Episode 5

Gilded rainbows:

Inside the changing face of gaybourhoods.

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“I think that they will be around because they serve such an important function for people who are migrating from different countries, for example, or a young person coming to the big city from a rural area hoping to find people like themselves. It's really important to have this physical kind of space that people can go to and identify with.”

Julie Podmore, professor and researcher, Concordia University

"It's really important to have this physical kind of space that people can go to and identify with."

In this episode

Gaybourhoods have historically been places of safety, connection, friendship, and romance for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

But as tides turn toward increasing inclusion, policies change, old establishments close, and developers and non-LGBTQ+ identifying persons move in, what is happening to these once sacred spaces --- what becomes of the gaybourhood as it has been, as times change?

In this episode of Changing Places, host Mariam Sobh explores the current state and future of gay neighborhoods and villages with academic Julie Podmore of Concordia University, and Avison Young’s Andy Bird.

Highlights

  • 3:53 Julie Podmore shares how the mainstreaming of gaybourhoods and emerging trends from the late 1990’s have contributed to their decline.
  • 18:33 Julie Podmore discusses how the word “inclusion” has taken on multiple meanings, relating to the recent name change of Montreal’s Gay Village.
  • 24:15 Andy Bird reflects on how changes in wider society are making gay towns less relevant.

Click here to expand transcript

Speaker 1 [00:02] I'm in London's famous Soho neighborhood on a glorious sunny day, talking to people about gaybourhoods.

Speaker 2 [00:10] I think attitudes have changed with more people being gay and coming out. And the city is very free. You can be who you want to be here.

Speaker 3 [00:21] Basically, I think that's down to people wanting to live in the area. They complain about what was Soho, which was nightlife and all the life that was here. The bars, the nonsense that used to carry on and whatever else have you. And now, if anything happens, they complain. So, why would people want to come to Soho? It's losing what it used to have.

Speaker 4 [00:42] I'd say I'm a very young man. Well, I can tell you that, actually this is the first time I found out that it was a gay neighborhood. I thought it was like a sexy place. I knew it had a certain sense of debauchery to it, but I didn't know that was tied to anything LGBT.

Andrew Bird [00:56] I think first summer I went was probably around 2007, 2008 Pride Event. I didn't really experience it properly though until I was 18. So around 2011.

Mariam Sobh [01:08] In our modern age, the gaybourhood has provided solace and refuge to members of the LGBTQ+ community in search of community, family, romance, or a mixture of all three. And yet, as the tide turns towards inclusion where it didn't exist before, when the old establishments of the gaybourhood close and developers move in. What becomes of places like West Hollywood, Chelsea, the Village in Montreal, or Paris' Le Marais?

Consider this: The Lesbian Bar Project notes that as of 2021, there are only 21 lesbian bars in all of the United States of America, with two in California. According to the gay travel guide, Damron, there were 1500 gay bars in the United States in 2019. Down from 2, 500 in 1976. What does this tell us about the health, vitality, and future of gaybourhoods? Can businesses and entertainment venues stay alive as the cost of rent soars, interests shift, and people demand more of these spaces that have traditionally been offered to them. We'll explore all of that and more with my guest, Julie Podmore affiliate, assistant professor of geography, planning, and environment at Concordia University. Throughout this episode, we'll also hear from Andrew Bird of Avison Young about the changing face of the gaybourhood in Birmingham, England.

I'm Mariam Sobh and this is Changing Places. Let's head to Birmingham, England to hear from Andrew Bird about their gaybourhood.

Andrew Bird [02:33] So around 2011, I think since then there's been good and bad changes. I feel like there's a lot more variety here now. Not just bars or hidden venues. Where we're currently standing now at the top of Hurst Street, when you look down, you see a few bars, outdoor spaces, a lot more socialization. There's place's like Loft Lounge, where you can sit and eat and you have a beer garden. A lot more outdoor spaces being utilized now. It's created such a good vibes and it's opened up gates a lot more to diverse people. But then in terms of bad, there've been closures since then, which COVID didn't help. I've seen in the news this week, that a club called Chic is closing down, which I believe opened in 2004. There are also a lot of luxury apartment developments, which will start to begin making people nervous for the future.

