Seattle Next Gay Ghetto
With rents on Capitol Hill going through the roof, it's time to start a new gay neighborhood. But where should it be? The Stranger investigates.
The closest most gays and lesbians ever come to finding a promised land is moving to the Gay Ghetto -- an urban neighborhood that is populated by, and reasonably tolerates, a large number of queers. For years, first-wave gay ghettos were kept lively and relevant by a constant stream of young queer migrants arriving from upstate New York, downstate Illinois, rural California, and eastern Washington. And for years, young queers moving into these gay ghettos could rely on three things: cheap apartments, low-paying retail jobs, and lots of other young queers with cheap apartments and low-paying retail jobs with whom they could swap spit and various sexually transmitted diseases. But all that's changing. In neighborhoods where dirt-cheap apartments and too-trendy restaurants once peacefully coexisted, rising property values are pushing rents through the roof. The social contract that kept young queer migrants pouring into gay ghettos has been ruptured; while the average Capitol Hill apartment rented for $449 in 1990, it goes for $723 now. Gay ghettos are slowly turning into gay retirement communities, where the only queers who can afford to live in the East Village or on Capitol Hill are the ones who bought apartments and houses 20 years ago when they were still relatively cheap. Young, straight singles have moved in, followed by straight retirees, marrieds, and young families. With young queers forced to look elsewhere for housing, first-wave gay ghettos are on the decline, sapped of the energy and sex appeal of queer youngsters. Such is the sad story of Seattle's Capitol Hill.
Unfortunately, the roots that queers lay tend to be thin and easily ripped up by the relentless tides of change. And thus the great queer migration begins. Queers set out, like herds of faaabulous caribou, in search of the next gay ghetto. It happened in New York, it happened in Chicago, it happened in San Francisco -- -and now it's happening here. All over the United States, young gays and lesbians priced out of established gay ghettos are colonizing new neighborhoods, seeking out cheap rents and opening trendy restaurants. In New York, young queers have abandoned the East Village and taken over Chelsea; in Chicago, young queers have left Lake View behind and taken over Andersonville, and in San Francisco, young queers have burst out of the Castro and taken over, well, everything.
While it's clear that Seattle's young queers are turning away from Capitol Hill, it's not clear which Seattle neighborhood will emerge as Seattle's next big gay ghetto. In order to facilitate the mass migration of Seattle's low-income and recently arrived queer migrants, we sent three writers to three potential new gay ghettos. In assessing the fitness of various neighborhoods for gay-ghettoizations, we looked at four criteria: Average rent for a studio apartment, potential for a gay dance club, potential public sex environment, and average age of current residents (on the theory that the older the average residents, the faster the apartment turnover). Which fortunate neighborhood will emerge as Seattle's new gay ghetto? We don't know, but here are some recommendations.
Average Rent for Studio Apartment: $569
Potential Gay Dance Palace: Any empty
warehouse on West Marginal Way
Potential Public Sex Environment: Lincoln Park
Average Age of Residents: 38
s Seattle's old-guard queers tire of battling wannabes and colossal monthly rents, they are abandoning the once sacred Hill by the fistful. The question now is what lucky neighborhood is to be queered next? An abundance of factors, including accessibility, shopping, nightlife, reasonable rent, and at least one public park with foliage ample enough to conceal midnight indiscretion all determine a neighborhood's potential as a gay ghetto. (A jerk-off club or two doesn't hurt, either.) Surprisingly, West Seattle fits almost all of these criteria. Although West Seattle has a disgraceful lack of sex clubs and discos, it does boast a couple of beautiful beaches, a trendy business area, and an abundance of cafes and restaurants. And although there are no cruisy parks per se, there are more than enough wooded areas to provide bush sex opportunities for the adventurous queer with some bug spray and a few survival skills.
Many gays and lesbians have already begun to call West Seattle home. But is it the next gay ghetto? I went to find out. In determining the potential of West Seattle as Seattle's new gay ghetto, many factors come into play. First it is important to identify the number of public schools, daycare facilities, nursing homes, community centers, churches, and similar establishments that are not only of positively no use to queer people, but may even represent a tangible threat to attaining the critical mass necessary to create a truly gay ghetto.
The number of churches in West Seattle is in itself staggering, and in a brief hour-and-a-half tour, I counted over 10. But an almost equal number of tanning salons and florists heroically stand guard, proud sentinels against the presence of the Lord. Public schools also abound, indicating not only the existence of a large population of breeder types, but illegal firearms and random violence. To most peace-loving queers, weapons-toting ankle-biters are enough of a deterrent to keep them at bay -- until one realizes that the presence of public education facilities also guarantees an unending supply of affordable and easily obtainable party drugs.
