Since the 1950s a multitude of solutions to revitalize decaying inner cities have come and gone. If anything, matters have grown worse—brave souls should visit Detroit, Cleveland, Gary, East St. Louis, Memphis, and countless others to see for themselves.
The repertoire of solutions appears exhausted. Big cities have favored massive urban renewal schemes in which whole neighborhoods were destroyed and replaced with award-winning expensive failures such as Detroit’s Renaissance Center. Conservatives continue to embrace tax breaks and similar fiscal incentives, though these seldom performed as advertised.
The root cause of past and continuing failures at breathing life into a dead downtown is simple. The wannabe Doctors of City Health all suffer from what might be called an Edifice Complex. They see urban vitality in terms of concrete things. Signs of “health” mean five-story parking garages, professional landscaping, a large expensive controversial sculpture or fountains, a state-of-the-art multipurpose transportation hub, a modern flexible convention facility with connecting luxury hotel, and modern office buildings galore filled with well-paid white-collar and executive workers.
Those afflicted with this Edifice Complex embrace Say’s Law, i.e., supply creates demand. The construction of parking spaces, for example, will motivate people to drive downtown to fill them. Build a first-class hotel and convention center, and the conventioneers will come. It’s sort of a Chamber of Commerce version of Field of Dreams.
The secret of downtown revival lies in achieving a critical mass of people; repopulation, so to speak. But it is also true that just any sort of people will not do in a proper urban revitalization. If it were simply a matter of numbers, free food and booze plus an occasional wet T-shirt contest would suffice. Nor would homeless and winos qualify. Success requires attracting well-off, law-abiding people willing to spend lavishly.
The sudden arrival of, say, 30,000 people with substantial disposable incomes could easily revitalize even such dreary places as Trenton, NJ. Such recruits could eliminate urban blight without any of the usual expensive edifices and tax concessions. Within a few years, the locals would be complaining of too much economic activity, lack of cheap retail space, and long waits to eat and drink.
How does one, then, attract these precious folk? The answer is simple, though hardly straightforward. Import thousands of gays to any downtown—no matter how bleak and uninviting—and within a year or two the result will be a real-estate developer’s dream. Gays—not tax abatements, convention centers, malls, office buildings, or all the usual nostrums—are the only solution guaranteed to uplift struggling cities.
If one is not convinced of the utility of this approach, just visit Key West, New York City’s West Village, Miami Beach’s South Beach, Chicago’s “Boystown,” several neighborhoods in San Francisco, or any other locality where gays congregate in sizable numbers. The current revitalization of Washington, DC owes much to the gay influx, though this is seldom admitted publicly. Put it this way: Is there any known gay community characterized by slum conditions and economic misery? The presence of gays is the best urban economic fix known to man.
Consider some obvious facts. Yes, many gays are not especially wealthy, but their disposable income is considerable, even among those with modest wages. Unlike straights, gays do not have the long-term family obligations that inhibit indulging in trendy clothing or the latest theatrical offering. They seldom have children needing a nanny or daycare. Money need not be put aside for a future expensive college education or inheritance. Take-home pay can be immediately and entirely spent. Every gay enclave that I visited or know about thrives economically.
Equally important, a gay population is cheap to maintain. The largest drain on the municipal budget is education, and since most gays are childless, this expenditure can be reduced substantially—fewer schools, teachers, school buses, and expensive special programs. In addition, compared to the law-enforcement problems straight males create, gays require minimal policing. An occasional loud party or overcrowded bar, yes; muggings, robberies, gang fights, big-time drug dealings, no. It is not that gays are perfectly law-abiding; it is that their misbehavior does not demand the expensive police effort common in troubled cities. Nor do gays tend to avail themselves of public welfare.
Gays also contribute handsomely to the revenue side. They are famous for fixing up decrepit property. Whereas Washington will spend tens of millions destroying fine old but somewhat rundown neighborhoods to construct ugly, crime-ridden, Soviet-style housing projects, gays with a few thousand of their own money will convert dilapidated homes to architectural jewels. At no cost to the taxpayer, the city’s tax base is doubled or even tripled!
