The Village (“village” as a settlement or community of people smaller than a town) is a name given in some cities to neighborhoods or districts with a large and visible Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, and Queer population. “Gay village” implies a more close-knit community than “enclave” or “ghetto.” Entering LGBTQ folk vocabulary as a label for certain urban Gay communities in the 1980s, “Gay village” has also been adopted by urban planners and commercial entrepreneurs in their strategies to bring visitors into Gay areas.
Many major cities around the world have some type of Gay enclave, which is often part of a larger neighborhood or district from which some take their names, such as West Hollywood in Los Angeles. Nicknames associated with the LGBTQ community include Glasgow and Edinburgh’s Pink Triangle areas in Scotland, Philadelphia’s Gayborhood, and Boystown in Chicago. Others are named for a major street where Gay-oriented venues are clustered. Enclaves that have been labelled “village” in cities such as New York, Montreal, Toronto, San Francisco, Manchester (Britain), and London may have both an official name used by local businesses and municipal planners as well as nicknames that sometimes draw on local folklore.
Businesses, residential areas, and attractions geared toward Gay men tend to be the focus in most Gay villages (such as Chicago’s Boystown), but they also provide homes, bars, and workplace to many Lesbians, Transpeople, and Queers in general. Many cities have neighborhoods with a significant Lesbian presence, such as Clintonville in Columbus, Ohio.
History: Scene, Ghetto, Village
The earliest sociological studies of homosexual communities, undertaken in Montreal and Los Angeles, date back to the 1950s and early 1960s. In these accounts, large clusters of Gay people were found to be living near each other in certain residential areas. Participating in the largely covert life of the community was popularly referred to as “making the scene.”
Independently from the history and development of Gay neighborhoods, sociologist Herbert Gans introduced the concept of an “urban village” in the early 1960s as a way to more accurately describe life in deteriorated, low-rent areas of Boston. For Gans, urban villages were areas largely inhabited by immigrants from rural areas in other countries. Life in urban villages focused on the adaptation of rural institutions to an urban context in a new country. Despite the struggles that most residents faced, Gans concluded that the overall quality of life in urban villages was good.
The term “ghetto” was introduced into sociology in the 1920s and was adopted in the 1970s to describe Gay neighborhoods that had begun to flourish in some large cities. Gay ghettos were associated with the invention of a new and unapologetic Gay urban lifestyle, still marked by discrimination but increasingly visible in certain enclaves that were similar to ethnic minority neighborhoods. To some extent, “gay ghetto” remains part of the popular lexicon, but its current uses often convey a critical rather than celebratory view of the ways in which Gay communities can sometimes seem stifling, inward-looking, and conformist.
The popularity of “gay village” as a term used to describe large-city Gay neighborhoods may be due to a shared nostalgia for community life on a village-like scale as it plays out within the local social scene. Living in a Gay village may bring the realization that one simultaneously inhabits a large city and a relatively small social universe. In Montreal, village solidarity is expressed in folk sayings such as “Le Village est quand même petit – tout le monde se connait …” (the Village is really quite small – everybody knows everybody …”).
Village Lore: Greenwich and Castro
An early reference to a village as Gay may be found in historical sources on New York City from the first decades of the twentieth century. Greenwich Village, a residential district of Manhattan, has been home to many noted writers, artists and activists. The West Village, a sector of Greenwich Village, has had a major Gay presence for many decades, and is the neighborhood in which the iconic Stonewall Inn and Christopher Street are located.
Greenwich Village offers a key example of the rich local history that often characterizes districts now known as Gay villages. By its very name, Greenwich Village has at times evoked a pastoral idea of cottages and gardens. In some oral histories, Lesbian and Gay residents who gravitated to the district in the middle of the twentieth century say they imagined it this way prior to their arrival. The neighborhood was originally an outlying hamlet, and has maintained a distinct character because its layout of often narrow and angled streets along with the original street names that were not changed when state legislators applied a grid and numbering system to Manhattan in 1811. But populations tend not to be static – Gay enclaves shift as populations shift within cities. In Manhattan, Greenwich Village remained historically Gay in terms of the Stonewall Uprising, but a significant portion of the LGBTQ demographic moved into nearby Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen during the last decades of the twentieth century and the earliest decade of the twenty-first.
The Castro District of San Francisco is also sometimes known as “Castro Village,” a term used by Harvey Milk and other Gay activists in the 1970s. A shift in LGBTQ demographic occurred, with Gays moving out of the Castro and into other neighborhoods, as had happened in Greenwich Village. Nevertheless, association with LGBTQ history keep a significant Gay population (and Gay visitors) in both the Castro and Greenwich Village.
Adoption of the term in reference to Gay areas in other cities or to Gay neighborhoods in general seems to have started in the early 1980s. Although Greenwich Village and Castro Village pre-date other village-entitled Gay enclaves, the spread of the term “gay village” should be understood as more than simply a Greenwich Village spin-off in cities such as Montreal, Toronto, London, and Manchester.
Le Village in Montreal
Le Village specifically refers to Montreal’s Gay enclave centered on rue St. Catherine Est between rue Berri and avenue De Lorimier, and on rue Amherst between rue Sherbrooke and boulevard René-Lévesque.
