Heads Up Collective Talks About Gentrification in the ‘Gayborhood’

by Emily Alpert on July 27, 2005

On Tuesday night, over seventy people attended “Queers and Gentrification”, the most recent in a monthly series of radical film screenings and discussions sponsored by the Heads Up Collective, a white anti-racist, anti-imperialist group based in the Bay Area. On the back patio of ‘El Rio’, a Mission Street bar, attendees watched “Fenced Out”, a film on the gentrification of New York’s West Village piers, and segments from “The Rise of the I-Hotel”, a documentary on the eviction of Filipino seniors from San Francisco’s I-Hotel in 1977. The event also served as a fundraiser for the Manilatown Heritage Foundation, which is undertaking the reconstruction of the historic hotel.

“The initial reason [for the screening] was that it was Pride month,” explains Mel Pilbin, a member of Heads Up and a coordinator of the event. While the Heads Up Collective is not an explicitly queer-identified group, she explains, many of its members identify individually as queer, and took special interest in the evening’s theme.

“As queers, we’re all over the [gentrification] spectrum,” adds Julia Allen, also a member of Heads Up. “We’re privileged white men starting gayborhoods all over the country . we’re queers that are constituting the vanguard of gentrification”, and victims of gentrification as well.

The night’s discussion touched on all three of these roles. Cebastien Rose, a member of the now-defunct Queers and Friends Against Gentrification, discussed the creation of posh “gayborhoods” across the U.S., from Ferndale in Detroit to the Castro in SF. The idea of creating queer safe space is “a marketing strategy used to target middle and upper class queers,” he says, that excludes working class queers of color. “Safe for whom?” Rose queries.

Echoing Rose’s remark, Jose Toledo of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation avers, “Our safe is different from what other people’s safe is.” Segments of ‘The Rise of the I-Hotel’ screened at the event spoke to the unique space that was destroyed when the I-Hotel was cleared, after a ten-year fight on the part of its elderly Filipino tenants.

Discussants argued that queer white middle-class people have often been the first to move into working class areas populated mainly by people of color, providing a wedge to open these areas to increased numbers of privileged residents, whose presence ups rents and changes the character of the neighborhood. In light of this phenomenon, an audience member asked, should queer people not move into low-income areas – even if they, too, are driven there by sky-high rents? Speakers offered varying responses.

Pilbin stresses that “gentrification is often seen as a result of people’s individual decisions” but it’s also “an institutional problem, a strategy on the part of banks, developers and politicians to increase profit on a certain area.” Therefore, she concludes, “me moving out of my house in the Mission isn’t going to stop gentrification.”

Others respond differently.

“If you have race and class privilege . you probably shouldn’t,” says Angel Seda, a representative of FIERCE, an association of queer New York youth of color that produced the “Fenced Out” documentary. Still, he says, if privileged queer people do move into low-income neighborhoods, they should take the time to learn about those neighborhoods, and what established residents want.

“Understand what the neighborhood you move into is about,” agrees Zane Lewis, also of FIERCE. “Try not to take over. Respect people and work with them on what they want.”

The evening’s program also highlighted queer victims of gentrification in the Bay Area and nationwide. “Fenced Out”, produced by FIERCE in 2003, documents the redevelopment of the Christopher Street Pier in New York’s West Village, where for decades queer youth of color had gathered to socialize and find support. Many who were driven from their homes found shelter and safety on the pier. “People create family here,” said one, a man named Emanuel Xavier.

In 2002, however, Mayor Giuliani announced the construction of the Hudson River Park on the pier site. “‘A green and blue oasis for all of New York to enjoy’,” read one youth, scanning the park’s promotional literature, before adding, “Except for us, of course.”

FIERCE representatives Lewis and Seda report that today, the park has “a Disneyland environment” adverse to the at-risk queer youth who relied on the pier. With the redevelopment of the pier, the two argue, New York took away important resources for those youth.

In this instance, as in many, says Dawn Phillips, queer needs were defined around white upper-middle-class professionals’ interests. “There’s a huge need for resources in the queer community, but not in the form of lofts, bars, boutiques and bookstores . What we need are homeless shelters and youth services,” he contends. Phillips is a representative of Just Cause, a tenants and immigrant workers’ advocacy organization based in Oakland, which, he says, has one of the highest concentrations of queer women in the country. “The queer community in Oakland is predominantly working class and of color. That’s probably why San Francisco” – known for its population of middle-class white gay men – “has the reputation as the gay city and we don’t.”

In an event that left many with more questions than answers, it was at least clear that, in Rose’s words, “there’s not one universal queer.”

The screening, heralded by Pilbin as one of Heads Up’s best-attended events, raised over $250 for the Manilatown Heritage Foundation. The next installment in the Heads Up Collective’s film series will be on Tuesday, August 30, when members will screen ‘Charisse Shumate: Fighting for Our Lives’ in support of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

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