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Queering the City

Queering the City: Understanding Gravitational Forces

Petra L. Doan


Cet article part d’exemples issus de villes des États-Unis (le quartier de Midtown à Atlanta, en Géorgie, et celui d’Ybor City à Tampa, en Floride) pour formuler un cadre plus général au sein duquel analyser le processus de queerisation d’un quartier et identifier les mesures politiques susceptibles d’en préserver le caractère queer. Ce type d’approche comparative permet une lecture plus précise des espaces urbains queers en fonction des comportements des personnes LGBTQ au sein et aux alentours de ces espaces. L’objectif stratégique de ces comparaisons est d’élargir notre compréhension des espaces queers et d’élaborer un modèle plus fluide de queerisation des villes. Cet article utilise un modèle gravitationnel qui identifie les forces centripètes et centrifuges, ainsi que leur interaction. Chaque cas d’étude fournit des enseignements différents aux urbanistes quant à l’importance d’atténuer ou d’exacerber les tendances centrifuges qui menacent si souvent les espaces queers. Comme ces forces sont propres à chaque espace LGBTQ, cette stratégie analytique doit permettre de généraliser ce modèle pour le rendre applicable à des villes de tailles différentes, à des aires culturelles et ethniques différentes, et à un éventail plus large de zones géographiques.

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1Scholars who have explored the mechanisms for queering spaces have too often generalized from a single case. Furthermore, these single cases are drawn from the experiences of large and well-studied North American or other “western” cities, such as New York (Chauncey; Gieseking, 2016), Philadelphia (Stein), San Francisco (Stryker and Van Buskirk; Boyd), Chicago (Reed; Ghaziani, 2015), Toronto (Nash), London (Collins), Paris (Provencher), Manchester (Binnie and Skeggs), and Sydney (Ruting). As a result of this generalization from particularity, the resulting models feel static, unilinear, and limited in scope to the experiences of dominant groups in the queer universe, typically white gay men. This paper seeks to develop an extraplanetary or even galactic approach to understand the ways that queer spaces ebb and flow. The use of planetary refers to planets within a solar system scale rather than the “prodigious extension of the urban to the entire planet” (Lefebvre, 1970 169). Instead, the reference evokes “a solar system with planets rotating around a sun [that] is a more apt metaphor for LGBTQ residents and residential areas, spinning and circling iconic queer spaces” (Doan, 2019 34). This conceptualization of urban life as an eddying process of people’s lives coming together and interacting to create new possibilities for change is well described by Abdoumaliq Simone:

Urbanization is not simply a context for the support or appropriation of specific lives as it is the plane upon which people—circling, touching, avoiding, attaching—come together, sometimes kicking and screaming, as an infrastructure. This is an infrastructure that meshes constantly changeable and sometimes expendable bodies. (356)

In similar fashion Henri Lefebvre describes the tension between residents of peripheral settlements and the changing urban center that draws them in:

Peripheral populations are today reclaiming urban centers as places of leisure, of empty and unscheduled time. In this way the urban phenomenon is profoundly transformed. The historic center has disappeared as such. All that remains are, on the one hand, centers for power and decision making and, on the other, fake, and artificial spaces. (2014 204)

2This paper expands on the solar system framework and examines the way these bodies are held in orbit by the balance of centripetal and centrifugal forces. One example of a centripetal force acting on queer spaces might be the level of intolerance in the wider society in contrast to the relatively more tolerant atmosphere of a neighborhood within a more progressive city. An example of a centrifugal force might be increases in housing costs that make it impossible for renters (as opposed to owners) to continue to reside in the center. Because these forces are contingent upon local contexts and conditions, they can be more easily generalized across a broader array of locations. To explore these forces this paper uses examples drawn from US cities (Midtown in Atlanta, Georgia, and Ybor City in Tampa, Florida) to develop a more generalizable framework with greater applicability to ordinary cities (Robinson). This kind of comparative approach enables a more careful reading of queer urban spaces based on the behaviors of LGBTQ people in and around those spaces. The strategic aim of these comparisons is to expand our understanding of queer spaces and to elaborate a more fluid model of queering cities.

Reconceptualizing Queer Spaces

3Ghaziani (2019) has argued that the default conceptualization of queer urban spaces is the gayborhood. The most visible gay villages that emerged in the late 1960s have attracted a good deal of academic research even though those spaces are mostly populated by wealthy, white gay men (Rushbrook; Nero). This narrow focus on one type of neighborhood has frequently eclipsed research on other types of LGBTQ areas as well as other geographies beyond the global north. For instance, Collins use the examples largely from the Soho neighborhood of London to argue for a linear stages model from marginal area to emergence, then expansion and diversification, and finally to integration. In contrast, Ruting’s study of gayborhoods outside Sydney suggests that the linear model is not always useful.