Mariam Sobh [03:10] In order to understand how we got here, I'm going to chat with Julie Podmore, who has given a lot of thought time and research into the evolution of gaybourhoods, specifically The Village in Montreal. Julie Podmore, welcome to Changing Places.

Julie Podmore [03:24] Oh, thank you for having me.

Mariam Sobh [03:25] Julie, if we take a step back and look at the origins and evolution of gaybourhoods, like the Castro in San Francisco or The Village in Montreal, they often started as an immigrant or former immigrant neighborhood where rent was cheap. People could build their own community. And I wonder this may be quite a vast question here, but how did the gaybourhood wind up being at risk for its survival when it was created to serve those mainstream society, for lack of a better term, seemed to shun?

Julie Podmore [03:54] The gaybourhood has been through many stages. And I suppose initially those neighborhoods were chosen because they were marginal and people were able to create kind of safe havens for themselves in neighborhoods like the Castro or in Montreal's gay Village, which is working class east end. But over time, of course, gay villages diversified. They became much more integrated into the urban economy and were mainstreamed really in the 1990s. And so, in a way they're victims of their popularity. They're seen much more as places for non LGBT entrepreneurs to invest in. And for these reasons there's been a lot of economic and cultural change in them. And a lot of displacement, I think, of the original gay bars and bath houses and so on, the anchors really of those gay village landscapes.

Mariam Sobh [04:48] So it seems like from the late nineties through the mid 2010s, gaybourhoods really had a moment. Pride month was huge. People wanted to be in those neighborhoods for a variety of reasons. Internal civic engagement seemed really high in places like West Hollywood and Boystown. To your knowledge, when did this change? When did we begin to see a decline in gaybourhoods?

Julie Podmore [05:09] I think we can go back to the late 1990s and to think about what was going on in gaybourhoods then. As you mentioned, they were becoming increasingly incorporated into, for example, municipal plans and becoming incorporated as part of business improvement districts. And so, that really increased the commercial scope of those environments. And a lot of the entrepreneurs began to rework those spaces and through that, they became much more mainstreamed. Especially, with the introduction, for example of chains and franchises and things that have very little to do with the actual gay village, so that there aren't necessarily gay restaurants in the gay village anymore. And so, that really contributed to the mainstreaming. I guess the advent of a number of political and social and communications changes are what most of the people in the literature believe changed the role of the gay village. The most important being the social media.

So, people don't need to necessarily go to physical spaces to meet each other and to build up community that can be done much more now online. And through social media apps, you can find supportive environments online and that's become much more important than actual physical space. And then of course, the rise of equality, the non- discrimination clauses against LGBT people, the civic and franchise of gay marriage. And here in Canada, that happened in 2005. And all of those things transformed LGBT people into citizens and therefore, having greater number of civil rights. It meant that they were not necessarily as marginal anymore. At least some LGBT people were not as marginalized, those who could be. Of course, that leaves a whole host of other people who haven't been enfranchised, that are part of the LGBT community and the nuances of social class and race and so on and so forth. That means a number of groups remain excluded and feel disenfranchised, I guess you could say.

Speaker 5 [07:08] Over the past five years, there's been a much more corporate influence in Soho with chains rather than independents. And this is due to business rates from Westminster City council and also excessive rents with landlords wanting to maximize the spaces. So there are fewer independents. A lot more chains around which isn't quite good. And I also think that a gay neighborhood, Soho's always been a mixed neighborhood.

Mariam Sobh [07:37] Do you think that the changes that you mentioned from society and governments, seeing a shift in their acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, could that be a reason why some neighborhoods are disappearing? Aside from technology, is it also just because it's becoming a part of the mainstream that people don't see a need for niche?

