How do you build a “gay” city?
That was the topic for one of the workshops put on by the American Planning Association, the national organization of city and urban planners, which is holding its annual convention in downtown Los Angeles through Tuesday.
The official title of the workshop was “LA to West Hollywood: Development of a LGBT Community.” But the program description included the sentence, “Learn from prominent gay and lesbian leaders and explore their roles in creating the first ‘gay’ city in the United States.”
Those quotation marks around the word “gay” seemed oddly out of place. Is West Hollywood really a “gay” city? Or is it just a gay city? Or is Weho even a gay (or “gay”) city at all? Patch decided to find out.
The people there to discuss creating this first “gay” city were West Hollywood Councilwoman Abbe Land and , who will officially rejoin the Planning Commission on Thursday night.
Between them, they have 36 years of experience. If anyone could explain putting the “gay” into a city, it would be them.
A group of 30 LGBT planners attending the APA convention met with Land and Altschul on Sunday afternoon in the City Council Chambers at West Hollywood Library. They had already had an afternoon on a bus, touring through Echo Park, Silverlake and Hollywood before arriving in the nation’s first “gay” city.
This LGBT contingent of planners holds a gay-themed workshop at every convention, but those looking for enlightenment about making a “gay” city were probably disappointed. Altschul and Land did not really have the magic answer for how to make a city “gay.”
Altschul basically said that West Hollywood was built like any other city. There was nothing you could do from a planning perspective to make it “gay.”
“We don’t have zoning for gay businesses and gay residents. Our General Plan does not mention sexual orientation,” Altschul said. “We are who we are.”
Land concurred. “I can’t say the city came together to be a gay city,” she said. “It came together to be a city that met the needs of the community. And there was a large G community and a smaller L community, but not so much B or T, at that time.”
Land did point out that after West Hollywood officially became a city in 1984, city leaders took steps to make sure the gay residents were welcomed and included.
Since the city was founded just as the AIDS crisis was getting underway, the city made sure social services were available for all residents who needed them. That sent a strong and clear signal that the city supported its gay residents.
Public safety was also emphasized from the outset, Land said. City leaders made sure the sheriff’s department understood that gay residents were to be treated just like anyone else. Discrimination and bigotry were not tolerated among sheriff’s deputies, and those who did not adhere to that standard were quickly transferred to another city.
Activism was what helped get the vote out to form West Hollywood, and even after cityhood, activism was still encouraged. Land said city leaders supported activist movements and protests, often joining in on the protests.
She mentioned an early sit-in by ACT-UP, an AIDS-activist group, which was held in the tiny park on Santa Monica Boulevard at Crescent Heights. Rather than try to break up that sit-in, the city made port-a-potties available and made sure the sheriff did not try to disrupt it.
When someone asked about politics, Land said overall residents, gay and straight, were on the same political page.
“Our politics are internal,” Land said. “When you look on the grand scheme of things, the areas we disagree on are actually terribly small. The differences are minor, but those differences are everything to us. As a community, we are pretty united about what the heart and soul of this community is.”
Once the 30-minute talk was over, it became clear that you build a “gay” city not through buildings, but through policies that support the LGBT residents. And eventually, those policies become so much a part of the city, you don’t even notice them until someone puts quotation marks around the “gay.”