Gay Ghosts III: Last Address


"With LGBT youth and transgender adult women of color as their primary targets, and the piers along the Hudson River on the west side of the neighborhood identified as ground zero, residents complained that their neighborhood had been taken over by outsiders whose threatening activities promised to bring down the so-called quality of life of the neighborhood. The primary stages for their accusations were the monthly hearings of the local community board and police precinct community council, city-sponsored mechanisms for neighborhood-based decision making. Overwhelmingly, residents and business owners demanded more policing and changes in land use policy under the auspices of securing safety. The key tools they hoped to wield were the retention of a curfew at the neighborhood’s waterfront, as well as the heightened enforcement of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s quality-of-life policies that target offenses such as public drinking, noise, and loitering. Access to public space and quality-of-life regulations thus became the focal point for political response, and counter-activists representing nonresident LGBT youth of color attended community board hearings and police precinct community councils demanding that they too should be eligible to give input and that their safety was also at stake.

The Christopher Street Patrol gained supporters among residents, officials, and some lesbian and gay activists despite the fact that the group’s position appears contradicted by what was then popular policy wisdom on the beneficial effects of the social tolerance associated with gay populations. The Gay Index, based in the research of demographer Gary Gates, was, by the start of the 2000s, a measure celebrated by city agencies from Washington, D.C., to Oakland, California, because it was highly touted as predictive of the regional success of high-tech industries. This argument had been publicized by the urbanist and policy consultant Richard Florida, who contended that a concentration of gay men—and, to a lesser degree, lesbians—reflects a region’s social 'tolerance,' which he considered to be a draw factor for the creative class of workers at the center of the (then) 'new economy.' In this formulation, gay space is, thus, an index of economic competitiveness in a global marketplace for business location. This understanding of gay space is just one held by Gay Index proponents; another is that gay people tend to live in neighborhoods with dilapidated housing stock and high crime rates. As Gates explains: 'It could be that gay and lesbian people are less risk averse. They’ve already taken the risk of coming out of the closet, so it could be that they’re willing to take more risk in other dimensions of their lives as well.' But what are the risks associated with these areas—physical violence or speculative investment? For many, housing location is not based in choice, and same-sex activity is not correlated with being out as gay. Can those deemed to be at risk—an epidemiological category that often includes those who are young and poor, or who are homeless, or who do not identify as gay when practicing same-sex sex—bank (quite literally) on these same risks?" [1]

"The 'canaries of the creative age' to which the title of this chapter refers, are, according to Gates and Florida, gay populations whose survival in urban regions is cast as an indicator of the 'last frontier' of social tolerance and diversity and the promise of a successful economy. Although for Florida acceptance of gays represents the far reaches of tolerance and diversity, his curious definition of the latter is absent of people of color. As Florida observes when describing the Composite Diversity Index of which the Gay Index is a part (together with the Melting Pot Index and the Bohemian Index), 'the diversity picture does not include African-Americans and other nonwhites.' He continues: 'My research identifies a troubling negative statistical correlation between concentrations of high-tech firms and the percentage of the nonwhite population.' Thus the vision of the Christopher Street Patrol, which primarily targets people of color in Greenwich Village, is not counter to the ideals of popular urban planning after all. As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together, and some 'canaries' are understood to be guarantors of demise. The complaints made by residents demonstrate the contradictions of contemporary urban politics, in which one can celebrate diversity and cast tolerance as a new investment strategy at the same time as one assails those very features by naming the acceptance of people of color, transgender women, and people of low income as 'liabilities' of a neighborhood best known for its gay populations and bohemianism.

These are the contradictions at the core of neoliberalism. Since the 1970s, many of the central terms put forth by postwar urban reformers have been promoted by neoliberal city programs through a deft reworking of the ideals of community, participation, and safety in the service of initiatives set to dismantle Keynesian-infuenced New Deal and Great Society programs in favor of those guided by distilled free market values. Neoliberalism has reshaped U.S. cities like New York and San Francisco in ways that foster hyper-segregation and exploitation: the privatization of public services, corporate tax breaks, attacks on tenant protections, the expiration of mandates for low- and middle-income housing, public subsidies for private market-value construction, and the mass expansion of security forces are but a few of its policies. The skyrocketing values of real estate in urban cores means that almost all new claims to these neighborhoods are property investments and acts of racial dispossession. Indeed, the profits and punishments of these policies have been doled out along stark racial and class lines, and it is this very disproportionate impact that neoliberalism, as a set of ideological imperatives, has worked hard to elide. Yet the approach to identity and economy taken by the liberalism associated with earlier political and economic orders, such as that of the Great Society, is part of this historical trajectory. The focus on the individualized psychology of prejudice, the ideal of blindness to difference, and the goal of equality were part and parcel of the postwar liberal consensus outlined by Gunnar Myrdal that would set the stage for discussions about inequality that followed. As Jodi Melamed argues, ideas of 'race as culture,' the individually reparative rather than structurally transformative features of antiracism, and the devaluation of economic justice took form in postwar racial liberalism but continued to evolve in what she dubs the emergence of 'neoliberal multiculturalism.' Thus, in today’s cities, marginalized identities can function as markers of cultural value (as in the commodity known as lifestyle) but cannot be considered as vectors of exploitation." [1]

"Key to the gentrification mentality is the replacement of complex realities with simplistic ones. Mixed neighborhoods become homogenous. Mixed neighborhoods create public simultaneous thinking, many perspectives converging on the same moment at the same time, in front of each other. Many languages, many cultures, many racial and class experiences take place on the same block, in the same buildings. Homogenous neighborhoods erase this dynamic, and are much more vulnerable to enforcement of conformity.
 