4Ghaziani’s (2019) suggestion of a mosaic of spaces or even a virtual archipelago of queer communities has been influential. I have earlier critiqued the conceptualization of queer space for being inherently static, because it likens queer spaces to fixed mosaic tiles or a set of islands in an archipelago. Instead, I argued, many LGBTQ people describe their lives as being in a state of motion in and/or around a queer space that is often in flux (Doan, 2019). This movement is most pronounced when LGBTQ individuals first move to a city, and then make multiple moves seeking to find just the right space that may or most likely may not be in the most popular LGBT neighborhood. Sometimes changes to the original neighborhood force an outward movement, while at other times it is life events experienced by the individuals or their partners. Some will never actually reside within the neighborhood but may certainly visit to go to bars or restaurants, attend political rallies, or just generally find community. Lewis describes a similar process in Washington, DC, where many gay men, no longer living in the traditional gay areas and often living outside the district, return to the iconic queer spaces intermittently for entertainment and in search of companionship. Theodore Greene has coined the term “vicarious citizenship” to describe those decentered LGBTQ individuals who no longer or never lived in the gayborhood, but visit the center from time to time. Jen Jack Gieseking uses a similar metaphor in their description of the ways that lesbians construct constellations of spaces in the city:

lesbians and queers produce urban space in what I call constellations whereby lesbian–queer star-like places (in their range of import and brightness) relay the importance and comparative rarity of place-making in queer worlds. Just as lesbian–queer lines and networks relay the constrained but constant mobilities as well as the interdependent relationality between these stars. Lesbian–queer places are scattered across the city in comparison to the businesses and residences idealized in the LGBTQ neighborhood. (2020 942)

5These passages describe LGBTQ individuals who do not live centrally, but are continually drawn back to queer neighborhood spaces as consumers and vicarious citizens, who inhabit more far-flung constellations of queer spaces. In effect, these movements approximate a kind of orbiting behavior around a queer space. This paper extends the solar system conceptualization by adding the idea that competing centrifugal and centripetal forces operate on LGBTQ individuals. Because urban spaces are always changing due to a variety of forces, it is useful to analyze each place in terms of its unique social, economic, and political context and the resulting pressures that act upon it. The key concepts of centripetal and centrifugal forces are borrowed from physics and provide insights into the kinds of pressures that surround queer spaces. While scientific purists might shudder, this “borrowing” concepts from the sciences has a long history within the social sciences, including: the gravity model, the friction of distance, and human ecology. This framework allows for the identification of centering (centripetal) and decentering (centrifugal) forces, and the interplay between these forces is likely to be unique to each LGBTQ space analyzed, providing for more generalizability across varied sizes of cities, various cultural and ethnic areas, and a wider array of geographies. Understanding the interactions of these forces may enable more specific policy measures intended to protect and preserve these spaces. Furthermore, this dynamic conceptualization improves on the linear model of queer spaces (Collins) and provides a more robust model useful across the north-south divide. Doan and Atalay demonstrate that centripetal and centrifugal forces generate useful insights for analyzing queer spaces in the Global North (Atlanta) and the Global South (Istanbul).

6The next paragraphs detail a variety of specific examples that have clear policy-related implications. Centripetal forces draw LGBTQ people to the queer space that acts as a focal point. Many LGBTQ individuals describe their first experience of queer spaces as one filled with awe and wonder. They are drawn like moths to a flame because of their longing for neighborhood-level “safe spaces” in which they can openly express their love for their partners (public display of affection—PDA). These queer places provide opportunities for socializing and meeting new people at bars, bookstores, cafes, and restaurants. Policies that are geared to preserving these critical elements of a social infrastructure are likely to enhance queer space longevity. When housing is reasonably affordable in the area, many LGBTQ people may be tempted to relocate to this safe zone. In addition, social services, including specialized health services, may also be available that target LGBTQ people, such as HIV/AIDS services (Catungal) as well as clinics that welcome a transgender and gender-non-conforming clientele. Furthermore, queer neighborhoods are also likely to be home to a variety of NGOs, including political and social activist organizations promoting LGBTQ welfare that may draw participants from nearby residents (Atalay and Doan). Finally, the wider political and social climate in the surrounding region may reflect high levels of discrimination and intolerance that may cause LGBTQ people to seek shelter in the queer space due to the fear of hate crimes.

7In contrast, centrifugal forces operating in the region may drive people away from the center. A frequently cited complaint about many queer neighborhoods is the increasing cost of housing that makes it impossible for younger, less affluent LGBTQ people to stay in the area. Policy measures to ensure more affordable housing in queer areas, especially for youth and LGBTQ senior citizens, may also stabilize the neighborhood. If housing price increases are unconstrained, especially if they are also linked to broader gentrification that brings an influx of non-LGBTQ people, some of the new residents may no longer share the commitment to LGBTQ equality, resulting in fundamental social changes that make the neighborhood less welcoming to non-conforming individuals. Brodyn and Ghaziani suggest that this social change is linked to “performative progressiveness,” that is when straight couples express nominal support for LGBTQ people, but after they move into gayborhoods their behaviors create a less welcoming atmosphere. In some locations, urban redevelopment initiatives may lead to the closure of gay and lesbian bars, as well as LGBTQ service providers in the neighborhood (Doan and Higgins). One of the consequences of the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic was the tendency for some partners to exhaust their financial resources to pay for HIV/AIDS treatment for loved ones, making it difficult to remain in the neighborhood. In addition, the dissolution of long-term partnerships can have a similar effect, when jointly owned property must be sold to “buy out” an “ex,” effectively forcing both partners to seek less expensive housing elsewhere.


