June is Pride Month, and Urban Strategies is marking it this year by examining the changing nature of the Gay Village as North American urban society shifts towards LGBTQ+ acceptance, gentrification, and greater technology use. Using a 2014 article in CityLab by Natalie Hope McDonald as a jumping-off point, our studio-wide conversation touches on privilege, commodification, and generational differences, specifically in Toronto.
“In Chicago’s Boystown, a neighborhood famous for its gay nightlife, residents of upscale condos are asking clubs to turn down the volume. In New York’s Greenwich Village, leather and sex shops have been replaced with high-end boutiques and nail salons. And in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood, a former nightclub’s been transformed into a trendy … daycare center? In cities around the country, the geographical hubs of gay culture — so-called “gayborhoods” — are changing… Yet while positive social and legal shifts have led to this change (from the Castro to Chelsea), we haven’t quite evolved past the point of needing them. Gayborhoods are still cultural capitals within the bigger, much more anonymous city. They are voting blocks and safe havens.” Read the whole article here.
Here’s how some of our Strategists respond:
Gay Villages were previously the only place LGBTQ+ folks could go to be both authentic and safe. While the surrounding city has become less homophobic/transphobic in the 21st century, The Village is still a special place for gay people like me. It’s not a place that I need to be for survival, but a place that I often want to be now and then. It’s an incredible feeling when you can find a place where you are not a minority, if only for a few blocks. North American cities have come a long way in recent years, but The Village is still the only place where you can forget that you are different. It is because of this that I think we will continue to have gay and other LGBTQ+ spaces – be it a bar, a bookstore, or an entire neighbourhood – in our cities.
- Neil Loewen, Planner
I believe the reasons that these neighbourhoods are undergoing such change extend beyond just mainstream acceptance. In part, there has been a shift in what the Village represents in the collective queer consciousness from one generation to the next. In other ways, and as a response to mainstream acceptance, Gay Villages have become both simulacra of what they used to be, and projections of what wider society expects them to be. As a result, the Gay Village as spectacle, as tourist attraction, and as gimmick has fueled the continued commodification of queer culture.
As an example, Montreal’s hugely popular boules roses installation in their Gay Village arguably catalyzed both gentrification and community displacement. As more room was made for tourists and cis-het visitors seeking a cultural experience, less room was afforded for long established residents, affordable bars and apartments. In the end, modern forms of the Gay Village coalesce elsewhere in the city. Toronto’s west end, specifically along West Queen West/ West Queer West doesn’t fit the mold of a gay village, but it performs as one, providing queer people with a shared meeting place in the city to build a community together, where their expression of queerness is theirs to create, and not theirs to inherit or have prescribed.
- Stephen Brophy, Urban Designer
The famous Gayborhoods in the US – The Castro in San Francisco, Boystown in Chicago, Greenwich Village in New York and Gayborhood in Philadelphia – today hold much significance as part of history of struggle of LGBTQ+ rights. These neighbourhoods, often neglected to begin with, have evolved into thriving cultural hubs under the influence of the gay community, and have begun to attract more people and business. Their growing popularity unfortunately is now displacing the very residents who played a role in their success. There is a strong role that policy and planning interventions, along with grassroots community engagement, can play to balance growth while preserving these very significant cultural and human rights bastions. As we are still battling against oppression based on race and gender, the need for the anchors of the LGBTQ+ movement to remain strong is further underscored. Not to forget, there are LGBTQ+ members who identify themselves as racial minorities, being even more vulnerable to oppression.
- Akanksha Chopra, Urban Designer
We haven’t reached the point of not needing gay neighbourhoods, but I think their role as a safe place to exist, to access services has become relatively less important (I recognize my privilege in saying this as I don’t require the types of services that The 519 for example would offer). Nonetheless, I see the Village’s role as a place of entertainment increasing in importance, relative to its role as a safe place/service centre (and of course the two aren’t mutually exclusive). I think an important outcome of this is gentrification that the LGBTQ+ community is both a victim to, but also complicit in.
- James Di Paolo, Planner
The original rationale for having such neighbourhoods was that it was a place of safety, security and freedom to be the person you truly are, love the person you love with no judgement or preconceived notions on how you should be, act or love. The overall message when entering such neighbourhoods is that you are welcome to share and participate, but not to dictate how you think things should be. By making it safe and secure for some members of the community, the neighbourhood becomes a place of safety, security and sanctuary for all of us.
- Mary Oko, Chief Financial Officer
There has been talk of the “death of the Village” (i.e. Church Street) in Toronto for decades, thanks to gentrification, exorbitant rents along the strip, and new condo developments replacing bars and local businesses. Yet, somehow, the Village continues to serve as an important gathering place for the LGBTQ+ community. It remains a main gathering point for the queer community, especially on evenings and weekends when the bars are bustling, loud and full of LGBTQ+ people and their friends/allies. Its resiliency still surprises me!
Definitely there are generational differences. The Village has historically served as a safe gathering place for people who felt threatened in the 70s, 80s and 90s. With the shift towards greater levels of acceptance and gay marriage in Canada throughout the 2000s, the need for a “safe” space is certainly less strong, but not gone. While Downtown Toronto/the inner city is generally a highly diverse and welcoming place, most other areas within the City/GTA are still places where I’d be hesitant to hold my partner’s hand on the street. These other areas are not overtly welcoming places for the LGBTQ+ community, so the Village, and perhaps more broadly Toronto’s Downtown, still serves as the “safe” place for many.
We can’t have this discussion without talking about how social apps have impacted the cohesiveness of the community. Before the rise of cell phones and apps, people had no other choice but to meet in person. Now we have Grindr and Tinder and Hornet and all the rest, which have changed social interaction and reduced the need for people to meet and converge in bars or other physical spaces. There is also definitely a generational difference, with younger people more comfortable and used to relying on technology to interact, and older people less dependent or familiar with these types of tools. With that said, these apps have not killed the Village. Actually, bars are still busy – with many people looking at their phones rather than the people in front of them!
- Tony De Franco, Planner
I never thought I would live my life in the gay ghetto, but through a combination of luck, opportunity and other circumstances I find that I have lived in the neighbourhood focused on the intersection of Church and Wellesley Streets for almost three decades. I use the term “ghetto” because that is what we called it before the more refined “Village” came into more common use a few years ago. A ghetto is a place both of security and exclusion, which in the early 1980’s when the focus of the gay community shifted from Yonge to Church Streets, was still what we needed – I needed. It was a place of community, services and amenity. A place from where we could fight for inclusion, but also a place that proclaimed our identity in, and contribution to, the great city of Toronto.
I suppose that “Village” might be a more apt word for the neighbourhood now that as a middle-aged, middle class, gay white male I have moved well beyond being a marginalized victim to become a privileged citizen. However, part of the beauty of being part of this neighbourhood is its ability to absorb others who struggle against continued marginalization. There is a place in Toronto for the Trans Community, for Black Lives Matter, for people escaping persecution in other nations because of their sexuality or gender identity, and many others. It is a privilege to share their identity and I look forward to celebrating/demonstrating with them once again on the last Sunday in June.
- Warren Price, Partner