Baltimore Needs A Visible Gay And Lesbian Community To Thrive--and The Gay And Lesbian Community Needs To Get With It
Baltimore has invested considerable bureaucratic capital in a new guru--and he's anything but a buffoon. His theories about what makes cities work are sensible, compelling, and especially attractive to any number of people whose visions for Baltimore have been historically ignored or belittled. Perhaps no group is better poised for loving attention and lightning advances than Baltimore's gay and lesbian community. More on that shortly.
On Monday, June 14, the city's leading arts administrators will gather at the Brown Center at Maryland Institute College of Art for a symposium sponsored by the Baltimore Cultural Alliance titled "The Creative City and the Culture Industry: Ten Ideas for Baltimore." In preparation, organizers ask participants to read a chapter ("Building the Creative City") from Richard Florida's best-selling book, 2002's The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life. The book is a phenomenon, perhaps the most influential such work about cities since Jane Jacobs' 1961 masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The two books share a revelatory way of stating information that observant people know intuitively.
Florida argues that people now choose where to live based not on job but on place. For cities, attracting the so-called creative class--the 38 million Americans, 30 percent of the work force, who "create" for a living, including not just artists but scientists, designers, engineers, educators, and knowledge-based professionals--is critical because their presence produces a creative climate, which then spurs further economic growth. Cities with meager and unwholesome creative climates will see their populations dwindle, their economies stall.
Florida writes that the "physical attractions that most cities focus on building--sports stadiums, freeways, urban malls and tourism-and-entertainment districts that resemble theme-parks--are irrelevant, insufficient, or actually unattractive to many creative class people." In Florida's calculations, a good system of bike paths outweighs a football stadium; bars that stay open late and an engaging street life trump a professional symphony. The communities that attract the creative class have "high-quality amenities and experiences, an openness to diversity of all kinds, and above all else the opportunity to validate their identities as creative people." As Florida repeats throughout the book, people want to live in cities that "get it."
The Cultural Alliance wants Baltimore to get it, or get it better, and is now following up on the Creative Baltimore Initiative, a working group convened this spring by Mayor Martin O'Malley and coordinated by the city Office of Community Investment. On April 24 the group issued a white paper subtitled "Doing More to Attract, Engage, and Retain the Creative Class." Among the recommendations of the working group, under the heading of "Creating a More Vibrant, Artistic, and Tolerant Urban Community," is a proposal to target marketing to the gay community in efforts to be coordinated by the Mayor's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Task Force.
The particular proposal dealing with gays is lukewarm, though apparently earnest (go to www.ci.baltimore.md.us/government/cinvestment/creative.html and click on the "Creative Baltimore White Paper" link). It's not very creative--"the task force will step up its engagement with the gay population," etc.--but, in fairness, the Creative Initiative, at this early stage, is still soliciting feedback and involvement from the community at large. (No gay organization is currently listed among the initiative's 78 participating businesses and organizations.) The inclusion of the gay community in the white paper might seem promising and forward-thinking if it weren't for the fact that the presence of a visible gay community occupies a fundamental place in Florida's measures of a city's creativity.
Statistically, tolerance for gays and lesbians (as measured by researcher, and Florida collaborator, Gary Gates, and based by Gates on his analysis of raw U.S. Census data) is a prime component of Florida's Diversity Index, one of four indices used to arrive at a city's overall Creativity Index. Florida has also observed, in his discussion of what attributes the creative class looks for in cities, that "a diverse community is a sign of a place open to outsiders. And just as domestic partner benefits convey that a potential employer is open and tolerant, places with a visible [emphasis added] gay presence convey the same kind of signal." Gay people matter to Baltimore, the guru says so.
(Baltimore, alas, is lumped together with Washington in Florida's data, which skews, or at least complicates, matters, to say the least. But for the record, Washington-Baltimore is ranked ninth on the Creativity Index and 18th on the Diversity Index.)
Baltimore's gay and lesbian community has yet to marshal the kind of enthusiasm in response to the Creative Initiative shown by the cultural community, which is at least having a symposium. Here's the thing: The importance of a healthy and visible gay community to Florida's understanding of the creative class cannot be conveniently edited out of the city's planning (nor has it been), and a galvanized gay community can insist that their needs and visions be front-burnered, if Baltimore's creative planning is to succeed.
What's seductive about Florida's theories about the Creative City is that they operate at the street level. Tolerance laws and domestic-partner benefits will remain important issues for the gay and lesbian community, but what's at stake now is the kind of diverse, beautiful, and soul-affirming everyday life that brought us to the city in the first place.