But is there actually someplace to party? One of the most fundamental elements of any true gay ghetto is the presence of at least one primarily gay watering hole and/or dance spot. The ever-toughening drunk driving laws and the general repulsiveness of public transportation would make living in West Seattle and partying at Seattle's current gay hotspots -- now exclusively in Capitol Hill and downtown -- nearly impossible.
Although none are exclusively gay (yet), West Seattle is home to a few funky and potentially queer bars and lounges that are ripe for invasion: the Pagoda Room (suspiciously reminiscent of the Hill's Jade Pagoda) and the Lizzard Lounge among them. "The Junction," West Seattle's hopping and chic business district, provides many establishments indispensable to gay life: music, book, and retail stores, hairdressers, galleries, naturopathic physicians and acupuncturists for the immune-impaired, and cafes. There are no discos worth noting, but the filthy West Marginal Way warehouse district is simply pregnant with possibility, and already hosts many popular raves and private functions. This area could conceivably give birth to a world-class gay dance club or even a sex club. Throw in a Rudy's Barber Shop, a coffee shop, and a few artsy types, and West Seattle would have the urban-decay chic that gays love so much.
Of course, the feelings of West Seattle's current residents cannot be overlooked in the matter. While, in general, real estate agents and the owners of retail outlets tend to salivate at the thought of a queer invasion, long-standing West Seattle establishments might have a different take. I contacted several of what might be considered gay-friendly businesses in West Seattle and asked how they would respond should their neighborhood suddenly turn pink. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of identifying myself as being from The Stranger, and I got the distinct impression that my interviewees were playing it a little p.c.
The first place I harangued was the über-popular Ristorante Rigazzi, where "Sally" answered the phone. After asking me to repeat the question twice, she gave the stuttering and well-considered response, "Well, everyone's welcome here... and I have nothing against gays. But there are lots of straights here too, and as long as everyone can get along, then that's fine with me." Would Ristorante Rigazzi welcome a gay disco or even a sex club next door? "That's all I have to say." Click. It was like talking to a Denny's in Texas. Trying my luck with something a little younger and ostensibly more alternative, I turned my attention to Easy Street Records, located in "The Junction" -- where Alaska Street meets California Avenue. A lovely, young-sounding lad named Kevin answered the phone and responded, " It wouldn't bother me a bit, as long as queers don't try and change the area too much. It's like Mayberry over here; everyone knows everyone else's name. I like it this way." What a fag.
Next I rang Salty's, one of West Seattle's most chi-chi and popular eateries, and asked how they would feel about sharing their digs with a disco or bathhouse. They put me on hold three times, and I eventually gave up. I can take a hint.
But what about actual residents? Fearing another Matthew Shepherd incident should I start going door-to-door asking how people felt about butt sex in their backyards, I opened the white pages, flipped to "D," and called the first person I spied with a West Seattle address. A young woman who identified herself as Kenlee (a non-traditional name -- a good sign) answered the phone and gave the following response, "I don't get the whole gay thing, really, but quite a few of my friends are gay and they are the coolest people I know. So, hell, yes! Diversity rocks!"
Why yes, Kenlee. It certainly does. -- Adrian Ryan
Average Rent for Studio Apartment: $408
Potential Gay Dance Club: City Electric
Potential Public Sex Environment: The shrubbery
in front of Columbia Funeral Home
Average Age of Residents: 32
he idea of a gay neighborhood passed from stunning to obvious as I moved from Boston's Northampton, to D.C.'s Dupont Circle, Brooklyn's lesbian-centric Park Slope, Manhattan's gay-centric East Village, and ultimately, Seattle's Capitol Hill. Gay neighborhoods are most vital when they're safe harbors from the storm. But hey, since we're hanging out together, we may as well have a nice spot for breakfast, and a place to buy some porn, too. In cities that are a little more sexually integrated, like Seattle, our gay neighborhoods function less as physical necessities than cultural havens. Because gay culture itself is no monolith, a gay neighborhood needs to serve all sorts of folks. When you're younger, or newly out, it's about scene-making. You want bars. You want access to lots of queer merchandise to wear, display, and consume. You want access to lots of queers. When you're a little older, you're happy to have a decent grocery store (with coupon-clutching homos wandering the aisles) and a florist with the sense not to stock carnations. The girls need sensitive veterinarians, quality sex toys, and a sliding-scale health clinic. The boys need places to look at guys, places for guys to look at them, and a music store with a good selection of import CDs.