8This paper uses evidence from qualitative interviews conducted in Atlanta and Tampa to explore how the interplay of these forces might explain the phenomena described in Doan (2019) of LGBTQ individuals who end up selecting and queering other neighborhoods at some distance from the queer focal area, though they are still drawn to the center for periodic entertainment and community gatherings. While the interviews were conducted at several points in time, they provide useful insights into the ways that LGBTQ people interact with these two LGBTQ-linked neighborhoods. A total of 28 men and women from Atlanta were interviewed between 2007 and 2013. Respondents were identified via a snowball sampling technique and efforts were made to include a range of subject positions such as recent arrivals, longer-term residents, homeowners, and renters. Some interviewees were professionals knowledgeable about the area, others were citizens concerned by neighborhood changes, and other were owners of LGBTQ-related businesses. Several public figures involved in government or prominent NGOs were also interviewed. Because of the nature of Atlanta’s Midtown as a predominantly white, gay space, the study sought to include other voices from women and people of color with only modest success (8 women and 3 people of African descent). In addition to the gay men interviewed, the study also spoke with 8 lesbians and 2 straight men.

9In the Ybor City (Tampa) study a total of 18 interviews were conducted in 2015. Another snowball sampling strategy included a mix of residents and former residents of Ybor City as well as a number of interested parties who had never lived in Ybor but visited the neighborhood periodically. Some of these individuals were public figures, others were businesspeople, and yet others were professionals living and working in and around Ybor. The interviews were also disproportionately male and white, though efforts were made to interview more broadly. The sample included a preponderance of gay men, though two straight men were also interviewed, as well as three straight women, one lesbian, and one bisexual woman. Because of the skewed nature of this sample (just three people identifying as Hispanic and five women) care must be taken in interpretation to avoid over generalizing.

  • 1 The term New South was coined in the nineteenth century to emphasize the new industrial focus of th (...)

10The comparison of Atlanta and Tampa is useful because the two cities share a cosmopolitan urban imaginary rooted in their intersectional geographies. Both are cities in the US South, an area which is not well studied in the literature on LGBTQ spaces (Stone). Atlanta is an “archetypal city of the New South1 (Mims) that, since the 1990s, has welcomed many new residents from elsewhere and many return migrants from earlier waves of African American migration to the North. Atlanta is reputed to have the largest African American middle class in the country with 48.2% of its population being African American, 39.1% white, and 5% Hispanic. It is a complex city blending elements of both the American North and South. Tampa is also a southern city with an influx of northern in-migrants, but Tampa is also a diverse city, with approximately 26.6% of its population identifying as Hispanic, in contrast to 44.4% who identify as white and 26.2% who identify as African American. The Latin influence is due to the Spanish and Cuban as well as some Italian immigrants attracted to the cigar factories in the Ybor City area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In other ways the cities are different. Atlanta continues to grow rapidly, whereas Tampa still struggles to reverse the decades-long decline after the collapse of its cigar industry. Thus, these two cities provide distinct perspectives for exploring the factors that encourage the growth and decline of LGBTQ neighborhoods.

Midtown, Atlanta

11Atlanta, the capital of the New South has experienced rapid growth in population and employment, transforming itself from a railway hub into a city with international aspirations that successfully hosted the 1996 Olympic Games (Allen). Atlanta is also a divided urban environment with “two largely separate cities: a mostly white north side of town, where economic activity is vigorous and expanding, and a mostly black south side” (Keating 8). Just north of the central business district is the historic Midtown neighborhood adjacent to Piedmont Park. John Howard argued that as early as the 1950s Midtown was already on the radar for gay men attracted to the cruising possibilities of the park and the nearby public library. During the 1960s and 1970s, in the era of desegregation, many white families began moving to the suburbs (Kruse), leaving older craftsman-style housing to be subdivided into apartments for young adventurers, hippies, and some gay men.

12By the 1990s, Midtown had become an established gayborhood attracting LGBTQ people from across the Deep South (Fleischmann and Hardman). Many gay men who moved to Atlanta were drawn to Midtown, attracted by the lively nightlife and relatively cheap housing. One gay male interviewee, Ronald, described his search for housing, illustrating the strength of the centripetal forces in the gayborhood.

