Monday, March 26, 2007

Will the last gay man please turn out the lights?

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, West, ran an interesting and rather touching article about the ongoing demise of the gay bar scene in Laguna Beach. The article brings up many issues related to what makes a "gay community", whether we're in a "post-ghettoization" era, and whether gentrification is resulting in gay businesses and residents being priced out of previously gay areas.

Laguna Beach isn't alone in its evolution. From South Beach to San Francisco, progress and economics are creating similar debates.

Though gay neighborhoods are thriving in some cities—Houston, for example—other, more settled enclaves are changing fast. The Castro district in San Francisco has had to make room for more and more straight families. In West Hollywood, straight college kids have infiltrated gay bars, sometimes by the busload, and one of the biggest concerns is what a city official has termed "heterosexualization."

Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, has watched the development with mixed feelings. "The loss of these enclaves does hurt and is something to be deeply concerned about," he says.

On the other hand, much of the change is being driven by inexorable forces. The Internet, he explains, has made it less important for gays and lesbians to go to special bars and communities to meet each other. And the once-blighted neighborhoods that were settled by gays—often because they felt unwelcome elsewhere—now are so gentrified, in many cases, that younger people can't afford them.

"Property values go up and straight families move in and gay people move on," Foreman says, "either because they want to capitalize on their investment or simply can't afford to live there anymore."

And underlying it all may be an even bigger factor: the power of acceptance, says UCLA demographer Gary Gates. The post-HIV era and the debate over same-sex marriage, he says, have brought about a major shift in public attitudes and "a fairly big coming-out process."

I don't have time right now to tackle all of the issues that this article brings up, but I found myself both pensive and somewhat sad and nostalgic reading it (though I've never once partaken in Laguna's gay scene).

Of course, Laguna has been a "gay spot" in a way that Santa Barbara has not been, but I couldn't help but feel some parallels to the situation here. There has not been a gay bar here in town for about two years now (since the closure of "Hades" on W. Montecito Street), and I believe there was a lack of any bar for a year or so prior to the opening of Hades.

I also certainly don't think that there will ever be massive shutterings of gay bars in big or even medium-sized cities as a result of whatever demographic or economic shifts are implied by this article. Certainly, specific businesses will come an go, but I don't think we have to worry about a Castro/Market corridor without even one gay bar (well, at least for a few more decades, until there's perhaps some much larger demographic shift).

However, this all makes me wonder what's happening in smaller towns and cities like Santa Barbara, Laguna Beach, and others. I suspect that perhaps there's not just one trend taking hold. I think of a place like Asbury Park, New Jersey, which has for a long time had a "gay vibe," but has actually seen several gay-oriented businesses spring up in the past few years (while the decades-old hole-in-the-wall bar "Down the Street," which survived the seediest of Asbury's years of urban decay, closed its doors almost a decade ago).

At the same time, I lament in some way the loss of a tiny, lowest-of-the-low-rent place like "The Gold Coast" in Santa Barbara, which saw its demise sometime around 1998 or 1999. One got the sense that it had barely changed since some time in the mid-1960s or early-1970s. In college, we made fun of its postage-stamp-sized "dance floor," the back billiard room that was covered by practically nothing more than a tarp, and the innumerable nights on which we left within five minutes of arriving, after declaring that "We've seen who's here" (referring to the entire population of four or five barstool habitués we found there). Still, I'm glad to have those memories to draw on. Do they represent an old fashioned "ghettoized" existence, or a lost era of side-street camaraderie? Or both?

The truth is, even if The Gold Coast still existed, I wouldn't be lending it my economic support by having a daily, or even weekly beer there. The bar scene (at least in Santa Barbara) is just "not my thing" and mostly never has been. Still, I think the town is missing out on something now that it is bereft of any exclusively gay venues. Then again, maybe the weekly Sunday "gay night" at a popular local club is enough. I'm just not in the scene enough to know.

Another quote from the above article, regarding an effort to save the "Boom Boom Room," now the only gay bar in Laguna, which is scheduled to close in Fall 2007:

"And when a town like Laguna Beach loses its gay soul, he asks, who'll be left to save it from total straightness?"
I still have to ponder whether a question like the above is one worth asking, or even whether "total straightness" is something from which to be "saved." I'm just not sure...


copperred said...

I doubt so much that they intend to save it from straightness per se, so much as to save it from homogeneity and a wealth of Disneyfied chain stores. Not that the gays don't like the latter too, but it's hard to consider that a community which has no gathering place, especially one intended to facilitate interaction openly, can be a place where people can meet.

The Angry Young Man said...

In this day and age, "total straightness" doesn't exist. If Laguna Beach is losing it's gay soul, all it means is that "the gay" will be popping up somewhere else. The gays are, after all, the great pioneers of gentrification.

I didn't realize that SB was totally lacking in gay night spots. How odd. Of course, the only place I ever went to was The Graduate, and I always thought that place was totally gay and not in a good way.

kusala said...

Holy Shit! The Graduate was gone EVEN by the time, æons ago, when I arrived in Isla Vista. By then, it had morphed into The Anaconda. Actually saw Billy Bragg perform there. It was not gay at all, in either a good or bad way. It is now a university-owned lecture hall.

The Angry Young Man said...

We used to go to The Graduate in high school. We'd get smashed in the parking lot and then use our fake ID's to gain entrance. We'd hang out there and Borsodi's Coffee House in IV. That's WAY before your time. They closed down when I was 16.

Last time I checked, Ventura still has two gay bars. They're prolly the only gay night spots between you and Weho. Wow.

Huntington said...

The dearth of gay nightlife in S.B. is weird. When I left town 10.5 years ago, there were three night spots (including a bar/restaurant combo) plus a night at Zelo. It would seem that some sufficiently capitalized individual would see that one night at the Shitty Kitty doesn't meet the possible demand.