17 June 2014

Bringing Back The Gay Life In Atlantic City

Most people think LGBT history began with Stonewall.  The rebellion at the iconic Christopher Street certainly ignited the modern LGBT rights movement.  However, years, even decades before Stonewall, there were enclaves--even entire cities--that were seen as "gay havens".  Also, some industries and professions had more than their share of LGBT workers, although almost no-one ever talked about it.  As an example, when the Wall Street industries were seen as "gentlemen's professions"--before the "go-go" years of the 1980's--it was an open secret (Is that an oxymoron?) that more than a few brokers, analysts and even traders were gay.

Ironically, some of those "gay havens", whether geographic or vocational, disappeared just when the LGBT rights movement was picking up steam.  The quick, easy money that was being made on Wall Street prior to the 1987 crash filled the air with testosterone and turned the Street into a hypermasculine (and, at times, homophobic) environment.

And some of the old gay enclaves became victims, directly or indirectly, of their popularity, or from other forces.

One such example was New York Avenue in Atlantic City.  As AC turned from "America's Favorite Playground" to a slum by the sea, the gay bars, clubs and other venues gave the city whatever vitality it still had.  Indeed, even straight people used to frequent them, as they were reputed to have the best dances and parties.  

What signalled the death-knell for the old New York Avenue was the opening of casinos along the boardwalk in 1978.  Then, land prices skyrocketed and pushed out many of the gay venues, most of which were small businesses owned by the people who founded them.

Now, as other communities have legalized gambling and built casinos, Atlantic City has seen a decline in business.  Save for the boardwalk and a few adjacent streets, like New York Avenue, most of the city didn't benefit from the tourists gambling brought in.  So, AC risks once again becoming a place where dreams and people are broken, like the city depicted in Louis Malle's film, which I recommend highly.

So what can save this onetime jewel from turning into flotsam?  According to Mayor Don Guardian, the answer is gay tourism.

Growing up gay, he said, he knew that a rainbow flag was a sign that one's business was welcome and that it was a safe place to go if one felt threatened.

He may be onto something:  Other dying Jersey Shore communities like Asbury Park were saved by gay tourism.  After spending weekends or longer vacations there, some gay couples purchased houses, which were then relatively inexpensive, and renovated them for their own use or to rent as guest houses.

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