Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

There Goes the Gayborhood: The Urban Renewal of Asbury Park, N.J., Renews the Debate: Can Gay Men and Lesbians Single-Handedly Transform Bad Neighborhoods?

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

There Goes the Gayborhood: The Urban Renewal of Asbury Park, N.J., Renews the Debate: Can Gay Men and Lesbians Single-Handedly Transform Bad Neighborhoods?

Article excerpt

When New York City couple Joe D'Andrea and Will Elliott arrived for a weekend vacation in Asbury Park, N.J., four years ago, the resort town had long since faded. Made famous by the blue-collar anthens of local legend Bruce Springsteen, it consisted of boarded-up buildings where grand stores and hotels had once stood. The boardwalk seemed to sag toward the ocean.

The only real life seemed to be in the downtown coffeehouses and gift shops owned by gay and lesbian entrepreneurs. "I guess if those gay and lesbian [business owners] had wanted to be like everyone else, they'd have opened up businesses in the mall," D'Andrea says. "But their customers don't want to go to a mall; they want to go to some place that's unique and different and molded into their own."

In 2004 it is evident that those pioneering shops have helped spark the comeback of Asbury Park, population 16,930. Rainbow flags fly from freshly painted Victorian houses, and gay pride weekend attracts thousands of people. A $1.2 billion project to restore the waterfront is under way. This spring, as local same-sex couples gained media attention by trying to obtain marriage licenses, Asbury Park was hailed as the new Provincetown or Fire Island.

D'Andrea and Elliott were sold on the place by the end of their vacation in 2000. They bought a fully refurbished 1,800-square-foot, five-bedroom house for $119,000--a fraction of the price of one-bedroom co-ops in Manhattan.

Asbury Park's rebirth is the latest example in a decades-old trend of gay men and lesbians moving into depressed neighborhoods and rehabbing old homes and businesses. Over the years gays and lesbians have refurbished long-neglected areas such as San Francisco's Castro and Haight neighborhoods, Philadelphia's South Street, New York City's Chelsea, Chicago's Lakeview, Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle, and the city of Key West, Fla. Unlike in the past, government officials in some cities, including Detroit and Baltimore, are actively recruiting gays and lesbians to urban neighborhoods.

But critics charge that this type of urban renewal benefits only the wealthy, pushes out the working class, makes affordable housing scarce, and increases property taxes. In some cases middle-class gay men and lesbians have been priced out of the market by other, wealthier gay men and lesbians.

The 2003 documentary Flag Wars profiled the clash between longtime African-American residents of Columbus, Ohio's Old Towne East neighborhood and the new gay and lesbian residents, who are largely white-collar professionals. Gay and lesbian couples were furious that riley were portrayed as receiving special incentives from city officials. A community development consultant told the Columbus Dispatch that newcomers used "demands for code enforcement to frighten elderly residents into thinking they couldn't afford their homes. Some of the seniors were fearful and rightfully so, because they were on fixed incomes and didn't have access to the light information," he said.

D'Andrea says developers--including gay men and lesbians--who are trying to revive Asbury Park have had to fight the perception that they are running longtime residents out of town. He says many of the homes that have undergone renovation were vacant, as was most of the downtown space now being used for retail shops and new apartments. There are high-end $2,000-per-month apartments, but there are also apartments being leased to 20-something workers for between $600 and $800 per month.

Same-sex couples, who typically don't have children, are more willing than straight couples to live in racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods with older housing stock and higher crime rotes, says Gary Gates, a research associate with the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute. "The mere fact that gay people are out means that they are more willing to take some level of risk in life. From a social science perspective, if you are out, you are willing to take risks," he says. …

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