Capitol Hill, of course, has all of this. But inevitably, just as a gay neighborhood attains the peak mix of salons with aromatherapy neck massage centers, cafes with sexy baristas, and newsstands that carry Wallpaper, the Parade of Idiots begins. "What a charming neighborhood," the interlopers say. "I'm going to open a Country Kitchen and a Jelly & Jam-boree!" With these new additions come the rent hikes: "People living this close to a Country Kitchen should certainly be willing to pay for that privilege!" And so, with Capitol Hill ultimately falling to people who are willing to pay $1,600 a month to live close to Wrapp Around the Clock, it's time to pack up our makeup cases and cat carriers, and bravely colonize the Next Gay Neighborhood, like so many fashionable bacteria in a fresh petri dish.
But where? Columbia City, that's where. Lesbians are already starting to open businesses there, and this little patch of Rainier Avenue is turning into quite the Main Street, Q.S.A. The base qualities of a good queer neighborhood are the things that make up any old good neighborhood, and Columbia City has 'em all. Houses for sale, some for under $150,000. Lots of trees. Access to public transportation. Rents that start under $600. A library. Columbia City also has that romantic downtown thing happening, with a great third-generation butcher across the street from the old shoe-repair place.
As surely as love makes a family, a massive influx of men in tight shirts, women with social-service jobs, and youth with lots of holes in their heads could spin Columbia City into the Next Queer Thing. To see this future, you only need to back up, squint your eyes, and think "fixer-upper." Columbia City has good bones. We just need to move on in and snap a rag over them. It offers great food. La Medusa is just the intimate Sicilian place for telling your lover you want to be non-monogamous. The brand new Sulumeria on Hudson is the perfect Italian-deli-gotta-make-the-date-think-I-can-cook spot. Fasica Ethiopian Restaurant is just the thing for the group-home worker on a tight budget; plus, their business card announces, "We have beverages." Lottie Motts Coffee Shop is the place to see, be seen, and pick up the number of that cute lesbian plumber. There's also a weekly farmers' market during the summer. It is said that "where there is fresh goat cheese and live pan flute music, there shall be homosexuals."
Some aspects of life in Columbia City need a little attention, but most are nothing that a little venture capital and a trip to Eagle Hardware couldn't fix. Someone needs to open a bookstore/newsstand, a Thai restaurant, and if possible, a lesbian microbrewery and coffee roasting company.
The almost total absence of bars is appalling, sure, but if the homo opens the business, the homo makes the money -- am I right? There's a great empty storefront on Rainier with a charming old cafe sign running down the front. I'm seeing cocktails at outdoor tables. As for a big dance club, there's the incredible City Electric building, which is in the perfect, slightly beyond-the-main-strip location. I suggest the club be named City Electric.
Public sex spots abound in amply wooded Columbia City. There's a thin belt of trees behind City Electric for a private moment with someone nice you met at the bar. If you want something a little different and you relish irony, there's the shrubbery in front of the Columbia Funeral Home, with its swirling topiary done by some frustrated hairstylist. A bit north of the neighborhood, halfway up McClellan from Rainier, there is a private little gem, the Cheasty Green Space. There's even a spot to park your car! Does Columbia City see itself as the new gay mecca? Sharon Levine, visiting from Boston, said she'd heard that Columbia City was Seattle's Jamaica Plain. A few local residents, however, when asked if they thought Columbia City was the next Capitol Hill, looked confused and disinterested. On election day, that's as good as a "Yessiree!" if the question's been phrased properly. And that's all the go ahead we need. -- Mary Martone
Average Rent for Studio Apartment: $532
Potential Gay Dance Club: The Old Pequliar
Potential Public Sex Environment: Railroad
tracks at far end of Golden Gardens Park
Average Age of Residents: 43
magine this scenario: Three gay men are kidnapped from in front of the Starbucks at Broadway and Republican on Capitol Hill. They're blindfolded, bundled into the trunk of a car, driven north to Ballard, and dumped on Market Street, Ballard's main shopping drag. Our three kidnap victims may feel momentarily disoriented -- or momentarily aroused -- as a result of their ordeal, but only momentarily. Starbucks, Seattle's Best Coffee, an architecturally significant Seafirst Bank, Taco Del Mar, Payless Shoes, flower shops, thrift shops, second-hand clothes, a greasy 24-hour restaurant -- abandoned in Ballard, our gay kidnap victims may be far from home, but they quickly feel right at home. Ballard has many familiar faces and coffee beverages to console them, and a latte and some gossip at the Market Street Starbucks ("Let's compare rope burns!") should quickly restore their spirits.
