendations talk about creating neighborhoods where people want to live, work, and play, but there needs to be more focus on the contributions our community has made and can make in the future.

LGBTQ+ New Yorkers cherish the freedom and opportunity it provides. I know New York will survive, and that we will play a big part in its future. As Jennifer Coolidge says in The White Lotus, “The gays just know how to do stuff, you know? I mean, they’re survivors.” The same could be said of New Yorkers.

Josh Wood is the CEO of event company JWP.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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