Julie Podmore [07:59] I think so. Those people, the gay villages often accused now of being homonormative, that it represents a very particular, mostly white gay man. And his sort of way of engaging in urban space, his sort of territoriality and perhaps his affluence and the gentrification that's associated with the gay village. Yeah. That's one of the key points, but furthermore, another really key component of this is the way that cities are changing broadly in and of themselves. So there's a lot of displacement coming now from, for example, here in Montreal, the expansion of the entertainment district is leading to quite a lot of displacement and impacting the gay village itself. And of course, rising housing costs, rising commercial land costs. All of those things are underlying sort of the displacement of the gay village as well. Back when one of our major lesbian bars closed in 2016 in The Village, I think that the rent for that bar was something like $ 20,000 a month.You have to sell a lot of beers to be able to pay rent for $ 20,000 a month. So that's one of the biggest challenges I think as well.

And more and more people are moving out of the city. We have this kind of model of what we call the metronormativity model, that to be queer or to be LGBT, you need to move to the city. That's the only place you could be gay. But of course, ultimately, our cities across North America and in Europe are becoming much more expensive, the inner city areas. And it means that many people need to move out to find more affordable housing. And that means that there are more and more people living in more suburban environments or in neighborhoods that we might think of as being inner city adjacent and slightly queer friendly. That's another component of all of this. The queer friendly neighborhood emerging in other parts of the inner city where affordable housing can still be found.

Mariam Sobh [09:55] Stay tuned for the next part. And just a reminder Changing Places is a podcast brought to you by Avison Young. That continues to explore and question our complex relationship with the built world around us. I'm your host, Mariam Sobh. I hope you're liking the show so far. If so, please share Changing Places with your friends. Welcome back to Changing Places. Before we get back to my conversation with Julie Podmore, let's go back to London to hear what people there think about changes to Soho.

Speaker 4 [10:27] I don't like the idea of landlords, any governmental body, like a city, doing something to ensure that there's an enclave of LGBT people or Chinese people... sorry, that's the next example. Or anything of the sort. I think that we're all spread out. Many Generation Z people are identifying as LGBT. I think it's like one in six or something. I don't think that we need to isolate these people anymore for protection. I think that we're a tolerant people and we should spread out that kind of love.

Speaker 2 [10:56] I think the landlords should realize that if there were more gay bars opening and it being more like that, there's always a thing about the gay pink pound. So more people have got more money to spend.

Speaker 6 [11:07] I think we're a community that's thriving. We have the pink pound. We've probably got spare cash to spend and disposable income. I think it's definitely a community that businesses, landlords, and councilors, and governments should pay more attention to purely because of the fact that we have more disposable income. Yeah.

Speaker 7 [11:24] I think Soho is more like the heart of London at times. And if that's lost, it'll be a real shame. It's not even been pushed out to the edges anymore. Because those little mini gaybourhoods are also being lost.

Mariam Sobh [11:37] Julie, let's look ahead to the next 10 or 20 years to see what you think lies in store for gaybourhoods. But first let's head back to Birmingham to hear from Andrew Bird. We'll be back after this.

Andrew Bird [11:49] So we're here on Kent Street now. It's halfway down Hurst Street. It's home to Nightingale's and sidewalk bars on the corner. For me, this has always been the center of Gay Town. Nightingale's was the first gay club I've ever been to. And probably my favorite. And I'd probably say the most popular club now, which has survived since I've started coming anyway. Luckily, I've been told the lease has been renewed since. And so, I'm really glad that she's still standing. For me, this was the first club I could be myself and not to worry about homophobia.

So, it's all different types of people, all getting along and having fun without the worry. It's an important place for the community. And I don't think Gay Town would be the same without it, which just further down the road on Lower Essex Street, a club called Deviate used to be located. I believe it opened in 1999 but suddenly it closed down after the sale of the venue in 2011. From what I've been told, it was one of the best places to be. A lot of people were sad about the news when it was closing down and still speak fondly of it now. Which reminds me to be grateful for Nightingale's, and other clubs that are still operating.

