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Finding a Sense of Community in the 'Ghetto'

The affectionately named neighborhood, less nightlife-oriented than West Hollywood, takes pride in the mix of gay and straight culture.

August 26, 2004|Nikki Usher | Times Staff Writer

Jewels, a professional drag queen, is working the large crowd at Hamburger Mary's in Long Beach on a Tuesday night, strutting in her heels on the stage set off by a large rainbow-colored gay pride flag.

She scans the audience, looking for someone to banter with.

Jewels spots her victim at a front table, a straight woman who everyone learns has just had a baby. "If it weren't for her and straight people like her, there'd be none of us," she deadpans to the chuckling audience.

That's the way it is in Long Beach's affectionately dubbed "gay ghetto." A stretch of Broadway from Alamitos Avenue to just beyond Redondo Avenue, including a few blocks north and south, has emerged over the last decade as one of Southern California's largest gay districts, complete with bars, stores, a bookstore and cafes.

To those who call this part of Long Beach home, it's a contrast to West Hollywood's vibrant gay scene, which is decidedly more glitzy and nightlife-oriented.

In Long Beach, people take pride in the area's neighborliness and the mix of gay and straight people.

"You don't really come to Long Beach for the clubs. You come here for the people," said Jonathan Roberts, 19.

Those who frequent the Library, a coffeehouse and bookstore that flies a rainbow flag, can usually name the majority of people who have taken up residence on the stuffed chairs there.

"This is the kind of place and kind of gay community where everyone knows everyone," said Adam Pogue, 26, who works at the Library.

There are no hard statistics on the number of gays in Long Beach. But William "Trip" Oldfield, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Center of Greater Long Beach, believes the city's gay population has grown significantly in recent years.

The center itself, on 4th Street at a northern spot in the "gay ghetto," is painted with the stripes of the pride flag. It offers programs including relationship counseling and public-speaking classes.

The district is represented by Dan Baker, the city's only openly gay councilman. Long Beach was one of the first cities in the state to pass a sexual orientation nondiscrimination clause. Eight years ago, it began allowing gays to register as domestic partners, "way ahead of the rest of the state," Baker said.

"We might not be as big as West Hollywood, but we're definitely visible," added Oldfield. "We are so heavily integrated and such a part of this city."

There are many urban legends about how the gay community began in Long Beach. Rob Lowen, 76, a gay activist in Long Beach since 1972, thinks it might have had something to do with the Navy coming to the area in the 1930s and 1940s.

"Some of the bars have been there for 50 or so years, like the Mine Shaft or the Brit," Lowen said.

Locals hanging out at Club Broadway, a dive bar frequented by lesbians, had other theories they tossed around -- in between jumping off their bar stools to give hugs to regulars streaming in after work.

"It's because it's near the beach and everyone's really laid back," said Kimberly Robison, a longtime Long Beach resident who just bought a house with her partner.

And Michelle Tack, another longtime resident, thinks it's because of the artists' community that has grown up around downtown Long Beach. "You have people who are thinking a little differently and a little more open-minded, and if people are different, they're going to flock to that."

On the Broadway strip, some businesses cater directly to their gay clientele. Same-sex commitment ceremony and anniversary cards can be found in the gift shops.

But residents said one of the things that makes the district so welcoming is that it reflects a mix of gay and straight culture. Many businesses say that a good part of their clientele is not gay.

"We're a completely vital part of the Long Beach city economy," said Tom Wheeler, owner of Two Umbrellas Cafe and Mother's Pizza on Broadway.

Long Beach is also becoming known as a place for gay couples to buy houses and raise families. Houses that have long been run-down are being fixed up and gardens planted.

"The gay and lesbian population does a lot for the feel of this city," Baker said.

In a city where 51% of heterosexual couples have children, 31% of same-sex couples do as well, according to the 2000 U.S. census.

"You're talking about a city where gay people come to settle down, to raise their families and have a good life in a diverse city," Oldfield said. "But there's still enough single people and younger people going out to make it vibrant."

As Jewels put it, "We aren't clubby or pretentious here. I can't think of another community that has such a feeling of everyone getting along."

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