I first moved to Sandy Springs, but I lived in Buckhead for ten years, then Midtown. […] Living in Midtown, I know probably everyone on my street by sight, and I know probably 75% of them by name. […] I mean, I moved into residential Midtown before it was the place . . . it was the gay Mecca, but it was still a pretty run-down neighborhood. (Doan, 2019 3)

13Although Midtown has always been a largely white gayborhood, it also exerts a centripetal pull, on gay men of color at least, to visit the many gay clubs and businesses in the area. One interviewee in his thirties moved away from Atlanta for a time and, when he returned, purchased an affordable home in the suburban community of Stone Mountain. However, after several years in that location, he simply could not feel comfortable and was drawn back to Midtown, though he found housing a short drive south of the gayborhood. He indicated that Stone Mountain “was just too restrictive out there. I am a city person, so I found a place south of the capital near the stadium. But I am very comfortable at any place in Midtown” (Doan, 2019 149).

14Another interviewee, a lesbian woman of color, was also drawn by the promise of safe space and first explored the city of Decatur (called by some Dykeatur because of the presence of so many queer women) and then expanded her search to Midtown. She and her white partner spent many months searching for housing but were unable to afford either Decatur or Midtown.

I really wanted to be in Decatur because I heard that that was the lesbian place to be. And we scoured Decatur. […] I begged her to drive through neighborhood after neighborhood of houses . . . but they were expensive. […] So, we tried Midtown, and all of the places that we saw had rents that were just astronomical . . . we’re looking into other neighborhoods. (Doan, 2019 4)

15Midtown in the 1990s began to experience the same gentrification pressures experienced by other cities. Those LGBTQ people unable to afford the pricey housing market of Midtown were often forced outward into inner ring suburbs such as East Atlanta, Kirkwood, and East Point, which were accessible by car or MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority). This centrifugal movement set off what Doan and Higgins refer to as “cascading gentrification,” as young LGBTQ individuals who could not afford Midtown began buying up properties in former African American neighborhoods to the east and south of Midtown. One young man, Charlie, who lived in East Point (near the Atlanta airport), admitted that he and his friends were regular patrons of the businesses in Midtown “to go to the gym, get a drink, buy a book or magazine, and, well, for sex” (Doan and Higgins 15). Charlie’s draw to Midtown and that experienced by other “vicarious citizens” (Greene) illustrates the delicate balance of centripetal and centrifugal forces. Their continued patronage of businesses in Midtown allows many of these gay-themed businesses to continue to exist as the gayborhood.

16Finally, the very center of Midtown, which today is marked by rainbow crosswalks, continues to exert a social and political pull on a dispersed queer population. Atlanta Pride is the largest Pride event in the southeastern United States and draws hundreds of thousands of onlookers, many of whom congregate near those rainbow-marked streets. The continuing centripetal draw of this location was described by one political activist as follows:

There is a strong perception that 10th and Piedmont is the heart of the LGBT community in Atlanta. A very real perception. A lot politically goes with that perception. It is the heart and soul of the Atlanta community; when the community has a need to gather. (Doan, 2019 204)

17Unfortunately, municipal efforts to stimulate redevelopment along Peachtree Street ignored the LGBTQ presence in Midtown and created a new set of centrifugal forces that have had profound consequences. Redevelopment pressure created a fast-track special development zone at the edge of Midtown (Doan and Higgins) intended to create new condominiums that would be more attractive to a wider clientele beyond the LGBTQ community. These measures also contributed to the closure of numerous gay bars on Peachtree Street (Doan, 2014) and generally reinforced a significant heterosexualization of parts of Midtown. These development pressures created a centrifugal force that pushed gay clubs and institutions away from the historic LGBT area in Midtown into more peripheral neighborhoods (Doan, 2015b).

18These municipal efforts to “clean up” Peachtree Street and fast-track development efforts in nearby areas have resulted in a Midtown gayborhood that survives, but in a vastly reduced form. A master’s thesis written in the City Planning department at the Georgia Institute of Technology reviews advertising in LGBTQ publications to show that there were approximately 17 gay businesses in Midtown in the 1990s, but by 2011 this number was reduced to just 4 bars and businesses (Adriaenssens). Not all these queer businesses have closed due to municipal action or inaction, but city-supported redevelopment undeniably provided a big push. Midtown still has sufficient critical mass to attract some LGBTQ people, but quantitative as well as interview data show that the centrifugal forces are growing stronger than the centripetal ones, suggesting that Midtown’s ability to thrive as a gayborhood is not a sure thing. The surviving LGBTQ businesses in Midtown rely ever more importantly on vicarious citizens residing in Atlanta’s periphery and elsewhere in the Southeast, who continue to value its vibrant cachet as the heart of the queer community.

Ybor City

19The case of Ybor City, an historic neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, provides some useful insights into the forces that sometimes attract and sometimes repel LGBTQ individuals over time. Ybor City thrived in the late nineteenth century as a home for immigrant workers in the cigar industry and welcomed Cuban, Spanish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants who all contributed to its growth. The founder of the cigar industry Vicente M. Ybor, believed in providing housing for his workers so he built row after row of small shotgun homes called “casitas,” many of which are still visible in Ybor City. The following section draws on qualitative interviews conducted by the author to explore Ybor’s queerly inclusive urban identity and the development of a unique urban neighborhood.

