Why There’s No Gayborhood in Oakland
Oakland is third in the nation with same-sex households, but there’s no gay and lesbian district — and that’s OK since there are arguably more LGBTQ-targeted events and things to do here than ever before, and the LGBTQ community is stronger than ever.
A scene from an Oakland Pride celebration.
Photo by Stephen Texeira
When I moved from the Castro to Oakland, I lamented leaving behind America’s best-known gayborhood. I knew Oakland was, as they say, “hella queer,” but I didn’t know where to find Oakland’s Castro equivalent. There are a quartet of gay bars, a LGBTQ Community Center, two queer gyms, and regular gatherings and meetups, but those establishments and events are sprinkled between Fruitvale and North Oakland: an area that would never be defined as a commercial LGBTQ district like New York City’s Greenwich Village, Chicago’s Boystown, or San Francisco’s Castro District.
So why doesn’t Oakland have a gayborhood? Other large cities like Washington D.C., Miami, and Atlanta have them, and, according to 2010 census data, the number of same-sex couples per 1,000 households living in Oakland is third in the country, behind only San Francisco and Seattle. Of course, census data doesn’t (and can’t) tell the whole story, and there’s no way to know how many LGBTQ individuals live in any city. Still, as Jim Herron Zamora of the San Francisco Chronicle put it in 2004, “Oakland is … the largest major American city without a pink ghetto — no Castro Street or Greenwich Village …” Fifteen years later, that same reality exists today.
However, the Town’s absent LGBTQ district isn’t a result of lack of effort. In 2004, former Oakland Councilmember Danny Wan proposed to designate the city’s Eastlake neighborhood as a gay and lesbian district. This was a time when city leaders across the country were cashing in on the idea of themed gayborhoods. “A city of our size usually has some kind of district, a place where you can go and find these types of businesses, catering to gays and lesbains,” Wan is quoted as saying in an interview with Zamora. “... Oakland needs something like this.”
We need “something like this” was a common theme in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when cities in both the United States and Canada started to realize there was money to be made by rebranding certain neighborhoods as gayborhoods. “Municipalities recognized they could establish gayborhoods that could in turn promote local economic growth,” said Amin Ghaziani, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and author of There Goes The Gayborhood?. For example, in 1997, Chicago installed rainbow-colored pylons — funded with taxpayer dollars — along North Halsted Street, thus making Boystown the first officially designated gayborhood in the country.
In Oakland, a similar idea was struggling to take flight. Wan’s proposal for an Eastlake gay and lesbian district was met with stiff opposition, not just from some straight residents and those who viewed the move as an effort to gentrify the area, but also from the city’s LGBTQ community, which didn’t have a consensus on where in the city to establish a LGBTQ business district.
To Ghaziani, that’s not completely surprising. “There’s no underlying ‘business model’ you can extract and import [to create a gayborhood],” he said. “To even think that there is misrecognizes the history, culture, and politics of these places.” For example, he said, the Castro as a gayborhood wasn’t mandated by San Francisco City Hall: It was created by LGBTQ people in the ’70s and ’80s flocking to an area they perceived as a safe haven from ongoing heterosexual hostilities. As such, a lack of available retail space, community support, and political will halted Wan’s effort for a city-designated gayborhood in Oakland.
After all those years, all seems fine. Oakland isn’t at a disadvantage because it doesn’t have a Castro-esque area covered in rainbow flags, and, as it turns out, the city isn’t an outlier. Other similar-sized cities like Pittsburgh and Minneapolis also have large concentrations of LGBTQ households and don’t have recognizable gayborhoods. But why?
Ghaziani said that’s not a fair question. “Part of the problem is that we tend to import prior understandings about gayborhoods,” he said. “Why isn’t there a Castro in Oakland? Well, those are very different models.” Any East Bay resident will echo that: Oakland isn’t San Francisco, and even though Oakland has a strong reputation as being LGBTQ identified, the Town has a different demography, geography, and history than its westward neighbor.
One contrast is Oakland has a higher concentration of same-sex female households, and gayborhoods and predominantly lesbian neighborhoods look and feel different. Gayborhoods like the Castro are often synonymous with nightlife districts and bars and rainbow flags, and although there are “Girlstowns” that look like that, too, Ghaziani said areas with higher concentrations of lesbian households tend to consist of a cluster of homes located near progressive businesses, such as coffee shops, bike shops, and independent theater companies.
That’s because lesbian households have different housing needs than gay men. For example, compared to gay couples, lesbian couples are more likely to have children, and because women still earn less than men, lesbian geographies are generally located in areas associated with lower median prices per square foot. According to Ghaziani, that gives lesbian neighborhoods a quasi-underground character that makes them seem hidden from people who aren’t in the know.
Case in point: According to a 2010 U.S. Census analysis by Jed Kolko, the then-chief economist at Trulia, Oakland’s 94619 zip code had one of the highest concentrations of same-sex female couples in the country. That includes Redwood Heights and Skyline, an area that looks nothing like San Francisco’s Castro District.
However, when talking about gayborhoods, it’s not about replication. Ghaziani said that today, it makes more sense to think about gayborhoods as “cultural archipelagos.” A region or even a single city can have more than one gayborhood. “All of the islands have associations with the LGBTQ community,” he said, “but not all of the islands look like the Castro.”
In a wider Bay Area context, that means Oakland is just one of many regional LGBTQ “islands,” and just because there’s not a cookie-cutter, rainbow-clad gayborhood doesn’t diminish Oakland’s LGBTQ community. If anything, the community is stronger than it was 15 years ago, when Wan and others were trying to establish a commercial LGBTQ district.
A big part of that has to do with Oakland Pride, which was established in 2009, and the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, which opened in 2017. Both were co-founded by Joe Hawkins, an Oakland-based community organizer, LGBTQ advocate, event producer and social entrepreneur.
Hawkins is the executive director of the LGBTQ Community Center, and he interacts with a lot of community members. “We understand the importance of creating spaces for people who’ve felt marginalized and disenfranchised from other places in the [Bay Area],” he said. “That’s something we usually hear when people walk in the door: ‘It’s so diverse here.’ It’s refreshing to people.”
According to Hawkins, Oakland not having a designated gayborhood is a nonissue; however, he believes the area around Lake Merritt has always been a particularly queer space, at least since his arrival to the city in the late ’80s. “There’s a long history of the area around the lake being an LGBTQ safe space,” Hawkins said. “It’s a neutral place where everyone in Oakland can come together.”
It’s that same “neutral place” that Danny Wan was trying to transform into a LGBTQ district back in 2004. Today, Wan serves as the port attorney for the Port of Oakland. According to him, he’s put the whole Eastlake thing behind him.
In a phone interview, Wan said when he looks at Oakland’s LGBTQ scene today, he sees a lot of community-owned and community-serving businesses scattered across the city. “That’s not a bad thing,” he added. He also noted that there are arguably more LGBTQ-targeted events and things to do in the city than ever before. “Oakland Pride has become a huge event,” Wan said, “and in terms of visibility and activities, we’re in a pretty good place as a community.”