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BOOKS Sociologist discusses the end of the 'Gayborhood'
by Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer
2014-08-19

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On March 1, 1711, the very first issue of The Spectator magazine was published by British essayist and poet Joseph Addison and Irish writer Richard Steele. In his essay for the edition, Addison talked of his insatiable thirst for knowledge that carried him to all the countries of Europe in which there was something new and strange to be seen. "Thus I live in the world," he wrote, "as a spectator of mankind."

Growing up and receiving his early education in the town 20 miles west of Chicago that bears Addison's name, award-winning author and University of British Columbia Associate Professor of Sociology Dr. Amin Ghaziani has carried insatiable thirst for knowledge all of his life. Part of his painstaking research as a spectator of the collective behavior of mankind has brought Ghaziani to the conclusion that the renowned gay neighborhoods or "gayborhoods" of the United States such as Chicago's Boystown, West Hollywood California and San Francisco's Castro are doing a demographic about-face and gradually becoming straight.

In his new book "There Goes the Gayborhood", Ghaziani studies the incubation, formation, change and resurrection of gay neighborhoods across the country and examines the consequences wrought through the loss of their cultural identity.

"Gayborhoods are more than just a protective shield," Ghaziani writes in the book's introduction. "They also provide a platform from which gays and lesbians can organize themselves as a voting bloc if they seek to work within the system, or as a social movement if they wish to rally against it."

Ghaziani came out in his freshman year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the town itself helped to forge his appetite for social justice. "It has a tremendous tradition of social activism, he told Windy City Times. "The students have an expansive imagination about the world, sensitivity to politics and issues of inequality so my formative years of intellectual development were in that context."

He worked and marched with social activists during the mid 1990's when hate crimes against the LGBT community were at a zenith alongside anti-gay legislation such as The Defense of Marriage Act and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." After his junior year, Ghaziani spent the summer in San Francisco as part of a field study by Northwestern University. There, his activism took on a new form. "I realized I could take my energies for social justice and channel them from protesting on the streets towards research," he said. "It was a craft I came to love."

That love was formed during an academic journey that brought Ghaziani back to Chicago in 1999 to complete his M.S. and Ph.D. in sociology at Northwestern. While engaged in his studies, he lived in Boystown until 2008. From there, he held a three year post-doctoral position at the Society of Fellows at Princeton University. In 2011, he took up his current position at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Ghaziani said that training to be a sociologist kept the young student tuned in to everything that was going on around him. While he was living there, he watched Boystown undergo some dramatic changes. "Economically, it was gentrifying during those years," he said. "New condominiums were going up, new restaurants and health clubs were coming into the neighborhood. I also noticed changes in the demographic composition. In casual conversations, my friends and I talked about noticing more straight couples in the neighborhood and we became curious as to why the transition was occurring."

He was not alone. "There was quite a cacophony of public discourse pertaining to the demographic and cultural changes transpiring in many iconic gay neighborhoods in the United States," Ghaziani recalled. An Oct. 30, 2007, article in the New York Times wondered if gay neighborhoods were becoming passé. "There has been a notable shift of gravity from the Castro," journalist Patricia Leigh Brown wrote, "with young gay men and lesbians fanning out into less-expensive neighborhoods."

The economic and cultural changes in neighborhoods like Boystown leave "some gays priced out while others evolve out," Ghaziani said. "They are having conversations about 'Where do I go next?' and, through word of mouth, they know that there are some women friends who have just moved to an area like Rogers Park."

In describing the cycle of incubation, formation, change and resurrection, Ghaziani argues in the book that "Incubation [of a gayborhood] typically starts with lesbians. A New York sociologist named Sharon Zukin provocatively characterized lesbians as the 'canaries in the urban coal-mine.' When deciding on where to live, lesbians identify areas of the city that are affordable, politically progressive and have a pre-existing infrastructure in place they can plug into like coffee shops and co-operative grocery stores. They tend to move into the area first."

Formation occurs when gay men begin to follow them in larger numbers. "They channel their resources into building new institutions in the area such as bars and home—décor stores," Ghaziani said adding that change is symbiotic with the major stages of gentrification. "Then the cycle begins again with resurrection."

He cited Andersonville as an example of a neighborhood that was incubated by lesbians and then transformed from "Girlstown" into "Mandersonville" or "Boystown II," noting the illustration of urban change that such language implies.

"Lesbian and gays are urban pioneers," Ghaziani said. "They are often involved in the early stages of urban revitalization." He went on to note a 2013 article on Slate that suggested the best way to save Detroit was to build a gay neighborhood.

Yet with the amount of homophobia that still exists in the United States, what is it about gayborhoods that straight people find so attractive? "I asked residents of Chicago why they wanted to live in Boystown," Ghaziani replied. "There have been some significant thinkers who have publicly stated that if you invest where there are gay people living, then you will have a high return on that investment. Many straight residents perceive gay neighborhoods as emblematic of diversity. They also see them as chic and trendy and, most ironically, family-friendly."

Ultimately, Ghaziani said that the sexual integration of neighborhoods like Boystown and Andersonville has both positive and negative outcomes. "On the one hand, there is evidence for increasing equality," he said. "Those who personally know LGBT people are more likely to be supportive of their rights. On the other hand, we need to be mindful that the United States has a pluralist political system. The loss of a distinct culture therefore may have implications toward the LGBT community in terms of exercising its political influence."

He added that such an influence remains essential even after same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land. "Hate crimes continue unabated beyond the boundaries of gay neighborhoods," he said. "This is especially true today for transgender people."

Ghaziani acknowledged that the harassment of transgender people in gayborhoods is pervasive. "Gayborhoods increase the perception of safety for trans* residents but—even if a city has one—47 percent [of them] still don't feel safe," he said.

Since a great deal of the research for There Goes the Gayborhood took place before their recent explosion in visibility, Ghazani said that the data in the book does not focus on the transgender community. However—since his passion and thirst for knowledge remains unquenched—it is possible that the future will yield such a study from the Sage Prize-winning scholar as well as a look at gayborhoods in smaller cities throughout the United States and even a comparative examination of those in European cities such as London. "I see myself as a lifelong student," Ghaziani said. "There's so much more to learn and to teach other people about this issue."

Ghaziani will be at the Unabridged Bookstore, 3251 N. Broadway, on Thursday, Aug. 29, for the launch of There Goes the Gayborhood. See www.unabridgedbookstore.com/ .


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