20During the first part of the twentieth century, Tampa was characterized as “a city of neighborhoods, where residency depended upon ethnic background, religion, economic status, and race” (Mormino and Pozzetta 51). These white middle-class neighborhoods included Tampa Heights, Hyde Park, Seminole Heights, and Palma Ceia, in contrast to Ybor City’s Latin heritage, though early residents in Ybor City spanned a fairly wide range of ethnic groups. The use of “Latin” as an umbrella term for these groups and the designation of their neighborhood as Tampa’s Latin Quarter suggest an expansive vision of ethnicity stretching from Italy across the Mediterranean to the provinces of Asturias and Galicia in Spain, then on to the Caribbean context of Cuba. This broad geographical spread, a dynamic fashioning of identity, was developed as a tool to build community in the face of adversity from Anglo Tampans. One commentator has called the community resulting from this constructed ethnicity, a “radical Latino island in the Deep South” (Yglesias). The neighborhood came to be known as a place where outsiders were welcome. Mormino and Pozzetta suggest that “nothing accentuated Ybor City’s distinctiveness—perhaps its uniqueness in North America—more than the presence of Afro-Cubans, who worked side-by-side with white Cubans, Spaniards, and Italians and lived among them in integrated housing. […] Afro-Cubans were represented in the vanguard of Ybor City” (78).

21For white Tampans, Ybor City’s reputation as a Latin neighborhood was also linked to vices, including drinking, prostitution, and gambling. Early on the ready availability in Ybor of bars that served alcoholic beverages enticed white residents of Tampa to visit for Sunday afternoon entertainment, because Tampa’s “city fathers” pushed to keep “sin” outside the city limits. But outside Tampa’s city limits, Señor Ybor realized that Cuban cigar workers wanted or needed a break, so the bars in Ybor City remained open on Sundays. This situation is similar to the one described by Capo in South Florida, where North Miami was designated for African American Miamians and thus became Miami’s place for sinful entertainment. Both Ybor City and North Miami were subsequently incorporated into the growing municipalities, but remained for some time as their respective cities’ sex and booze districts. The neighborhood remains one of the key places in the Tampa Bay area that exert a gravitational pull for people looking for a good time and a night out.

22In the aftermath of World War II, many Ybor residents who had served in the armed forces used their Veterans Administration loans to purchase new homes in West Tampa. This gradual shift in population opened housing units within Ybor City that enabled Afro-Cubans and other African Americans to begin moving into areas that had previously been predominantly owned by white Latins (Serda). Urban renewal was initially welcomed by the leaders of Ybor City’s Latin community as an attempt to preserve the “Spanish atmosphere” of the area as well as slow the steady “encroachment” of African Americans into deteriorated empty Ybor City casitas (Kerstein 142). Urban renewal demolished 660 structures housing 1,100 families and an additional 100 more families were displaced by the construction of Interstate Four, which bisected the neighborhood (Mormino and Pozzetta).

23In the aftermath of urban renewal, the wider arts community in Tampa recognized the unique character of the built environment and were significant players in helping to lift Ybor City out of the devastating effects of urban renewal in the 1960s.

In the late 1970s, artists were drawn to Ybor’s dreary landscape but its impressive (albeit vacated) commercial facades, the loft-like voids defined by the narrow frontage, high ceilings, and depth of the blank storefronts. Artists were also attracted by the eclectic vestiges of ethnic culture that punctuated the vernacular fabric, portrayed in the slow movements and routine gatherings of Ybor’s elderly Latins, shopping and commuting along Seventh Avenue. (Serda 144)

24In the late twentieth century, after many years of decline, traces of Ybor’s radically inclusive neighborhood remained. The experiences of many diverse groups working side by side was a key characteristic that subsequently encouraged LGBTQ Tampans who were seeking to create a safe haven to gather in Ybor City. Jose, a gay Cuban American who was born in Ybor City, reflected that the neighborhood’s longstanding diversity led to an openness to difference that made outsiders feel welcome:

Ybor City . . . it has a personality, there’s a lot of walks of life in Ybor City that are um . . . this is just their haven . . . many are just filled with tattoos, it’s a melting pot, it always has been, and I really see, I feel it’s pretty protected because there’s enough for everyone to have a bar in Ybor. We have a military bar, a pirate bar . . . you name it. […] Ybor City is remarkably diverse, has always been very diverse, and Ybor City has the zoning that’s capable of sustaining gay activity. (Interview conducted by the author)

25The resulting artist-led transformation of Ybor City storefronts created “more than two dozen galleries and live-work spaces and promoted the district as the ‘Soho of the South’” (Serda 160). Furthermore, these same groups eagerly promoted historic preservation and the designation of Ybor as an historic landmark district as a means of retaining its distinctive landscape. Some of the new residents attracted by this bohemian atmosphere were LGBTQ individuals, some of whom contributed to the redevelopment and gentrification process. Pablo, a gay Cuban American, describes his role in Ybor as follows: “you know my past is real estate, so I buy and sell houses . . . it’s what we do . . . what gay boys do. […] I mean we have so much to work with here” (Interview conducted by the author).