Not only does Ballard's main drag feature many of the same shops and cafes as Capitol Hill's Broadway, but Ballard has many gay-friendly amenities that gay-friendly Broadway sorely lacks. For instance, Market Street has a health club (Ballard Health Club), a place to pick up protein drinks (General Nutrition Center), a bowling alley (Sunset Lanes), and more hair salons on Market Street alone than on all of Capitol Hill (Scandinavian Hair Crafters, La Beau-Tique Beauty Salon, TGF Haircutters, Great Clips, and a half-dozen others). And while Ballard's Imagination Toys doesn't stock sex toys per se, like Capitol Hill's Toys in Babeland, they did have a vibrating Elmo doll. In fact, walking around Ballard, I got the distinct impression that it wants to be Seattle's new gay ghetto -- and wants it bad.
Nathan Cole at the Ballard Chamber of Commerce assured me that while Ballard welcomes people of all races, creeds, colors, and sexual tastes, the neighborhood isn't trying to become the new gay ghetto. "Ballard's pretty old school," said Cole, "a real good ol' boy, industrial neighborhood. I know there are plenty of gay people who live here, but I'm not sure it will ever be the gay neighborhood."
But if Ballard isn't trying to become Seattle's new gay ghetto, how else does one explain the posh new health club that opened in the old Backstage space? In the same ballroom where Marianne Faithfull used to belt out ballads, trendy Ballard residents -- that's right, trendy Ballard residents -- pump out reps. Open for 18 months now, Ballard Health Club not only boasts an impressive weight room and all the latest cardio equipment, but two elements that no health club hoping to attract gay and lesbian clientele can be without: attractive personal trainers and an imagine-the-erotic-possibilities dry sauna in each locker room. M. J. Daniels, BHC's fitness director, used to live in Capitol Hill, but moved to Ballard when the club opened. "I know we have members who are gay, and they're just as comfortable here as any other club members. It's a nice community here in Ballard, very welcoming. People accept diversity." While BHC welcomes gay members (at $35 a month), they're not interested in becoming an exclusively gay gym along the lines of the late, great Body Nautilus or the current, coy World Gym at the Convention Center. "We're not about one group of people," explained M. J., "we don't want to be any one group's gym." When asked whether the locker rooms were hanky-panky friendly, fellow fitness instructor Dion Cantellay assured me they were not: "That's more of a problem with gyms downtown, where office guys go to 'work out,' or at least what they call a work out."
Thanks to those merry, recently sacked pranksters at KING 5's Almost Live, Ballard is world famous for bad drivers of Northern European extraction. While Ballard is less a Scandinavian enclave today than it was five or 10 years ago, there are still plenty of examples of olde tyme Ballard up and down Market Street. At Kristy's Scandinavian Gift Shop, old and new Ballard residents can shop for Viking dolls, Uff Da! coffee cups, and Norwegian phrase books (gay man = fargerik mann). When I asked Kristy if she thought Ballard might be Seattle's next gay ghetto, Kristy responded with a "no comment." After a moment's reflection, she added, "Ballard is not like it used to be. A lot of people are moving in. Ballard is growing up and changing." Yes, it is, Kristy.
While there are plenty of empty warehouses and industrial buildings along Ballard's side of the ship canal, my nominee for Ballard's first gay dance club is an existing bar on Market Street. While The Old Pequliar isn't serving an exclusively gay clientele as of this writing, the Irish-themed pub is called The Old Pequliar -- the best name for a gay bar I've heard in years. Not only does this Ballard pub have the name going for it, it also hosts regular disco nights and an annual Halloween bash. Carl Rogers, The Old Pequliar's proprietor, would welcome gay and lesbian customers. "We have a good mix of folks that come in here now," said Rogers. "Some are probably gay. As long as no one causes any trouble and they spend lots of money, hey, bring 'em on, baby!" When I told Rogers that I thought The Old Pequliar was a great name for a gay bar, he laughed and said he could think of a better name for an Irish-themed gay bar: "The Gaelics."
Should Ballard become the new gay ghetto, queer sex fiends accustomed to the cramped and easily policed confines of Capitol Hill's Volunteer Park would find the larger and more secluded Golden Gardens Park much less confining. Past the parking lots, rocky beaches, club house, and playing field, you'll find hikable railroad tracks snaking out of the far end of the park, perched over a rock ledge. All along the ledge you'll find plenty of nooks and crannies where sex radicals and the twisted closet cases who love them can get their nooks and crannies stuffed.
My last stop during my tour of Ballard was the Great Harvest Bread Company, Ballard's newest bakery. Opened six months ago by Bob Carlson and his wife, Crystal, Great Earth is part of the new wave of Ballard businesses: tasteful, upscale, and gay friendly. "I think Ballard is already turning that way," said Carlson, when I asked if he thought Ballard might go gay. "I've noticed quite a few lesbians, more so than gay men, moving into the neighborhood. I think it's great. Gay people eat a lot of bread, so I'm all for it." -- Dan Savage