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"When I tell downtown gay friends that I live in Harlem," says fashion publicist Quohnos Mitchell, "they say, 'In the gay building?' "
Two years ago, Mitchell, 31, moved from Hell's Kitchen into the converted public school on 126th and St. Nicholas Avenue where it's estimated by residents that gay men occupy half of the 75 units. They're part of the growing middle-class presence in Central Harlem. It's hard to say how much of this real estate renaissance is gay. Several local realtors contacted for this piece declined to say how much of their clientele is gay. But one way to gauge the gay presence in Harlem is to go check out the weight room at the spiffy new gym around the corner from the building where Mitchell lives. "There's all these cute guys in there," says one female trainer. "But they're all gay."
The city has invested over $300 million to create housing such as Mitchell's building, the former P.S. 157, and it makes sense that gay men would take advantage of this renewal. With their greater mobility, gays are less likely to have reservations about moving into promising neighborhoods still deemed unattractive by the middle class. "They're more willing than straight people to take the risk, because they don't usually have wives and kids," says Gil Neary, a realtor who lured thousands of gay men to Chelsea in the '80s, when that neighborhood was not considered desirable by the glamour crowd living there now.
There are many differences between Harlem now and Chelsea then. For one thing, America's most famous black neighborhood has always had a significant gay population. But it's not just black gays who are taking the A train to Harlem. "I wasn't the first gay person in the building, but I was definitely the first white person," says architect Marc Anderson, who rode his bike by P.S. 157 right after the renovation in 1993 and became smitten with the giant apartments, wood-lined hallways, and 19-foot windows. The two-bedroom apartment he rented goes for $1100, about half of what he paid for the same space on 16th Street and Third Avenue, where Anderson lived at the time.
"In 1993, people here weren't used to whites in Harlem, and I got lots of comments," Anderson says. But he never felt unwelcome. "I wasn't targeted as gay," he recalls. "I watched my p's and q's, but I never had any fear. That neighborhood has a real sense of family, so once people got used to me living up there, I became a part of it."
Anderson brought his downtown friends to Harlem. "It just kept escalating," he says. "Now, the building is like a gay ghettoit's very free and easy to be gay in there."
But outside the building, what flies downtown often goes on the down-low. "I hug and kiss in the hallway and the laundry, but outside, I don't," says 30-year-old fashion consultant Alec Floyd, who says he never had those concerns in Nolita, where he lived until he moved into the building to live with his boyfriend, Pedro. "This isn't Chelsea. You have to be cautious."
Joey, a 30-year-old social worker who moved in three years ago from the Upper East Side, agrees. "There's great space and architecture, but you can't walk down the street holding your lover's hand." But while a few newcomers feel constrained on the street, others are determined to be themselves. "When we leave the building, Quohnos and I hold hands without thinking, just like we do in Chelsea," says 38-year-old designer Jeffrey Grübb, who moved to P.S. 157 three years ago from Hell's Kitchen, and who now lives with Mitchell. "There is a tinge of fear, but I would rather go full-face, be who I am, and set a precedent."
Everyone interviewed for this story pointed out that Harlem isn't unique in terms of gay comfort level. ("You wouldn't hold hands in a mall in New Jersey either," notes Anderson.) But since many of Harlem's new gay crew head straight into a waiting cab or the A or D train 30 feet from P.S. 157's front door, there's not much contact with the neighborhood. That's very different from the gay presence in Harlem during the Renaissance years of the '20s through the '50s, when gay people socialized openly in sexually mixed bars and clubs and were heavily involved in the community's cultural life. "It's hard to compare now and then," says Kevin McGruder of Gay Men of African Descent, who's lived on 145th and St. Nicholas for 15 years. "People weren't out then like they are now, and besides, there's not a lot of social lifehetero or gayin Harlem now." As for the comfort level, McGruder notes, "I'm not saying it's a utopia, but people focus on Harlem when gay people don't feel safe in a lot of places."
And for many black gay men new to Harlem, living in a community that welcomes them as black people trumps their safety concerns. "I have felt uncomfortable in Chelsea," says Mitchell, who adds that he has many gay friends accustomed to the downtown life who won't even come uptown for a party. "But Harlem is a lot like what I knew growing up black in Detroit. It feels more like home."