AIDS, which emerged as gentrification was underway, is an arena where simple answers to complex questions have ruled. 'Keep it simple' only works if you are an alcoholic who doesn't want to take another drink. In most other areas of life, complexity is where truth lies. AIDS has been bombarded by simplification since its beginning. The people who have it don't matter. It's their fault. It's over now. Easy to blame AIDS on the infected, and much more difficult to take in all of the social, economic, epidemiological, sexual, emotional, and political questions. Even treatments have turned out to be combination medications, not a single pill that just makes AIDS go away.
 
The relationship of gay men to gentrification is particularly interesting and complex. It is clear to me, although it's rarely stated, that the high rate of deaths from AIDS was one of a number of determining factors in the rapid gentrification of key neighborhoods of Manhattan. From the first years of the epidemic through to the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, people I knew were literally dying daily, weekly, regularly. Sometimes they left their apartments and went back to their hometowns to die because there was no medical support structure and their families would take them. Many, however, were abandoned by their families. Sometimes they were too sick to live alone or to pay their rent and left their apartments to die on friends' couches or in hospital corridors. Many died in their apartments. It was normal to hear that someone we knew had died and that their belongings were thrown out on the street. I remember once seeing the cartons of a lifetime collection of playbills in a dumpster in front of a tenement and I knew that it meant that another gay man had died of AIDS, his belongings dumped in the gutter." [2]

John Brockmeyer, Ethyl Eichelberger, 157 York St., Staten Island

John Brockmeyer, Ethyl Eichelberger, 157 York St., Staten Island

"While, of course, AIDS devastated a wealthy subculture of gay white males, many of the gay men who died of AIDS in my neighborhood were either from the neighborhood originally, and/or were risk-taking individuals living in oppositional subcultures, creating new ideas about sexuality, art, and social justice. They often paid a high financial price for being out of the closet and community oriented, and for pioneering new art ideas. Indeed, many significant figures in the history of AIDS, like iconic film theorist and West Village resident Vito Russo, died without health insurance. So the apartments they left were often at pre-gentrification rates, and were then subjected to dramatic increases or privatized.

In my own building, our neighbor in apartment 8, Jon Hetwar, a young dancer, died of AIDS after our tenants' association had won a four-year rent strike that resulted in across-the-board rent reductions. After his death, his apartment went from $305 per month to the market rate of $1,200 per month. This acceleration of the conversion process helped turn the East Village from an interracial enclave of immigrants, artists. and long-time residents to a destination location for wealthy diners and a drinking spot for Midtown and Wall Street businessmen. Avenue A went from the centerpiece of a Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhood to the New York version of Bourbon Street in less than a decade. I similarly observed the West Village change from a longtime Italian and gay district with an active gay street life into a neighborhood dominated first by wealthy heterosexuals and then by movie stars, as new gay arrivals shifted to other parts of the city. Now you have to be Julianne Moore to live in the West Village. The remaining older gay population is so elite as to have an antagonistic relationship with the young Black and Latino gay men and lesbians and transgendered kids who socialize on the streets and piers of the West Village. Organizations like FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment) had to be formed to combat harassment of young gay kids of color by wealthy white West Villagers. Gay life is now expected to take place in private in the West Village, by people who are white, upper-class, and sexually discreet." [2]

"Strangely, this relationship between huge death rates in an epidemic caused by governmental and familial neglect, and the material process of gentrification is rarely recognized. Instead gentrification is blamed on gay people and artists who survived, not on those who caused their mass deaths. We all know about white gay men coming into poor ethnic neighborhoods and serving as economic 'shock troops,' buying and rehabbing properties, bringing in elite businesses and thereby driving out indigenous communities, causing homelessness and cultural erasure.

While the racism of many white gay men and their willingness to displace poor communities in order to create their own enclaves is historical fact, gentrification would not have been possible without tax incentives for luxury developers or without the lack of city-sponsored low-income housing. That the creation of economically independent gay development is seen as the “cause” of gentrification is an illusion. We need to apply simultaneous thinking to have a more truthful understanding of the role of white gay men in gentrification. It is true that like many white people, many white gay men had a colonial attitude towards communities of color. Yet at the same time, it is helpful to think about why white gay men left their neighborhoods and homes to recreate themselves in Black, Latino, Asian, and mixed neighborhoods. It seems clear that heterosexual dominance within every community does not aid and facilitate gay comfort, visibility, and autonomy. The desire to live in or to create gay enclaves was a consequence of oppression experiences. Only gay people who were able to access enough money to separate from their oppressive communities of origin were able to create visible, gay-friendly housing and commerce and achieve political power in a city driven by real estate development. This does not excuse or negate the racism or the consequences of that racism. And these observations in no way negate gays and Lesbians of color living successfully and unsuccessfully in Black, Latino, Asian, and mixed neighborhoods. But if all gays could live safely and openly in their communities of origin, and if government policies had been oriented towards protecting poor neighborhoods by rehabbing without displacement, then gentrification by white gay men would have been both unnecessary and impossible." [2]