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'Boys Town' at a Crossroad

Is West Hollywood forsaking its provocative gay image for a more gentrified demeanor? Depends on whom you ask.

August 18, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At this point, the "Welcome to West Hollywood" signs are pointless. They have been replaced for all practical purposes by more direct sentiments--"Do Not Enter," "Open Trench," "Expect Delays,"--interrupted here and there with polite reminders and requests: "Businesses Open," "Next Left Turn Five Blocks," "Please Bear With Us."

For months, backhoes and bulldozers have crunched and gnawed, shaking the ground like modern dinosaurs. In their wake, they have left spoor of gravel and dirt, and three miles of Santa Monica Boulevard, from La Brea Avenue to Doheny Drive, eviscerated beneath the summer's steely sky.

Residents complain of wrecked paint jobs and constantly shifting single-lane traffic; merchants bemoan the loss of parking and dollars; tourists do a double take and try not to throw out the alignment of their rental cars, and everyone wonders what exactly it will all look like, what exactly it will mean.

With a price tag of $32 million, the boulevard reconstruction project had better look nice. The water-color renderings of the renovation are certainly lovely, full of spacious sidewalks and sun-dappled streets lined with jacaranda and elm trees. Lovely, and a bit disconcerting as well.

Because this is Santa Monica Boulevard, the heart of the country's first openly gay-run city, home of the Gay pride parade and Halloween extravaganza. A town built on edgy politics and personal freedom. Where 11 p.m. any night throbs with an insistent techno beat and the funky familiar whiff of bar--all beer and sweat, cologne and smoke. "Boys Town," from Crescent Heights Boulevard to Doheny Drive, where on weekends there are simply too many people--boys and girls now, but still mostly boys--and the sidewalk becomes one enormous patio, a cruisable feast.

It is hard to imagine this street as that future watercolored street, with its wide calm sidewalks and gentrified air. Yet the boulevard is changing, as West Hollywood is changing, as the gay community is changing. Sculpted and resculpted by a variety of forces--AIDS, rent control, the booming economy and changing social mores--the people and the place are different than they were five years ago, 10 years ago.

Visibly different. There are fewer noticeably sick men on the sidewalks, more strollers and Baby Bjorns, more Latinos and Asians, more women. At the proliferating coffeehouses there are fewer pink tank tops and cutoff ensembles, more Abercrombie & Fitch, more Prada. Apple martinis have replaced the Cape Cod and even the cosmopolitan. The bleach-blond standard remains the same despite the nighttime infusion of people of color, but the biceps seem bigger, the necks thicker. Where once stood Harleys, there are now SUVs. The club crowd seems young, perilously young, partly because clubs are ever for the young, and partly because many of those who would be middle-aged are now dead. Many of the survivors have given up the club scene for a more settled life, some with kids--participants in the new "gayby" boom.

Beyond the sidewalks, beyond the Look and the Scene, larger changes are occurring. More people are coming out and bringing with them a broadening spectrum of expectations and anxieties. Conversations about changes in West Hollywood, historically both crucible and mirror of gay life in America, draw forth a breathtaking variety of opinions: the city is selling out, growing up, getting it together. The gay rights movement is dead, is resting, is stronger than ever. But no matter the opinion, it is strongly held, dramatically voiced.

A 'Spiritual' Link for Gays, Lesbians

"West Hollywood has a spiritual connection for gays and lesbians," says Mark Haile, for 11 years the special events coordinator at A Different Light bookstore. "And people are wondering if folks are not being subtly told, 'This is not your neighborhood anymore,' if the city is detaching itself from its proletarian roots and attaching itself more to posh consumerism. We're calling ourselves East Beverly Hills," he says, laughing.

"La Cienega to Doheny has gone drastically uphill," says Stuart Gavert, who's lived in the area so long he remembers when there was plenty of street parking. "It got nicer because a lot of gay money went into it. Then when AIDS hit, it went down again, and now it's on its way up again. But a lot of the younger gays," he adds, "are going to Silver Lake or Pomona. West Hollywood is still too white bread."

Of course, many people like white bread.

"I haven't walked down [the boulevard] in about six months," says longtime resident writer-director Don Roos. "I'm too gay to get dusty walking down the street. It definitely has gotten very yuppie, but I'm a yuppie, so I like all that stuff--Coffee Tea & Bean Leaf, Baja Fresh. I only hope it doesn't push the older folks out."

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