26In the mid-1980s, nested amongst the few holdout mom-and-pop businesses that were struggling to survive and the artist community, a gay club opened that became a further catalyst for renewal in Ybor City. The El Goya Lounge, situated in the former Las Novedades restaurant at the corner of 7th Avenue and 15th Street, was originally a straight club billed as “Florida’s Largest Entertainment Mall,” which included four nightclubs in one building. After two years this straight night club was closed and sold. The new owner reopened and renamed the club El Goya, which became the first gay nightclub in Ybor City. Within a few months El Goya developed a reputation as the club to be at. The over-the-top drag shows were immensely popular and drew audiences of all kinds to Ybor City. Visitors from New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, including many celebrities, were common. The popularity of this club was noted by several interviewees as particularly important in attracting their attention to the neighborhood. Jose remembered the early days:

Two gay fellows bought Las Novedadas […] and opened up El Goya and that’s the start. […] In the 70s, during the disco era, that’s when the gays really started knowing Ybor, and Ybor and gay came together, was in that era. […] El Goya started it all. […] And I was a kid and I remember coming down here and walking the lines a block long, as a kid, and the lines were long. (Interview conducted by the author)

Jose went on to reflect on the continuing draw of Ybor for him:

I remember when I bought this house, I bought this building, following the footsteps of Key West, I restored this place, this neighborhood comes back, I was able to walk to the bars. […] I saw Ybor and I loved Ybor really showing signs that it was going to come back […] in the very early stages […] and I said to myself . . . God, you know, what you really need to do is you need to go down to Ybor City, believe in the district that ya know, this precious district that is fading away, do what they did in Key West, do what the gays did in Key West, come in here, buy some of these homes, restore ’em. (Interview conducted by the author)

27In Ybor City, gays and Tampa’s wider arts community recognized the unique character of the built environment and were significant players in helping to lift Ybor City out of the devastating effects of 1960s urban renewal.

28Reggie, a gay white resident of Ybor, described several centripetal forces when he confirmed that the lure of old houses in need of redevelopment was part of the ethos of what it meant to him to be gay. “I think the nature of the gays is to take a place, regentrify it, and move on to the next place. […] A lot of folks move in there because the prices are inexpensive.” Reggie also described the “open” and welcoming atmosphere that has made Ybor so attractive for people like him:

Ybor City to me is like a cross between New Orleans and Key West. Right in the middle. And then you have Ybor City, and it’s literally almost right in the middle. And a lot of the railings on 7th Avenue and everything is like Bourbon Street. I don’t see how the city could change that and why they want all those family-friendly things here because after 6 o’clock they’re gone anyhow . . . the kids have to go to bed. It’s the clubs and the nightlife here and the restaurants that keep Ybor City alive and it always has. (Interview conducted by the author)

29Mack, a gay white resident of Ybor, felt that gay bars have served an incredibly important purpose in the life of the community, drawing friends to gather and socialize without having to drive home afterwards:

Yeah, certain times it’s our living room. So, are you asking me, you know, “when are you going to the bar?” That’s like saying “when do you go to the living room?” Yes, it’s a bar, but it’s the social aspect of it that attracts me, more than necessarily whether they specifically serve liquor and do they serve that too. […] I’ve been here for 24 years. What I remember in the old days is you had to drive everywhere. And that was horrible. That’s why I’m here. I don’t drink and drive. I like to drink, so therefore I want to be somewhere where I can do that safely. (Interview conducted by the author)

30Brad, a gay white business manager, also felt that that bars and the alcohol they serve remain the lifeblood of the gay community:

We got businesses down here, gay businesses, gay bars, gay stores. But over time, you know, the rent in Ybor is really not that cheap. Because once we started driving things back up, well the rent started going up again and people were just like, “It’s getting a little too costly now.” When I can get a storefront over here or a restaurant over there, they started kind of moving back out. The bars have stayed a staple because, you know, if there’s alcohol involved, people are going to drink. They will drink no matter what. (Interview conducted by the author)

31Roger, a gay white non-resident of Ybor, succinctly described the sense of safety he feels when why he comes to Ybor: “I feel more comfortable going to a gay bar, because I know if I look at a cute, straight guy I’m not going to get my ass beat” (Interview conducted by the author). But the bars and clubs in Ybor also appeal to a wider audience. John a gay white resident describes Ybor City as having a kind of split personality:

There are two distinct personalities in Ybor, one is a place which is filled with history and nostalgic charm during the day, and another at night which conveys an eclectic and diverse modern expression of individualism and sexuality. The bars and nightclubs (both gay and straight) are a key part of what makes this duality and community so very interesting to me. […] [Without any bars] Ybor would still be a lovely place to live; however, I think it would be less comfortable (fewer eyes on the street), and it would lose an essential half of its character which really defines what Ybor is. Without the duality and juxtaposition of these two, it’d just be much less interesting. (Interview conducted by the author)