Mariam Sobh [12:40] Julie, what are you seeing in gaybourhoods right now when it comes to things like services and entertainment options? Are those still stuck in city- centric neighborhoods or are you seeing a push to suburban and rural areas?

Julie Podmore [12:54] My project on queering suburbia with Alison Bain at York University, we've found that there is really over the course of our study, over the last five years, the emergence of, for example, suburban support centers for LGBT youth. And even here in the Vancouver region, gay prides that have developed in the suburban municipality. I think what's happening is there's a combination of the displacement of LGBT adults. And sometimes even seniors from the center of the city. And meanwhile, young queer people, LGBT identified in suburbs are coming out a lot earlier. There's a lot more support for that. And so, they're coming out when they're living in suburbia with their families. 70% of all North Americans live in suburbs.

So, a lot of my work has been on the response of municipalities and how not all suburban municipalities, but some will try to mark that inclusion by having things like by holding proclamations of Gay Pride Day or of the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. As well as raising rainbow flags, for example. Or even painting rainbow crosswalks in their suburbs so that they can mark themselves as inclusive. I'm not saying that those don't go uncontested. Very often rainbow crosswalks are vandalized in suburbs, but we're starting to see an emerging sort of queer politics in suburbia that's quite visible and quite public and quite central to the politics of inclusion in those spaces.

Speaker 8 [14:25] Yeah. I think you look at Gen Z and the whole sort of gay lesbian thing doesn't really exist for them. It's less relevant to them, but I think there's still a nice feeling to come somewhere, which is quite sort of gay. And I don't know, local, I suppose.

Mariam Sobh [14:39] Kind of going back to the origins of gaybourhoods. If folks can't afford to live in the Castro or Boystown, they don't want to move back to the suburbs. What's the option for them? Are they moving to cheaper neighborhoods in order to form new gaybourhoods aligned with their individual expression or interest, for example?

Julie Podmore [14:57] One of the ways we can think of this is as gaybourhoods are losing their prominence as places to live in. And also places where LGBT people consume specific forms of entertainment and community, for example. And we have to think that there are a number of different kinds of spatial formations emerging, I guess. One is the sort of queering up suburbia, the decline and then others, the decline of the village. And I think another element of this is the rise of what we might call the queer friendly neighborhood. So you have more and more people who, let's say because of increased social rights and enfranchisement are quite comfortable living in any neighborhood. Not one that's necessarily designated as queer and maybe even take pleasure in living in a neighborhood that is a culturally diverse neighborhood, where they feel a sense of acceptance and an anonymity even.

And this has typically been the way that lesbian neighborhoods have actually formed, but more and more now, we're starting to see certain neighborhoods identified as maybe being queer friendly. They're friendly to diversity in a broad sense. Usually, that's referring to ethnocultural diversity as well as LGBT populations. And those are usually other inner city neighborhoods and they are right on the frontiers, usually of gentrification. Of course, a lot of LGBT inner city residents are very much both displaced by gentrification and really wrapped up in it. Often at its frontiers in their search for a place for acceptance or a neighborhood where they feel comfortable in an area that's queer friendly.

But I think the queer friendly neighborhood is one of the sort of rising phenomena and each of them will have, for example, different social characteristics. For example, here in Montreal, I've done a study on the queer mile- end, which is Brooklyn. I don't know the equivalent in Los Angeles or San Francisco, but it's a hipster neighborhood. And it's also partly a queer neighborhood. Associated of course, with artistic production in the creative city. And that's where upper middle class young queers live, but we can find other neighborhoods for example, because Montreal's divided into English and French. In the east end, it's really politicized, queer Francophone's living in a neighborhood called Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. And in the west end, a neighborhood called Saint- Henri is more sort of English and has different composition. So, sorting out of the queer city into different and new pockets, I guess you could say.

