Old and Gay
A LGBT-Friendly Retirement Community Sets up Shop in Oakland
Before Armistead Maupin’s famed Tales of the City became a book and then a serialized movie, Oakland resident Cheryl Berger, a self-described avid reader, would open the San Francisco Chronicle and read Maupin’s stories about the residents at 28 Barbary Lane.
A lover of epics and stories that “tell a lot about different people,” she was drawn into the stories and adventures of Mary Ann Singleton, a young woman from Cleveland, Ohio; bi-sexual Mona Ramsey; Brian Hawkins, who wooed women; Norman Neal Williams, who lived in the rooftop apartment; and Michael Tolliver, a gay man nicknamed “Mouse”; and the community they created together at Barbary Lane.
“I just love the whole community feeling—the whole coming together of so many unique personalities,” says Berger. “It was a melting pot; it just meshed.”
Berger never dreamed that one day she would be a part of bringing Barbary Lane from fiction into life, albeit with a few changes. The characters’ hair is graying, they’ve moved across the Bay from one charmed city to another, and they are alive—a generation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and their friends who lived through the revolution of the LGBT movement and AIDS and are now entering their golden years.
Berger and her husband, Randall, a building developer, own the historic Lake Merritt Hotel at 1800 Madison St., where Barbary Lane Senior Communities will open this spring as the first LGBT-friendly senior housing in the Bay Area. Randall Berger, an Oakland native and a building developer who loves restoring and finding new uses for old buildings, and Cheryl Berger, were looking for a better purpose for the hotel in 2004. They had successfully marketed and operated the historic landmark as a boutique hotel for more than 15 years. The couple had saved the charming Mediterranean Art Deco–style building—built by California architect William H. Weeks on the edge of the downtown Oakland lake in 1927—from demolition in 1987. They restored it to its former glamour, and in 1991 the building became something of a landmark.
The Bergers met Dave Latina, an openly gay man, and his business partner, Randi Gerson, a lesbian, who are both developers. Latina and Gerson had an idea to open a senior community for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and their friends.
“I knew there was a place that existed where everybody would be accepted for whom they are and who they loved,” says Latina about the first time he read Tales of the City 26 years ago while at home with a cold. “I just knew, unfortunately, that the only place that could be was in the Bay Area for me as a young man, and yet it was only a fictional place.”
At first, Randall Berger wasn’t sure about the project, but his uncertainty quickly faded away as he began to learn about the discrimination LGBT seniors face when they move into retirement homes. Often times, LGBT couples are separated from their partners or they are discriminated against by caregivers because of their sexual orientation. The Bergers also realized, thinking about their own aging parents, that they wanted to “create a community that I would feel more than comfortable putting my own parents into,” says Randall Berger, or one that they would want to live in when they get to that stage in their lives.
“The realization of being able to turn fiction into a reality was very, very appealing,” says Cheryl Berger, “and one that we had a very good feeling could be beneficial for a lot of people.”
Together, Latina, Gerson and the Bergers approached Armistead Maupin about creating Bar-bary Lane Senior Communities based on his classic series.
“I was extremely flattered when I found out that they wanted to implore the lore,” Maupin says. “I felt for some time that we gay people are going to have to invent our futures much in the way we invented our past as well as our present.”
Maupin agreed to be the spokesmodel for Barbary Lane Senior Communities. The company declined to disclose how much it is compensating Maupin for being involved in the project.
The landmark hotel will undergo a $3 million “green” and senior-friendly renovation. Fourty-four studio-to-two-bedroom apartments will range from an estimated $3,295 to $4,295 a month with an array of amenities and services included. Two guest units will be available for residents’ guests to stay in.
The need for LGBT senior housing in the Bay Area is rapidly growing. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force estimates that there are more than 3 million LGBT people over the age of 65 in the United States. It’s projected that the number will nearly double by 2030.
Many of those LGBT people in the United States call the Bay Area home. Based on population figures from the 2000 U.S. Census, the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles estimates that there are 256,313 queer adults living in the Bay Area. Senior housing experts say there is already a housing crunch for seniors. Many senior residences already have waiting lists, and some senior homes have stopped accepting reservations.
Aside from creating a needed resource, Barbary Lane Senior Communities, which is privately owned and does not plan to offer any apartments below market rate, is revolutionizing senior housing and living. Unlike many senior residences, Barbary Lane will connect the public with the senior community. The dining room, now Madrigal’s Terrace Room, will be available for public events on Saturdays, and residents will have a variety of events and services available to them.
“The Bay Area has been filled with people who’ve come here to form their own families and create their own rules,” says Latina. “I really hope that we can be that sense of community for people to be free, live well and embrace the diversity that the Bay Area is and bring it into something that’s exciting to retire to, instead of something that makes people feel like they are shelved away.”
“We are trying to create someplace where people want to live, where people can’t wait to move in, and that is so exciting to me,” added Gerson.
Barbary Lane receives an estimated 20 inquiries a week, Gerson says, and Latina says that the community plans to open at 20 percent occupancy.
While Barbary Lane might be out of some LGBT individuals’ and their friends’ price range, Latina and Gerson want to create a foundation, based on 10 percent of residents’ membership fees and donations, to assist low-income seniors to be able to live in future Barbary Lane housing. Latina and Gerson are planning future Barbary Lane communities in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Diego and San Francisco. They selected urban centers so people who created lives in the Bay Area and other metropolises won’t have to leave those lifestyles behind.
“Why would you leave something that you’ve become a part of?” says Gerson. “We want to help people stay connected to whichever community; whatever things they had been doing all their lives that has been important to them.”
“I personally would like to see drag queens walking around the halls of a senior community,” adds Maupin.
As the first out generation of LGBT seniors redefines retirement, they are finding ways to bring their creative spirit into the process and stay in the cities they love. Returning to the closet isn’t an option.
“Mostly [it’s] going to come in our approach towards life,” says Maupin. “We can’t stop the infirmities that come with age, but we don’t have to watch our spirit die in the process.”
There is no question that more LGBT-friendly retirement housing is needed. Senior housing that is progressive and LGBT-friendly is booming in the Bay Area and across the United States. Openhouse, a nonprofit LGBT senior organization, is on the verge of having a project with AF Evans—at the former University of California, Berkeley Extension site—approved for development. Fountaingrove Lodge, a part of Aegis Senior Communities in Santa Rosa, is also in the development-approval stage with that city. RainbowVision Properties Inc., another LGBT senior housing community with communities in Santa Fe, N.M., and Palm Springs, will begin planning a community in San Jose in 2008. Satellite Senior Homes, which has 20 low-income independent senior residences in the East Bay, aren’t specifically built for and by LGBT individuals and their friends, but they are certified for LGBT cultural-competency services by Lavender Seniors of the East Bay, a LGBT senior services organization, and they use the Lavender Seniors emblem in their advertising and marketing materials. Satellite Senior Homes has six more projects in various development stages in the Bay Area and plans to open more.
To find out more about Barbary Lane Senior Communities, contact Dave Latina, (510) 903-3770, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.barbarylanesenior.com. For information on Lavender Seniors of the East Bay, call (510) 667-9655, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.lavenderseniors.org.
—By Heather Cassell
—Photography by Craig Merrill & Duane Cramer
—Photography by Craig Merrill & Duane Cramer