32However, Mack realized that while the gay bars are a critical part of his life as an Ybor resident, there are not enough gay men in Ybor to support the variety of bars, so they must continue to draw visitors from other areas of the Tampa Bay area. But this reputation also attracts others outside the LGBTQ community. Becky, a straight white woman who lived in Ybor for three years, moved there because it was an “interesting” place and a friend told her about an available unit in his condominium:

When I first moved to the Tampa Bay area I lived in Gulfport. Next, I moved to the City of Tampa and lived in a few neighborhoods within South Tampa (North Hyde Park, Hyde Park Village, and Palma Ceia). The longest place I’ve lived in the Tampa Bay area is Historic Ybor City. (Interview conducted by the author)

33A unique feature of the residents and business owners of Ybor City is their recognition of the need to work together to cooperatively “manage” the forces that draw people into the neighborhood and at the same time mitigate the other forces that push people away. In the summer of 2007, the existing gay and straight businesses, realizing that working together could benefit them all, created the grassroots GaYbor District Coalition (GDC). Working cooperatively, the original thirty-member businesses and organizations quickly grew this coalition into a major voice of over 250 members to promote Ybor City as a destination for the gay and lesbian community. Since its inception, the GDC has been heavily involved in marketing Ybor City both nationally and internationally through trade shows, events, publications, and social media. Acting as a gay chamber of commerce, the GDC provides networking and marketing support to its members, encouraging them to contribute toward the ongoing redevelopment of Ybor City. In addition, the Ybor City Development Corporation (YCDC), a local organization that manages funds from the Community Reinvestment Area (CRA) funds, has a designated seat on its board for a member of the GDC.

34Keith, a gay public official, highlighted the cooperation that was the hallmark of the GaYbor District Coalition:

I wasn’t intricately involved in the formation of the GaYbor coalition, but I know that they . . . and it wasn’t just the LGBT businesses, but there were also straight businesses that were coming together and saying, “hey, listen, we believe that when we can come together, we can work together to transform and create this LGBT-friendly district.” But it’s not just going to be the LGBT district and community that will benefit, it’s going to be the whole entire community. (Interview conducted by the author)

35Reggie was also involved in the formation of the GDC and remembered that safety for LGBTQ people was a critical issue when the GDC was started:

Back in the day, Ybor City was not safe at all. And they worked on it, and it got better, got worse, got better, got worse, and when we were starting the GaYbor district it was on its down lull, so everything from 16th Street to 14th Street was empty. No shops, nothing, everything was gone. And it was prime to do it then. It started with G Bar opening . . . Mark & Carey’s shop MC Film opened . . . and then Club 714 opened, and then when the restaurant came, Streetcar Charlies, that was kind of like “oh I think I’m going to go move down there cause it looks like it’s going to take off,” and then it did. The GaYbor district is 7 or 8 years old now. It just seemed like when the gays started modeling the west end of Ybor City, everything started to fall in line. More people came, businesses opened, restaurants opened . . . I guess they follow the gays; I don’t know. (Interview conducted by the author)

36Although other interviewees had not experienced any safety concerns directly, several had stories or insights that they wished to share. Transgender people are often the most vulnerable to harassment and violence in urban areas (Doan, 2007) and Ybor City is no exception. Brad, a white gay man, recounted the story of his friend Summer, who is a regular performer in some of the drag shows along the strip:

Things just really happen and there’s no reason or rhyme to it. Sometimes we’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I’ve had friends . . . my “sister,” Summer was walking to a bar down the road back this way. She mouthed off to a couple of guys and she was transgender. They turned around and punched her in her face. But at the end of the day, Summer put herself into that situation by mouthing off to them instead of . . . but she was drunk and, you know, was carrying on. (Interview conducted by the author)

37Cleo, a bisexual white resident of Ybor reflected that while some violent confrontations do occur, they tend to happen only late at night and therefore do not affect her:

Incidents tend to happen on Saturday nights (technically Sunday morning) around 3 am. I’m never out that late so I don’t feel unsafe, but for the people visiting the neighborhood, streets other than 7th should be policed heavier, particularly the surface parking areas. (Interview conducted by the author)

38Keith, a gay white public official, noted that the area’s reputation as an entertainment district has been linked at times to a poor reputation for safety, but the city worked to mitigate these problems by restricting the number of alcohol permits and changing the pedestrianization of 7th Avenue (La Septima) where most of the bars and restaurants are located:

Ybor was known as the bar district of Tampa in my circles, and that was the place where you wanted to go to a great bar at night and to really party. And so, I think it’s developed that reputation over a period of time. I think that there’s when some issues surrounding public safety developed . . . and it has developed into a stigma of an area that’s not necessarily safe to go after a period in the evening. Of course, there have been some violent activities and criminal activities that have occurred in the area, that have, I think, given it a bad reputation. […] I know there have been attempts on the city council, to try to remove some of the stigma in the violence and the criminal activities. They tried to pass an influence policy that would impact the operational hours of bars, and also to make the bar owners more accountable for who was entering their establishment. (Interview conducted by the author)

