Following WWII, middle class white families vacated America’s inner cities for suburbia in great numbers while many LGBTers remained decidedly metropolitan. Back then, we didn’t see the need for the big backyards or quiet cul-de-sacs that attracted parents of young children to the county. Further, we weren’t as paranoid about racially mixed neighborhoods or ailing schools or the elevated crime stats of urban dwelling.
“Gays might also have been less likely to have the financial means to relocate to suburbia,” explained Ian Darnell, a Ph.D. student in American history and member of the St. Louis LGBT History Project. “Flamboyantly gay men and gay men who had gotten in trouble with the law had severely limited employment opportunities. So did gays who had been ejected from the military—and they also couldn’t take advantage of the generous veterans benefits that helped so many other young men hoist themselves into the middle class and to relocate to suburbia.”
The Central West End would become one of St. Louis’ prominent gay neighborhoods with its disproportionately large and visible LGBT population vis-a-vis the rest of the metro area. Indeed, the CWE was a growing hub of queer social life throughout the 1960s, and by the 1970s—was the epicenter of Gateway City LGBT politics.
“First, I’d say it had to do with its status as liminal racial territory,” offered Darnell. “The area itself had a mixed black/white population, and it was at the edge of the ghetto. This racial betweenness kept many straight whites out and property values low—but was less objectionable to the gays.”
Darnell also points to nearby institutions of higher learning (Washington University and Saint Louis University), a major entertainment district (Gaslight Square), Forest Park and the local art and theater scenes as major draws for young, unattached, adventurous and idealistic residents—all traits that made the area more hospitable to queers.
Eventually heterosexual awareness of the CWE with its newly rehabbed homes, businesses and nightlife led to yuppies moving back to the neighborhood and city officials taking note. So much so that in 1984 the St. Louis LGBT publication, No Bad News hit the streets with a January 1984 cover asking “Are Gays Being Pushed Out of the Central West End?”
In the mid 1970s, St. Louis Mayor A.J. Cervantes acquired development rights to an area surrounding the central Maryland/Euclid corner as rumors of anti gay policies at the Maryland Plaza Redevelopment Corporation grew. Seemingly overnight, rents were raised and certain leases were not renewed. The first queer casualty was famed gay disco Herbies’ nightclub on Maryland Plaza. Soon other LGBT bars and businesses shuttered or moved to more affordable addresses. Similarly – LGBTers experienced sticker shock as apartment and home rentals skyrocketed.
Indeed, the neighborhood around Waterman and McPherson known as “Homo Heights” throughout the 1960s and 1970s was predominantly queer no more.
The St. Louis LGBT community has also played a large role in the revitalization of areas such as Soulard, South Grand and Lafayette Square. But if there is an heir apparent to the CWE, one needs look no further than The Grove.
In the early 1980s, the stretch of Manchester Ave. between Vandeventer and Kingshighway was in terrible shape. But pioneering LGBT bars such as Genesis I & II, Spikes and Attitudes laid the foundation for a rebirth of the neighborhood as seen in today’s vibrant entertainment district anchored by five queer bars and the LGBT Center of St. Louis, along with a host of diverse eateries and watering holes.
Still, there are concerns among many in the LGBT community that history could be repeating itself and what happened in the CWE could happen in The Grove.
A longtime LGBT Grove business owner points to the courting of the “straight hipster” crowd and minimal LGBT presence at GroveFest as examples.
“The majority of the murals that were painted in the Grove about a year or so ago didn’t have a single gay bar on them,” they explained. “You will see Atomic Cowboy, Sweetie Pies and Gramophone. Just recently after complaining several times they started adding the gay bars. It kind of seemed like they were trying to white-wash us out. Even the article which announced the Grove sign dedication didn’t list the gay bars.”
The truth is, it’s a mixed bag. While Pride St. Louis and The LGBT Center of St. Louis both participated in this year’s GroveFest, the annual festival was moved further down Manchester and away from our bars. Still—The Grove website does make a point to include a LGBT narrative in its history, along with quotes from queer community members. Vital VOICE has also confirmed the absence of any organized participation of LGBT business owners at neighborhood meetings.
Our community needs a few things to happen to improve LGBT standing along Manchester. First—unlike previous St. Louis gayborhoods—we don’t live in The Grove. There are hundreds of houses in need of a little lavender TLC and rehab. We should invest in the neighborhood by not just patronizing, but living there as well. This will go a long way in making our voices heard.
What’s more—both The Grove organizers and the LGBT community need to better their communication. Instead of endless infighting, we queers must form a cohesive caucus of community members who regularly attend neighborhood meetings and add to the discussion.
And as for the powers that be in The Grove—they should be more sensitive of our history, and like other minority groups, our struggle to maintain cultural relevance in the neighborhood.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: DARIN SLYMAN & ADALAIDE BALABAN