Conversations with Baltimore gays and lesbians suggest that many are dissatisfied with the city's gay scene, and would like to eat in, dance in, shop in, bear witness to, and perhaps live in a more vibrant community than the one that exists now. And they've seen what it is they're looking for here elsewhere. What's wanted is a place, a neighborhood or district that pulses with energy and commerce.
The point of comparison, as often as not, is Washington's upscale Dupont Circle neighborhood, which not only provides abundant and diverse dining, entertainment, and retail sites catering to gays and lesbians but, more urgently, is an environment where gays feel comfortable, and where--and this trope was offered repeatedly--gay couples can walk hand-in-hand. It's not so much Dupont Circle's bookstores and outdoor cafés Baltimore's gay community covets--although they do--it's the walking from one to the other, and the Dupont Circle fountain, where the boys and girls gather to read, socialize, meet, and cruise.
Others suggest that the lack of a vibrant gay district here reflects something positive, the successful assimilation of gays and lesbians into Baltimore's general population, a sign of citywide tolerance. If this were true, if there were a population of contented gay couples in Timonium, Essex, and Patterson Park, would it be enough? Not for many who want more, and not for Florida. For the creative class to recognize them--and appreciate their significance--the gay community has also to be visible and vibrant enough to be noticed. (Of course, the idea that gays and lesbians should be compelled to make for themselves a funky community simply for the amusement and consideration of prospective creative residents is ludicrous. Gay Country Safari, anyone?)
If Baltimore does have a gay ghetto, it's in Mount Vernon, where the annual Gay Pride parade unfurls into an annual Eager Street block party, and where within a few blocks sit five gay bars (only two of which are visible to the outside world), a gay bookstore (rather hidden away), and several restaurants with loyal followings of gay couples. But, to most people I spoke with, Mount Vernon doesn't "get it." Observers say the neighborhood misses the sense of density and electricity they've seen in Dupont Circle, Chicago's Boystown, or West Hollywood. They frequently mention the near absence of the kind of retail establishments--an Urban Outfitters, a Gap--that would invite browsing and encourage strolling through the neighborhood.
But trying to create a bustling, upscale (and, let' s face it, one that signals the presence of white men) neighborhood in a historic residential hub of a blue-collar city rankles some defenders of Mount Vernon. And with more and more of the neighborhood's multiunit housing stock being reconverted into single-family dwellings for the booming real-estate market--even though many of the families buying into the neighborhood these days happen to be gay couples--some observers are concerned that rising rents and fewer available apartments might drive away the young, single renters who tend to make street life pop.
Mount Vernon is worth revisiting and worth reinvestment from the gay community, but the future of the neighborhood depends on keeping it affordable for more people. The formation of a Mount Vernon Renters Association, which would work with--or against, if need be--the powerful Mount Vernon/Belvedere Improvement Association, would help mitigate against the latter's resistance to such renter-friendly amenities as laundromats. (Cool city neighborhoods have cool laundromats; public laundry facilities in Mount Vernon are punishments.) Stemming the tide of conversion from multifamily units back to single-family homes would increase density and help keep Mount Vernon attractive to people that leave the house to patronize restaurants and stores.
It's hard to imagine colonizing a new gay community away from Mount Vernon. There are neighborhoods, like Lauraville, where gay couples have put down visible roots but that lack precisely the kind of street life that would make a difference with the creative class. But there are places, as yet underdeveloped, that have at least some of the qualities--impressive architecture, availability of storefronts or restaurant space--commonly associated with more intense gay colonization. Lower Charles Village offers room to grow, and the downtown blocks around the emerging Saratoga Street nightclub district seem ripe for development. That these neighborhoods can't now easily be pictured as vibrant gay districts--or vibrant neighborhoods at all--is precisely why the most creative gay minds in Baltimore need to convene now, before competing claims are laid to available land, funds, and attention.
One of the attributes of a creative city that Baltimore does have, and which attracts and satisfies many people, is its sense of authenticity. It's a real city, with real enough problems, but with beautiful architecture and idiosyncratic character. Creative solutions to making Baltimore a more viable city for everyone, and to make its gay community more visible and vibrant, could begin with how to leverage that authenticity. Gay Baltimore, with its blue-collar foundation, and biracial makeup, could invent itself as something completely original.
How about a symposium?
Anyone with any ideas about how an increasingly visible gay community can help contribute to the creation of a more creative city should send their comments and suggestions to Eric Friedman from the Mayor's Office of Community Investment. Start with 10 good, workable ideas.
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