39Brad, a gay white business manager in Ybor, reflected about the way things have changed. In particular, he pointed out the overwhelming success of the 2015 Tampa Pride event that took place in Ybor City:

But then this year, since we’ve had Tampa Pride, Tampa Pride has kind of changed a lot of hearts down here in Ybor to the better. When we were able to show record number sales for most of 90 . . . I would say 97% of these businesses in Ybor had record sales that day. A lot of them kind of said, “Whoa-ho. Yeah, you may represent multiple colors, but I do love your color green, though, and we’ll definitely take that. What do you need next year because we’ll definitely support you now?” (Interview conducted by the author)

40Ybor City continues to find its way forward by modeling effective communication and coordination between the diverse elements in the area, who remain committed to ensuring that the community thrives. This spirit of cooperation means that Ybor City has become a very gay-friendly neighborhood, attracting both young professional gays and lesbians who are willing to move into an area still needing revitalization and providing leisure space for a much wider clientele drawn to Ybor by its queer identity.


41The fluidity of LGBTQ spaces means they are in a constant state of flux—sparking attractive forces that draw LGBTQ people to the neighborhood, but also spawning propulsive pressures that drive some LGBTQ people away. A critical question for planners and advocates for LGBTQ diversity is how to intervene to slow the impact of these centrifugal forces and perhaps avoid the collapse of these important spaces (Doan, 2015a). This study of queer spaces in two southern cities has shown that even in regions such as the US South, which are not widely supportive of LGBTQ rights and communities, queer spaces are able to thrive. The longevity of those spaces, however, can be strengthened if municipalities are able to intervene in ways that enhance the attractive forces or mitigate the propulsive forces that threaten many gayborhoods.

42These two communities present nearly polar opposites. Atlanta had a thriving gayborhood in Midtown, but by prioritizing the Peachtree development corridor and attempting to “clean up” peripheral areas to stimulate gentrification, these changes ended up undermining many of the key features that kept Midtown queer—bars, bookstores, community organizations, and affordable housing. There is no evidence that these actions were malicious, i.e., intended to destroy Midtown’s queer atmosphere, but rather they may have occurred through inattention and perhaps ignorance of LGBTQ concerns. While some of these changes may be linked to the ongoing gentrification trend experienced by Atlanta and most other growing metropolitan areas in the United States, at least some of the changes may be attributed to the city’s failure to fully realize the importance of twin forces of attraction and repulsion. It is too soon to predict the demise of Midtown as a queer space, but it is clearly on the endangered list.

43In contrast, in the case of Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, planning officials have worked closely with LGBTQ community leaders and groups, such as the GaYbor District Coalition, to ensure that the benefits of growth are spread more broadly. Ybor City’s historic district designations and the Barrio Latino Commission that oversees the local district each provide a kind of moderating effect on the rapid gentrification pressures that other cities such as Atlanta are experiencing. Gentrification continues around the edges of Ybor, but the central areas remain protected, preserving a more walkable and livable community. Because of the small size of the casitas and the exceedingly small lots surrounding them, the housing built for cigar workers by the founder, Señor Ybor, is not as attractive to urban gentrifiers since they are protected from gentrification-inspired teardowns. In the business district along La Septima (7th Avenue) there is a good of cooperation among business owners and residents of the area. The GDC has helped both groups understand that events like Tampa Pride, in Brad’s words (quoted above), can provide a lot of green (cash) in addition to the other colors of the rainbow. The GDC provides a model for other communities seeking to balance growth with attempts to maintain a diverse (including queer) identity.

44The usefulness of the centripetal and centrifugal model is that it provides a framework for analyzing those forces that encourage or limit the growth of marginal neighborhoods. In principle, these forces might apply to immigrant areas as well as LGBTQ areas, but that is beyond the scope of this paper. Cities in other cultural contexts such as the Global South may also experience both attractive and repulsive forces that may help to explain the unique ways in which queer neighborhoods may or may not develop. Doan and Atalay have suggested that this model is helpful in understanding the development of the Beyoglu and Cihangir neighborhoods in Istanbul. Future scholars may find other possible extensions. In any case, it is essential for policymakers and planners as well as academics to seek to understand the ways that these countervailing forces might be more harmoniously balanced. Failure to grasp these principles may be detrimental to the development of queer spaces in general or may promote their decline in a wider variety of contexts.

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1 The term New South was coined in the nineteenth century to emphasize the new industrial focus of the South in the wake of the Civil War, but it has taken on new meaning with the shift of manufacturing to the Sunbelt since the 1990s.

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Petra L. Doan, « Queering the City: Understanding Gravitational Forces »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Petra L. Doan

Florida State University

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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