Speaker 8 [17:25] I think there's been lots of development here and probably that's also pushed out what was typically the gay community. And before that, it was more of a red light district. So it's always had a little bit of a hipster, edgy feel to it. I think in the last five years it's become a little bit more normalized or bourgeois shall we say.

Speaker 3 [17:43] To be quite frank, part of the vibe's already gone. I remember coming to Soho 10, 15 years ago. I never wanted to leave. It was amazing. Now this is the first time I think I've been in, in three months and I live in Greenwich. I've been here 10 years now. And I used to enjoy coming down to Soho for a drink after work. Now I can't be arsed. Because there's nothing to really draw me here.

Mariam Sobh [18:05] When we talk about folks being turned away from some of these communities and neighborhoods, are we seeing that, for example, people coming in wanting to have bachelorette parties. Are they being turned away or is inclusion more about services for people let's say with children, people who may not adhere to a cis gendered identity?

Julie Podmore [18:27] Inclusion is a really complicated word these days in urban planning and urban studies because inclusion has this ability to stand alongside the words like diversity. And they can be easily corrupted into promotional strategies that promote certain kinds of neighborhoods and they can be associated with the kind of performative or symbolic politics. That doesn't necessarily always mean providing resources for a group, but rather just saying, for example, here in Montreal, they decided that they want to change the name of the Gay Village. Historically, it was called Le Village gai in French. And many people feel that's not inclusive enough for example.

I don't think a name change is going to change, for example, the resources that are available in terms of the community spaces and the commercial venues and so on and so forth. Inclusion sometimes can be highly symbolic in that way rather than be substantive in terms of actually making a change where people will want to come back to the gay village or find it a viable place, a place full of resources for themselves. That would require a lot of work on the part of municipal governments, I think to really recognize that gay villages were historically commercial spaces. And without those commercial spaces, they won't exist and the only way to combat that really is to build more subsidized community spaces that will bring people back to that environment, whether it's community center right at the center of the gay village or other kinds of maybe more experimental community sites that might put the LGBT archive aside, a youth center or something like that and create synergies between them. It could be all kinds of ways of transforming that space, but it takes a lot of government initiative really to support the cultural infrastructure necessary to preserve gay villages.

Speaker 2 [20:27] When a gay neighborhood or even places like Chinatown will cease to exist, then it's just changing the city to something that it is always been. I've lived in London for God, too many years and it's always stayed the same. So if you change a neighborhood it's no longer Soho and Soho has just got a reputation of being gay Chinatown and the place to come and visit in the evenings.

Speaker 5 [20:51] I take issue with the word gaybourhood because Soho has always been an incredible, diverse, creative industries, shop workers. All sorts, nightclub people. So, it's always been a very mixed kind of space where gay people have felt safe and independent owners of bars and restaurants who want to open up a gay venue, have no issue there. And there's always been a mixture with non gay people as well. So gaybourhoods, I would say Soho's never been a gaybourhood and it does sound a bit North American to me, that term anyway.

Andrew Bird [21:24] With people moving out of gaybourhoods, I think part of it is a natural shift where as we get older, we want to move out of the city and have bigger places and more green spaces. For example, this (inaudible) is King's Heath, which is getting quite a popular area. I think a lot of it though is to do with the luxury living spaces that are becoming so more expensive, which is pricing many people out. I think coupling that with the venues closing down and the feeling that Gay Town, like security and CCTV. People are not getting the benefit they used to have. So, they move out and just come in and visit. So they leave. I think the evolution has to be around having more variety. As far as I'm aware, there's only one dedicated space for gay women. The Fox Bar. I think we need more restaurants, cafes, leisure facilities. (inaudible) things beyond drinking. I think if we have more affordable living, particularly having places for the older LGBTQ+ community, we'll make it a safer space and more inclusive for everyone. And I think that's the best way we can evolve.