Added to this is the revenue that comes from heightened local business activity. All the boutiques, European-style hotels, bars, and restaurants will yield millions in sales tax and provide a virtually recession-proof economic environment. And everything will be accomplished without expropriating any real estate, destroying the habitat of endangered species, or polluting the environment. Purely in economic terms, if given a choice between a large gay district and, say, a giant Japanese manufacturing facility that would demand huge tax concessions, the local developmental agency would be crazy to choose the latter.
Compared to the old and futile Edifice Complex solution, the gaying of urban blight is simple and can be implemented without all the expensive, time-consuming consulting companies, EPA impact studies, planning commissions, begging Congress for handouts, selling urban development bonds, and all the rest.
How, then, must a city proceed in luring this great natural resource of gays? Start with the arts. Not some multi-million-dollar cultural center, but artists. With a relatively modest investment—less than $100,000 to begin—it could lure a few artistic types in fields such as modern dance, classical ballet, fashion design, and experimental theater. It is the public commitment that counts—the word has to get out that a city is serious about becoming an avant-garde artistic center. The cost of one ugly downtown parking ramp could fund a year’s worth of poetry readings, mime troupes, experimental music workshops, and many other activities sure to attract prominent gays and, critically, their wealthy heterosexual camp followers who adore being associated with fashionable art.
It is especially important that local government and the police maintain a “hands-off” policy during this early incubation period. Initial nurturing will be delicate—an ill-advised bar raid or a sarcastic remark about an over-the-top Halloween party could nip economic revival in the bud.
Eventually the strategy will begin to pay off. Hole-in-the-wall art galleries will spring up, white elephant old houses will become quaint bed and breakfast Victorian-themed inns, abandoned warehouses will morph into antique malls, and all sorts of tourist-drawing exotic establishments will take root. The annual Bette Davis Film Festival will draw thousands of upscale visitors.
Within two or three years downtown rents will triple, weekend parking spaces will be a rarity, and all sorts of yuppies will flock to all the boutiques, trendy restaurants, and a promenade filled with local eccentrics. (Think Key West’s Mallory Pier.) Famous artists and entertainers will buy and painstakingly restore tourist attraction homes. Busloads of Japanese and elderly may even begin showing up on the lookout for celebrities rumored to shop in the local Alexander McQueen store.
Skeptics may insist that while this solution may work in some places, it will fail in cities plagued by crime—gays will be easy targets for flash mobs, muggers, and street gangs. Yes, rolling queers may have been popular when victims would not go to the cops, but the New World Order has changed everything. Gays are now a protected species and any hate crime (and mugging a gay is automatically a hate crime) would never be tolerated. The local predators would quickly learn that gays are off-limits, not worth the risk and, ironically, many heterosexuals might decide to live in gay enclaves for self-protection. (Thriving commerce also helps reduce crime.)
But are there enough gays to populate all the cities needing economic uplift? Technically the answer is “no,” but this shortage is curable. Two factors permit the “stretching” of gays to assist dozens of needy cities. First, as the beneficial aspects of a gay population take hold, rents rise and at some point, the original gay pioneers are displaced. So like migratory birds, they move on and work their economic magic elsewhere. (Think San Francisco’s famous Castro District, once a dreary working-class neighborhood made gay-friendly by cheap rent.) Second, gay-friendly areas can become unfriendly and, again, like migratory birds they relocated to more hospitable settings. This is what is currently happening with many gays in Miami Beach’s South Beach—an uptick in anti-gay violence has lead to an exodus to (lucky) Ft. Lauderdale.
In the end, ironically, many of the local business boosters will never know what hit them when the benefits of gay life arrive. The Edifice Complex is not easily cured. To these stuck-in-the-mud civic boosters the city wasted its money when it paid $50,000 for the cutting-edge Merce Cunningham ballet troupe to spend six months mentoring local high-school students. They have no understanding of why sponsoring the female impersonator Liz Taylor lookalike bash has to be a regular line item on the municipal budget. In the meantime, everybody in the know will celebrate economics not as the dismal science, but as the gay science.
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