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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM: Cathedral

A Place for the Gay and Gray

Developers plan what they call the first retirement home aimed at homosexuals. Activists scoff at the high prices, but one man calls the project 'a wonderful benchmark.'


CATHEDRAL CITY — Billboards in the area show silver-haired couples dancing, lounging on pool floats and gazing rapturously at sunsets.

Gay tourism publications feature the same kinds of scenes--albeit with a different type of couple.

So it is here in this desert community, where retirement living and gay tourism are both staples of the economy, that the sun-city lifestyle is getting a same-sex twist.

This month developers announced plans for what they say will be the nation's first retirement community aimed at gay people. Project backers said they have spent eight years arranging financing for the facility, where heterosexual retirees would also be welcome. They hope to open late next year.

The Arbours at Cathedral City would differ from your average retirement community in other ways too. Instead of having walls and security gates, it would be open, smack in the middle of downtown. Plans include restaurants, shops, artist studios and a theater specializing in independent films, all open to the public. There won't be a golf course.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 4, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 4 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Gay retirement--At least one retirement complex intended for gays and lesbians, Palms of Manasota in Palmetto, Fla., preceded a development planned for Cathedral City, Calif. In story Sunday, backers of the California project said theirs would be the first such complex in the nation.

"Outside there will be music playing, a fabulous greengrocer, and we'll be right on the town square, which ensures diversity," said John DeLeo, 55, who with his business partner Jeffrey Dillon, 38, is developing the 320-unit complex. "We want to make sure everyone in the city feels comfortable."

City officials are more than comfortable--they're ecstatic at the prospect of a ritzy, $122-million project in the midst of a stalled downtown redevelopment effort. For this scrappy town, surrounded by tonier cities, the project is a case of wild oats sown in younger days yielding a bountiful autumn harvest.

Cathedral City has a wink-nod past that citizens take a certain delight in describing. "This was the city where all the illicit stuff took place," said Charlie Sharples, manager of C.C.B.C, a gay resort. There were brothels for Gen. George Patton's troops and gambling halls, he said, "and when other desert towns were . . . prosecuting gays, this became the center for gay night life."

The wild days long ago gave way to a working-class respectability. But the city, which also has a large Latino population and a straight senior community, remained gay-friendly. Two council members are openly gay, as is the city attorney. Three of the largest gay-oriented hotels in the Palm Springs area are in Cathedral City.

Indeed, when the city painted its downtown street lights and lampposts purple as part of the redevelopment project, some desert residents thought it was for gay pride, like the rainbows that identify the gay business districts in Palm Springs and other cities.

Cathedral City's mayor, Gary Amy, envisions tolerance rooted in a spicy past literally paying off as taxes from the time-share and retail portions of the Arbours go directly into the city's coffers. A evangelical Christian group also recently bought land near downtown where it would like to build a development with some housing. It could make for lively politics.

Standing before a lavish 2-year-old City Hall with unfinished landscaping, Amy spread his arms to encompass both project sites.

"Cathedral City. We are the world," he said.

So far, criticism of the Arbours--which would include 180 luxury apartments, 90 assisted-living suites and 50 time-shares--comes from within the gay community.

As aging occurs in the first generation to be largely open about homosexuality, concerns over the process loom large. Many wonder if they will face discrimination if they move into an assisted-living or a retirement community. In youth and health they have been able to choose their own neighbors and live on their own terms. In a retirement setting, they might be surrounded by people who don't understand them or even shun them.

Activists say the Arbours, with its premium prices, does nothing to address the real needs of the gay community. The cheapest apartments would cost $225,000, with monthly fees of $2,100; assisted-living monthly fees would begin at $2,695.

But DeLeo says his project is a first step in ensuring that elderly gay people will have a place where they will be surrounded by companionship and acceptance.

"Even though we're at the high end, I believe what we're doing is an enabling factor for organizations throughout the country to build on a local, more affordable scale," he said. "Once we prove that targeting to gay seniors works, there will be more financing available for those who come after us."

Gay Cathedral City residents moving into their 60s and 70s say there's a pressing need for such options.

Diane Staker, for example, said that even without overt discrimination she might not have much in common with people in a traditional retirement community. At 61, she loves the pop group N'Sync, campy humor and the woman she's lived with for 30 years. "Some old people are just so dull," she said.

Sharples, a 59-year-old former Marine who has lived openly as a homosexual for 31 years, worries that he would have to hide his identity if he needed to live somewhere with medical care. "If I had to move to assisted living, I wouldn't depend on being accepted. If someone asked me if I was gay, I can't imagine lying--but I wouldn't broadcast it," he said.

Fred Bilodeau, 59, has no intention of a don't-ask-don't-tell old age. He came out 30 years ago, losing a management job, and vows never to hide again. "I'd live in a trailer somewhere, give up medical care, if I had to. But I can't imagine growing old in a place where I didn't feel comfortable holding my partner's hand," he said. "This is a wonderful benchmark, the idea of making old age as easy and nice as possible for everyone."

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