There Goes the Gaybourhood

‘I’m not sure there has ever been a time in London when you chose where you lived on the basis of sexual preference’

Urbanism Whittle's London

Be careful, as they say, what you wish for. A new book, There Goes the Gayborhood? (Princeton University Press, £24.95), by Amin Ghaziani, an American academic, charts the apparent decline of so-called gay villages such as the Castro in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York, a decline, it’s suggested, which has come from the very success of the gay movement in being fully accepted into mainstream life. Marriage, adoption, a revolution in public attitudes and sheer visibility have meant that there is simply no longer any need for the solidarity which came from clustering together in particular urban areas — areas which were often chosen for their cheapness, but which were then transformed by gay men with more dash than cash.

Being an American, Ghaziani can’t resist an upbeat note and so concludes that the idea of the “gaybourhood” is simply evolving. But such a position is harder to maintain after a visit to either of the two above districts. Walking through the Castro is rather like strolling along Carnaby Street in search of the purple velvet suits and Union Jack mini-skirts of Swinging London: one is left with the feeling of the show having moved on years ago. And it was Aids that did for Greenwich Village in the 1980s. New York gays moved up a few blocks to Chelsea, although with its gyms and cocktail bars there’s far less of a sense of community there than one felt amid the low-rise, more bohemian streets of the Village, which, frankly, doesn’t “feel” gay at all now. 

And what of London’s gaybourhoods? According to the Evening Standard, they’re thriving. The columnist Nick Curtis described his delight at the cafés and new little touches which had sprung up in Vauxhall, where he lives. A gay presence brings less crime and better coffee, apparently.

But I think this is to mistake an area popular with gay men (and unfairly, it is always about gay men — they have more spending power than lesbians) with a thorough-going, property-owning, produce-buying community. Like the Castro and the Village, West Hollywood (known as Boys Town), which I lived adjacent to for a number of years, is one such place: not just clubs and restaurants, but polished four-by-fours, dry cleaners, lawyers and financial advisers. It is as identifiable a community as black South Central or Hispanic East LA. The hills overlooking the flats of Weho, with their higher-end, affluent gay residents, were known locally as the Swish Alps.  

By this definition, I find it hard to identify any gaybourhoods at all in London. Brighton could certainly claim to be one — not for nothing was it once called Britain’s San Francisco. And by dint of affluence and fashion some areas of the capital certainly attract gay men. But I’m not sure there has ever been a time in London (or Paris or Rome for that matter) when you chose where you lived on the basis of sexual preference. Perhaps Ghaziani’s villages are a particularly American phenomenon. 

Are gaybourhoods in the fully-fledged sense a good thing anyway? There are certainly gay men and women who have a nostalgia for the radicalism of the ’70s; they despair at the mimicking of straight life, its weddings and nursery waiting-lists. Others rail against the apparent urge towards respectability, even detecting the emergence of a kind of gay Puritanism. I can understand this longing for the solidarity which the enclave represented. But identity politics produces ghettos both mental and physical.  

What London has always had are thriving gay areas centred around bars and clubs. When I first ventured out on the scene in the early ’80s, it was to Earls Court. The pubs and clubs which stood almost cheek by jowl have all disappeared, as though they were never there. For the past 20 years Soho has been pretty much the gay epicentre, followed by Vauxhall and, more recently, Shoreditch in the East End.

It is on the gay scene that undoubtedly one can see changes. More and more pubs and bars are “mixed”, having become particularly popular with groups of young women meeting after work for a bottle of white wine. And the number of gay venues continues to contract as younger gay men see little need for them; I can think of four bars which have disappeared within a small area of the West End in the past few years.

However, it is arguably technology which has had the biggest effect. Before the internet, before apps like Grindr, which operates like a kind of sexual sat-nav, gay men mostly had just the bars in which to meet Mr Right or Mr Right Now. Smartphones and computers have made all this somewhat redundant, and have provided a great example of how technology, rather than wider social trends, can change people’s behaviour. One paradoxical outcome of this, oddly enough, is that there are now many gay men once again sitting alone in their London rooms. Only now, they have a glowing screen for company.