The Queer Issue: The New Gayborhoods of Fort Greene, Sunset Park, and Jackson Heights
Hunky bartender Alejandro Torres literally puts on a show each night that he works at Friend's Tavern on Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights' main drag. Patrons rub his bare chest with baby oil before he "swims" up the bar as a fellow bartender sprays him with water to shouts of "¡Fuego! ¡Fuego!"
"This is one of my favorite bars in the five boroughs," says Fred, who was one of the few Anglos there on a recent weeknight. "It's not like being in the United States."
Jackson Heights, which straddles the 7, E, F, G, R, and V trains in northwestern Queens, has become Hell's Cocina in recent years—the city's main Latino gayborhood. It's one of a handful of such outposts that have sprung up in the so-called outer boroughs. Immigrants from Latin America and South Asia have transformed Jackson Heights into a neighborhood teeming with ethnic restaurants, street vendors, and legions of flamboyant drag queens and macho Latinos, who populate Friend's, Atlantis, Bar Los Recuerdos, Lucho's Place, and the many other gay bars and clubs along Roosevelt Avenue between 65th and 82nd streets. These bars provide a refuge for non-English-speaking immigrants still uncomfortable in Anglo-American culture.
"The bars offer a space where they can mingle, socialize, speak Spanish, and meet people from their own culture," Andrés Duque says. Born in Colombia, Duque moved to Jackson Heights with his cousin in 1993. He was unaware he had moved to the center of the city's Hispanic gay world until, on a late-night stroll along Roosevelt Avenue, "all of a sudden, I walked by this bar and heard Donna Summer," Duque recalls. "It was a gay bar, and the people inside were all Colombian men. I was shocked."
The neighborhood's appeal goes far beyond the bars and the gay Latinos from all five boroughs who patronize them. The Queens Pride Parade draws tens of thousands of people—from drag queens in elaborate headdresses and towering high heels to families that set up lawn chairs—to 37th Avenue each June. The Queens Pride Center has served as a center of LGBT activism for more than a decade. There are two openly gay candidates, Danny Dromm and Alfonso Quiroz, running for City Council.
Just as Jackson Heights has become an enclave for Latino gays (and "salsa queens," the Anglos who love them), Fort Greene, in Brooklyn, has become so well known as a bastion of gay black professionals that it is called the Chocolate Chelsea. Blacks have been an integral part of Fort Greene since the early 19th century; former slaves Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman spoke at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church. More than half of Brooklyn's black residents lived in Fort Greene by 1870.
Today, it is the center of black gay activism—home to People of Color in Crisis, which deals with HIV among black gay men; the Audre Lorde Project, an activist group; and Pride in the City, an annual event held each August that attracts black gay men from across the country.
City Council member Letitia James says that gay men in Fort Greene remain "a political force to be reckoned with." The local community received an unwelcome burst of publicity back in 2003, when popular City Council member James Davis, James's predecessor, was shot to death at the hands of a former political rival inside City Hall, allegedly because the shooter feared he would be outed.
Fort Greene's newer residents, however, have little connection to activists and organizations. "It's becoming a very hip neighborhood," says Dana Makover, a white woman who moved to Fort Greene from Harlem three years ago, as she and two friends—a straight black woman from the Upper East Side and a gay white man from Woodside, Queens—hang out at Moe's on Lafayette Avenue.
Cheap drinks and a funky vibe attract a boisterous crowd to the gay-friendly bar. Outside, the scene reflects a neighborhood very much in transition: white twentysomethings dining alfresco at trendy cafés along Lafayette and DeKalb avenues, people playing Ultimate Frisbee in Fort Greene Park.
"It has a gay history, but right now, it's kind of a straight-yuppie type of place," sighs noted black author Kai Wright, himself one of the former residents exiled to Clinton Hill, central Bedford-Stuyvesant, and other outlying areas.
The rapid transformation of neighborhoods during the latest real estate boom has been especially dramatic in Park Slope, traditionally the center of the city's lesbian community. Maxine Wolfe bought a brownstone on 14th Street way back in 1970 (when they were affordable), and went on to co-found the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the country's largest such collection, which remains housed there after more than 30 years. Other lesbians from the city and the suburbs trickled in until the neighborhood soon emerged as Dyke Slope. A Room of Our Own and other gay- and lesbian-owned bookstores, cafés, and wine bars lined Fifth Avenue. Ginger's became the neighborhood's premiere dyke bar.
Now, Brooklyn's answer to the Upper West Side is more and more families. Many lesbians (and their businesses) are migrating into nearby Sunset Park, Bay Ridge, and other flatlands. "There is still a lesbian community here," Wolfe says, "but it's not as visible."
Park Slope's transformation mirrors the evolution in Manhattan's well-known gay enclaves. Gay men, pushed out of Greenwich Village, went north of 14th Street to populate Chelsea, then past 34th Street to Hell's Kitchen. Now, many of them are pioneering some unlikely neighborhoods that are emerging as future gayborhoods.
Eight years ago, former Park Slope residents Katie Cumiskey and her partner, Robin Garber, moved to West Brighton on the North Shore of Staten Island, which now has an openly gay State Assembly member, Matt Titone. Cumiskey and Garber opened a used-book store, Bent Pages, heavy on LGBT books, last May. Cumiskey admits that while she is seeing more and more queers moving into West Brighton, she misses her lesbian neighbors in the Slope. "I do miss being in a place where I can feel like there are a bunch of people who are like me," she says.
Personal safety and a sense of camaraderie remain the most common reasons that people choose to live in gayborhoods. Like any identity group, gay men and lesbians want to be with their own kind. It's also easier to hook up—for a night or a lifetime. "You move to places where you're most likely to meet a partner," says Kenneth Sherrill, professor of political science at Hunter College. "There's just so much you can do online."
Some of us would as soon keep our gayborhoods a secret. As happened in Chelsea and Park Slope, high-rises and high prices usually follow queer sensibility, to the detriment of those who originally sought refuge in them.
"We transform neighborhoods once undesirable into desirable neighborhoods that become too expensive," Sherrill says. "They stop being the kind of funky, creative places we enjoy, and become sedate and snobby—and so we move on. And other neighborhoods get renewed."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.