Once upon a time, Detroit did have a bona fide gay neighborhood in the Palmer Park area at McNichols/Six Mile and Woodward. As I've heard it told, this was in the 70's and into the 80's, and encompassed the neighborhoods east of Woodward full of single family homes as well as the numerous beautiful deco apartment buildings across from the park. Gay businesses were plentiful in this area, and it was completely normal for people to walk to bars and restaurants.
I have a few memories of this area from the early/mid-80's when I would ride the school bus through there. I remember passing The Gold Coast (in it's old location on the south side of the street ... 'where gentlemen meet') and Chosen Books, which was originally on McNichols, I think. Later when I had a car I would drive past Backstage, the gay restaurant, with its neighboring piano bar Footlights, hoping desperately to see some actual living gay people.
Palmer Park was a lot like the emerging gay neighborhoods in other major cities at the time ... Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, Lakeview in Chicago, the South End in Boston. Great housing stock in a mature neighborhood, varied housing styles, bars and restaurants and retail, walkability, density, a university in close proximity, a liberal and tolerant local population. So if these other areas went on to become major gay centers in the US, why did Palmer Park fall apart? Crime mostly. The story of Palmer Park mirrors the story of many of Detroit's other neighborhoods. By the 80's there was rising street crime, and the gay population moved a few miles north to Royal Oak and Ferndale. The Metro Times took a good look at this story back in June, and if you haven't read that article it's worth a look.
At the end of the 80's Detroit was in the same place as these other major cities. While those cities' governments managed to keep their gay areas liveable, and their citizens did not get so fed up that they felt forced to leave, and their police forces actually fought crime, Detroit did not. Well, what can you do?
25 years later one might ask if we even really need a gay neighborhood in the city. Doesn't Ferndale/Huntington Woods/Royal Oak suit our needs? Aren't there gay people in every Detroit neighborhood? Haven't we come far enough in terms of mainstream acceptance that creating a gay ghetto works against our better interests?
These are valid points, but I really do think Detroit needs a gayborhood. First off, the Ferndale phenomenon has not been enough to stop gay people from fleeing the area in droves. The 'Dale is probably a decent reflection of a gay community that is widely dispersed throughout the suburbs, but it is cohesion and density that so many gay people move away to find. I personally find Ferndale charming, and lived there briefly myself long, long ago. But I don't think it offers enough to be the hub of a gay community.
Secondly, there certainly are a large number of gay people in Detroit's neighborhoods. And many people will say that's a testament to the acceptance of gay people in this city, the fact that we live everywhere, and that we can go pretty much anywhere and be ourselves. And this is a true, great fact about Detroit. But the gay community is not integrated in Detroit, it is invisible. There is a huge difference. Sure, you can be gay and go to anywhere you like, and you might even see other gay people there. But where can you reliably go to meet new people, for friends or dating? What do you do when you are new?
It is my opinion that Detroit needs to get to a point where there is a visible gay center BEFORE it can get to this whole "integration" theory. I just think there are certain things that contribute to gay quality of life in a city, regardless of whether you spend a great deal of time mingling with the gay community:
* having places to socialize like bars, restaurants, coffeeshops, etc. And not like the shitholes we have in Detroit. The calibre of the gay businesses in a city says a lot about how the gay community views itself, and that would indicate Detroit's gay community is still stuck in the self-loathing 80's.
* and as an addendum to that, having activity in more than one place on a given night. When was the last time anyone found two hoppin' places on the same night in this city? Shit, you can barely find one. The close proximity of businesses with gay appeal helps promote business for everybody.
* having opportunities for networking with other gay people to promote and foster business growth
* being able to find a gay doctor (go ahead, give it a try, it's remarkably difficult) or other professionals that cater to the unique needs of gay people
* having a hub for community services for gays, lesbians and transgendered, including HIV prevention/education/testing, resources for young people, etc. Not just a hotline or a drop-in center, but a place where information is shared among people on the street or in coffeehouses.
* having openly gay people who are public figures - this includes politicians, business owners, neighborhood activists, philanthropists, educators ... all role models for young people and a sign that you can thrive in a particular city
* creating visibility for the gay and lesbian population. The GLBT community has essentially no voice in city politics, and socially is not an influence. Contrast with Chicago, where the city now recognizes how (in the words of Mayor Daley at the Gay Games Opening Ceremonies), "the gay community has been at the forefront of every quality of life issue in the city." Hell, the city even provided major funding for the new GLBT community center in Lakeview (which was an incredible historic preservation project). Detroit's community needs a voice, and that only comes from banding together
Detroit needs a neighborhood with a variety of housing options (for the young renter as well as the homo-owner), relatively intact housing stock, a commercial district with potential, one or two NICER gay bars or restaurants, a few visionary people leading the way, and an official "welcome" from the mayor's office (believe it or not, I know several suburban gay people who feel that they are explicitly UNwelcome in the city of Detroit). A gayborhood will only burnish the city's image in the eyes of urbanites around the country, and maybe we can keep some of our gay people from fleeing to greener pastures.
So where could it go? I have my ideas, but what do you think? Weigh in with a comment if you want.