Business Is Booming for Long Beach 'Gay Mecca'

Times Staff Writer

In the beginning there were the bars.

A dwarf named Lucy, a former circus performer, opened the first one at Broadway and Orange Avenue in 1966.

For six months, according to present owner C. J. Cree, Lil' Lucy's drew a mixed crowd. Then some of the proprietor's gay friends began showing up, setting the tone that has remained.

Other gay bars opened along Broadway. And although the area had a gay presence since the 1940s, residents say, the drinking establishments provided a focus--a place to socialize and bring out-of-town friends.

Flavor All Its Own

After the bars came the homeowners. Then the gay-owned businesses. And, in the last two to five years, according to city officials, a once-sleepy neighborhood occupied mostly by senior citizens has blossomed into one of the city's most dynamic business and residential districts with a flavor all its own.

"It's the Castro Street of Long Beach," said Alec Phillips, speaking of San Francisco's famous gay-oriented avenue on which he once lived. The sales manager of a concrete company, Phillips, 37, said he moved to the Broadway area five years ago because it is a "gay mecca" where "the gay dollar is very prevalent."

Richard Gaylord, a local real estate broker and chairman of the city Planning Commission, went a step further in assessing the Broadway corridor and its recent transformation. "It's a renaissance," he said.

Estimates of the percentage of gay-owned businesses along the Broadway strip--a two-mile stretch bordered roughly by Redondo Avenue on the east and Alamitos Avenue on the west--vary from 25 to 50. There are at least eight gay bars on the street. And some of those familiar with the area put the percentage of homosexuals living in the immediate vicinity at about 30%--compared to 8% to 13% citywide.

While area residents differ somewhat in their attitudes toward gay life styles, they tend to agree on at least one thing:the homosexual presence has had a positive economic effect.

According to Gaylord, a real estate lecturer at Cal State Long Beach and part-owner of JTM Brokerage Corp., property values on Broadway have risen some 50% in the past five years, a higher-than-average rate.

'Hot' Sales Area

"Right now, it's a hot area," he said of the Broadway corridor, in which he has sold both residential and commercial properties.

John Manley, a real estate agent with Century 21/Sparow Realty, said the gay community had "taken what was once very difficult to sell and improved it."

And Doug Otto, president of the Long Beach Heritage Foundation, said the homosexual population had "gentrified the area" by improving its aesthetics.

All this has translated into, among other things, booming business on Broadway. "The strength of the community has permitted the street to flourish," said Bob Paternoster, Long Beach director of planning and building.

In the last two years, according to city business license inspector Sam Barber, the number of active retail businesses on the strip has increased by 20%. And with the flowering of commerce, he said, has come a diversity of offerings.

"They are more interesting businesses," Barber said. "There aren't any junk stores."

Unusual Boutiques

Among the new arrivals are exotic flower shops, a chocolate store, a neon art studio, a frame shop, several unusual clothing boutiques and an array of specialized restaurants.

Chelsea Books, which carries a full range of materials to satisfy a variety of tastes, has adapted to the "gaying" of Broadway by offering a wide range of gay-oriented books and publications that are among the best sellers in the store.

And at Chrys Vinnie and Flo, a specialty crystal shop open only since May, co-owner Ray Keerins says he offers both the utilitarian kinds of products favored by beginning families and the "finer luxury" items generally sought by gays. Without dependents, he said, his gay customers have more money to spend.

"It's part of the attitude we all carry," said resident Vince Blaskovich, 25. "We're gay, we're different. It's part of our statement."

Because households containing two working males, as many in the area do, benefit from two incomes and double the ordinary dose of traditional male skills, major property improvements are commonplace.

Donald Harper, for one, does not mind the overall effect. "They don't bother me any," said Harper, a 62-year-old retired security guard who has been living on Broadway for 15 years. "They're nice and clean and they help you out when you need it. They're good neighbors."

Attracts Hostility

Apparently not everyone agrees.

Dan Brunner, 40, who frequently wears bracelets, earrings and sloganed buttons to affect a decidedly gay look, said he and a friend were attacked by four men yelling "kill the faggots" one night as they strolled down Broadway.

"It happens on Broadway all the time," said Brunner, a computer programmer. "It seems to be a teen-age test of manhood to drive down Broadway at 40 m.p.h. yelling, 'Faggot!' at everyone."

Some merchants on the street report occasional acts of vandalism that they believe to be expressions of anti-gay sentiment.

And Jim Gillis, a Long Beach lawyer, said he has represented more than 10 clients in the past year who claimed to have been arrested for lewd conduct in Bixby Park--smack in the middle of the district--when all they had been doing was sitting quietly.

Sgt. Robert Gillissie, a spokesman for the Long Beach Police Department, denied that the department arrests gays without cause and said that the Broadway area is not particularly high in crime.

Formed Organization

Nonetheless, some years ago a group of gay bar owners banded together to fight what they perceived as harassment from various elements of the non-gay community. The organization they formed eventually evolved into the Eastside Business Assn., a group of local merchants dedicated to promoting commerce. At its height about two years ago, the group had 60 members.

"Now business is so good that nobody has time to go to meetings," said realtor Carol Whittington, a former member of the group.

Yet concerns remain on both sides.

Raymond Ouellette, a mortgage loan officer who has lived in the area on and off for 17 years, said he resents being thought of as gay simply because of where he lives. "It's becoming an embarrassment," said Ouellette, 41. "It's a bit of a pain in the neck living here. I don't care for my neighborhood being known as a gay district."

Eric Kregzde, 25, complained that "sometimes when you walk across the street, people look at you like you're a homosexual."

Buyers Shying Away

And Manley, the real estate agent, fears that the area has already become something of a "gay ghetto" from which non-gay home buyers are staying away in droves. "What I would like to see," he said, "is more integration."

Saturday night on the strip, however, seems a world far removed from such considerations. At the center of the night life here, as always, are the gay bars where hundreds of men--and at one establishment, women--congregate every weekend to drink and socialize.

Cree, the owner of Lil' Lucy's, attributes the recent growth of the area in part to the AIDS scare that, he said, has driven homosexual men out of the major urban centers such as Los Angeles and San Francisco with their large transient gay populations.

Suburban settings like Long Beach, he said, are perceived as more stable. (Ray Kincade, coordinator of the Long Beach AIDS Project, said the AIDS rate in the city is about the same as that found in Los Angeles.) But when the bars close at 2 a.m., filling the street with crowds of laughing men, the mood seems carefree.

"I like the beach area and I like the gay scene," said Bill Monarch, 42, a senior bank loan officer interviewed at a bar called the Mine Shaft. "It's my way of life--here I can be myself."

At Karl's Little Bavaria, on the other end of Broadway, the scene is quite different. It is to this longtime establishment--one of the few non-gay bars left on the strip--that Carl Straight, who works in a food-processing plant (and showed his driver license to verify his name) comes to unwind with friends of like mind. On the issue of homosexuality, he is clear.

"I think it's sick," said Straight, 36. "They got a perverted life style."

'Right Kind of Men'

Then there is Lynette Kweitko, a cosmetologist who recently moved to the Broadway area from Orange County. As a single heterosexual woman, she said, life in a predominantly gay neighborhood is a relatively safe affair. Sometimes too safe. "It's difficult to meet the right kind of men," said Kweitko, 25.

Sitting on the stoop of her apartment midway between the Mine Shaft and Karl's, she reflected on what it's like to feel like a minority. "The first couple of days I had nobody to talk to," she said. "I'd smile and they wouldn't smile back at me. I began to wonder whether I was a woman."

So she found a workable solution. "When I want to socialize," she said, "I go to Buena Park."

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