In Montreal, the term “village” was absent from Gay community newspapers until the end of 1983, when ads announcing the opening of a bar called K.O.X. noted that it was located “Dans le nouveau village de l’Est” (in the new village of the East). The following year, newspaper coverage and advertising refer on a regular basis to le village de l’Est. By 1985, the name was shortened in media coverage and advertising to le Village. It therefore appears that community media and local business owners played a key role in introducing “the Village” as a new name for this east-end Gay neighborhood. However, the fact that the term was quickly taken up in local parlance suggests that it resonated among people living in the neighborhood and may already have been in popular use. Promotional campaigns sometimes highlight the claim that Montreal boasts the largest Gay village in the world in terms of geographical size as well as number of venues.
The Village in Toronto
In Toronto, two well-known streets in the Church and Wellesley neighborhood – Alexander and Wood – recall the story of Alexander Wood, an early nineteenth century magistrate accused of making improper advances on a number of young men during a criminal investigation in which he examined their penises. Although Wood was acquitted, he was quickly nicknamed “Molly Wood” by local residents (“molly” being an eighteenth century term for homosexual). Some years later, when he purchased land in what later became central Toronto, the locals referred to it “Molly Wood’s Bush,” an expression used until the end of the nineteenth century even though Wood died in 1844. Part of this land is in the area that has now become Toronto’s Gay Village (also known as “the Village”). A play about these events called Molly Wood was produced in 1994, and some Church-Wellesley residents occasionally refer to the area as “Mollywood.” In 2005, a statue dedicated to Wood was erected in corner of Church and Alexander by the Church Wellesley Village Business Improvement Association.
Toronto’s Gay neighborhood is being renamed “the Village.” Until the late 1990s, the area was generally referred to using a variety of playful nicknames or more officially as “Church and Wellesley” or “Church Street.” The term “the Village” was not generally in use. More recently, community media and business leaders have started to call the area “Church Wellesley Village” or “Toronto’s Gay village” and it is increasingly common to hear references to “the Village” in everyday speech.
Villages in Britain: London and Manchester
In the late 1980s, the concept of the “urban village” was reformulated and aggressively taken up within urban planning theory, particularly in the United Kingdom. The urban village became a prescriptive term, a proposed way to revive the prospects of depressed post-industrial cities such as those in the midlands of England that had lost their heavy industry base. Urban villages were portrayed as a form of culture-led economic development that involved renovating and repurposing industrial districts and decayed inner city areas as hubs for art, leisure, and entertainment. They were also seen as a way to achieve democratized, human-scale community sustainability.
In some cities, the relatively unplanned emergence of Gay villages as districts with large numbers of Gay, Lesbian, and Trans people seems to have been strongly influenced and reinforced by city planners and business leaders interested in applying the concept of the urban village as a way to re-brand their cities to foster economic development. In London, promotion of Soho’s Gay Village often evokes the history of Soho as a focus of London’s Gay scene in the 1950s.
In Manchester, a strong commercial and residential Gay scene emerged in the early 1980s and in the space of a decade transformed what had once been a marginal area of the city into a busy and popular nightlife hub. City planners publicly recognized the Gay Village as a planning entity in 1991. Since then, Manchester’s Gay Village has been extensively promoted alongside other cultural quarters as part of a major municipal development strategy. Urban villages such as the Gay Village serve to promote the city’s cosmopolitan credentials and dispel stereotypes of bleak, post-industrial decline in favor of a new image of Manchester as a vibrant and happening place. City officials and business leaders worked to institutionalize Manchester’s Gay Village as a marketing tool and engine of economic development, a pattern since imitated by a number of other cities.
Whither the Village?
In most places where vibrant Gay districts can be found, however, the formation of these neighborhoods has been uncontrolled and haphazard. In some cases, “gay village” is clearly a term that has been applied after the fact to communities previously known under a different name. There also have been instances where city planners attempted, with relatively little success, to artificially create Gay villages in the absence of a pre-existing Gay neighborhood. In Canada, community leaders in Vancouver and Ottawa have led intermittent campaigns to have city planners officially recognize specific areas of these cities as Gay villages.
Davie Village in Vancouver (also referred to as “the Village”) was promoted as a Gay village in 1999 by the local business association, portraying it as a colorful and dynamic area that “offers something for everyone,” complete with rainbow banners, bright pink trashcans, and bright pink bus stop benches. Overall, community interest in this campaign was lukewarm.
The application of the “gay village” label does not necessarily act to erase or displace pre-existing neighborhood names or histories. Nonetheless, the development and marketing of Gay villages has at times been criticized for promoting a depoliticized, consumer-oriented Gay lifestyle. The neighborhoods in question are sometimes viewed as crass, soulless, and conformist – victims, perhaps, of marketing hype that has been too willing to trade the creative chaos of the urban jungle for the tame friendliness of an urban village.
More recently, the potential for Gay villages to survive over the long term has been questioned. The rise of Queer and post-gay identities has led to suggestions that younger generations may not find Gay villages relevant or necessary. Some have predicted that the rise of the internet and the popularity of online hook-ups and social networking may ultimately lead to the disappearance of Gay villages. Given that the internet has also become a primary way in which Gay urban villages are now marketed to local residents and millions of potential tourists around the world (to the “global village,” in a sense), it is not clear that all of these upstart neighborhoods will meet so dramatic a fate.
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