Mariam Sobh [22:12] Julie, if we look ahead to the next decade or two, what do you think lies ahead for gaybourhoods? Not only The Village in Montreal, but around the world?

Julie Podmore [22:20] I would like to say that I think that they will be around because they serve such an important function for people who are migrating from different countries, for example. Or a young person coming to the big city from a rural area, hoping to find people like themselves. It's really important to have this physical kind of space that people can go to and identify with. But I think they'll probably go through a complete decline because really what I see there is the commercial venues. They're no longer very specific. I personally don't need to go to the gaybourhood and there's nothing offered to me there or to many other people there that you can't find in another neighborhood. The only thing would be the bars for example, but those are declining in numbers all over as well. I think really the only solution is a cultural one and support for maybe cultural organizations and ensuring that they continue to be located in those environments to pull people back.

But I don't think that we can depend on the commercial infrastructure of gay villages to create a future for the gay village basically. Because they're just business and enterprises for the most part. And also, I can speak from the Montreal perspective, but I'm sure this is going on in many other places. Of course, there're all kinds. Gay villages have made parts of the inner city attractive spaces for investors. And that has ultimately meant that there are now large redevelopment programs and projects that are associated with that space. And ultimately, that really changes the dynamic in those spaces. It's difficult to find a way to build the vitality of those spaces when there's a dramatic change in the residents brought by urban redevelopment programs.

Mariam Sobh [24:09] Julie, thank you for joining us on Changing Places.

Julie Podmore [24:11] Oh thank you so much for having me.

Mariam Sobh [24:13] And finally, Andrew Bird.

Andrew Bird [24:16] The changes have been in wider society, making gay towns less relevant I feel. All that's staple to people now. We're seeing LGBTQ people in our culture being made more mainstream like drag brunches and raves and different events, which are a lot more inclusive. I feel like people are a lot more likely to go to these venues and events because they're a lot more comfortable for everybody. At least not being afraid to be LGBTQ, which then makes Gay Town less relevant. We've got places like Alberts Schloss, which is one of my favorite places to go to which isn't within Gay Town, but it is bringing us into the mainstream and it makes us feel safe.

I think the future of gay villages is more inclusivity. We should be focused on catering for all aspects of the community, not just gay clubs and bars. Spaces for all members of our community. We need special housing, social housing for all the LGBTQ people. We need more affordable living spaces. We need more safe spaces for women and non- binary people. We need community centers or career advisors to help everybody at all ages and aspects of their life. I think if we can keep creating a safe space and sense of belonging for everyone, we can secure the future of gaybourhoods.

Mariam Sobh [25:09] I'd like to thank Julie Podmore and Andrew Bird for taking the time to talk to us about the world of gaybourhoods. I think one thing that stuck out to me is how changes in moods, attitudes, ideals, goals, and even federal policy, can begin to change spaces in a very quiet, subtle way. For many, the gaybourhood seemed like a fixed settled idea. Some had their own representative in government. Others became entertainment beacons for people around the world. And yet, the winds of change happen. People move, businesses close. A new generation of people demand more of a gaybourhood than it can or is willing to provide. And perhaps that's not a bad thing. If more services and choices overall are located in other parts of the city, in the suburbs and in rural areas, then in theory, everyone wins. But a gaybourhood like most neighborhoods must continue to change, evolve, and demand to stay relevant into the next fiscal year, the next decade, and far beyond. For every West Hollywood, there's Seattle's first long forgotten gaybourhood, Pioneer Square. Yes, things come and go, but a community in whatever form it takes, must continue to fight for its very existence.

I'm Mariam Sobh. This is Changing Places. Changing Places is brought to you by Avison Young. Our producer is Andrew Pemberton Fowler. Our sound engineer is Patrick Emile. Our producer assistant is Hugh Perkic. Additional production support is provided by Jar Audio.

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