Chicago's gayborhoods (LGBTQ+ neighborhoods) and safe spaces have been important to the city's LGBTQ+ rights movementand saving them post-COVID may be crucial. New research at Georgetown University highlights the importance of these inclusive havens as they've shifted through Chicago since 1965.
The analysis shows many things: the gentrification squeeze from Boystown (Northalsted) to Andersonville, the spread and importance of LGBTQ+ safe spaces post-Stonewall and even a historical tendency for gayborhoods to flourish on the North Sidein up-and-coming upper and middle-class areas boosted by gay-owned businesses.
It also shows gay physical safe spaces don't appear to be ceding to apps and social media.
The historical maps in the research tell a story from downtown to Boystown (Northalsted); Hyde Park to Andersonville; and beyond. They show patterns in the success and obstacles for Chicago's iconic gayborhoods. In both Boystown/Northalsted and Andersonville, for instance, local business owners banded together to form strong alliances.
Today, Chicago is a rare city supporting multiple thriving gayborhoodsbut greater LGBTQ+ acceptance and gentrification is threatening to disperse these historical jewels.
First, it's important to spotlight the importance of gayborhoods. Yes, they host Pride Parades, happy hours and specific social services. But in U.S. politics, the research notes geographically-centered voting blocs like gayborhoods have more power. They support collective action and shared history. They promote belonging and visibility.
To map them, the Georgetown research sampled addresses in thousands of periodical listings at the Gerber-Hart Library and Archive in Chicago's Rogers Parkfocusing on their stock of LGBTQ+ publications. That included alternative newspapers like Windy City Times, and magazines with names like Blazing Star, Lavender Woman and Grab. In all, the archival research scanned editions of eleven different periodicals and found 1,085 usable addresses for safe spaces between 1965 and 2015.
The analysis found safe spaces take many formsfrom church meeting spots to academic groups; gay-owned businesses and those after the "queer dollar." Bars and clubs, but also grocery stores, tattoo parlors, coffee houses, funeral homes, hardware stores, beauty salons, florists, travel agencies, veterinarians, real estate agentsand on and on.
The result is a set of six maps showing gayborhoods have migrated generally northward in Chicago from 1965 to 2015.
Chicago, and cities in general, started attracting a lot of single men after World War II. Suburbs started popping up that had zoning labeled "single-family," with a focus on schools and the traditional nuclear household.
By 1965, the research shows many gay establishments had opened in Chicago. One periodical listed 33 different records, focusing largely on the Loop and stretching into Near North and nearby Towertown (also known as the Old Chicago Water Tower District).
An early incarnation of Boystown/Northalsted popped up at Clark Street and Diversey Parkway.
Andersonville and Rogers Park also showed early developments as LGBTQ+-inclusive areas, while the Hyde Park neighborhood around the University of Chicago represented one of few safe spaces on the South Side mapped in the research.
Historians document a "Great Gay Migration" into cities after Stonewall.
In Chicago, five periodicals listed 241 safe havens and businesses catering to the Chicago LGBT crowd in June 1975. It was five years after the city hosted its first Pride Parade, and six years after the Stonewall riots. The early route was downtownstarting in Bughouse Square (which is now Washington Park) in the Near North community, then running down Michigan Avenue to the Civic Center in the Loop.
Perhaps no neighborhood emerges more in the '70s than what-would-become Boystown/Northalstedthough the heat map shows most of the activity south of the current gayborhood, and south of Belmont Avenue.
Around this time, urban planners note that gay districts became magnets. LGBTQ+ people flocked to marginal neighborhoods that, often, offered little opposition and cheap housing. Urban design literature pointed to gay neighborhoods as a way for cities to revitalizealong with other members of the creative classin chic and artists' neighborhoods.
It was, perhaps, the fuel for gentrification issues in gayborhoods.
The 1980s was a period of radical change in Chicago's safe spaces. Many LGBT publications merged, changed or closed. One magazineChicago Gay Lifedocumented 182 LGBT havens in 1985. On the map, Boystown/Northalsted started to outshine downtown as the LGBT move north continued.
With the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, gayborhoods in other cities suffered, as leaders shuttered gay bath houses and bookstores in an effort to protect public health.
In the early part of the decade, many Chicago LGBT bars had no front-facing entrancesto keep customers safe and threats at bay. Owners discouraged patrons from displaying public affection.
When Sidetrack opened on North Halsted Street in 1982, owner Art Johnston said the average life of a gay bar was two-to-three years. He attributes Boystown/Northalsted's success and longevity to a group effort by initial gay bars to attract similar businesses. Johnston said owning property there allowed LGBTQ+ businesses to establish a longer presencewhile earlier gayborhoods were subject to leases and whims.
In 1988, the centralized Boystown/Northalsted voting bloc showed its clout when a group of LGBT activists successfully prodded the city to pass a human-rights ordinance. Mayor Richard M. Daley's office later praised North Halsted Street businessesand their merchant's associationfor revitalizing the neighborhood.
But, the research points out many gayborhoods become victims of their own gentrifying success. Johnston points out rental stock in Boystown/Northalsted largely converted to condos in the late-'80sspeeding the push of gay residents northward to establish other enclaves like Andersonville and Rogers Park.
There's a surge in safe space records in the '90swith the 1995 survey mapping 538 records from just two periodicals. On the map, Boystown/Northalsted still dominates, but there's a noticeable move northward toward Andersonville. The Loop gayborhood continues to fade.
Boystown/Northalsted became the first "officially recognized" gay village in 1997. Partnerships with the City of Chicago and local business guilds flourished to brand and market Boystown/Northalsted with a series of LGBTQ-themed pylons. The city's landmark designation report says the streetscape aims to "deliver an overall sense of place that is both safe and inclusive."
Andersonville gains momentum on the 2005 map, as the research plotted 304 records from three separate publications. Boystown/Northalsted remains prominentif not migrating slightly northward.
The emergence of Andersonville shows a city can support multiple thriving gayborhoods. However, it also highlights the squeeze of gentrification.
The year 2015perhaps more than any othershows the contrast between 1965 downtown culture and the LGBT progression north over time.
In the age of apps and social media, the research plotted 305 safe space records in 2015 (compared to 304 in 2005). This result may indicate that LGBTQ+ safe spaces aren't actually closing, but dispersing.
Chicago still shows two prominent gayborhoods in 2015: Northalsted and Andersonville, although hot spots in both appear to fade. The research suggests assimilation bringing happy hours and LGBTQ+ folks to places farther north and west in neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Rogers Park.
The map also indicates Boystown/Northalstedwhich once stretched toward Fullertonnow fades at Belmont, a shift a few blocks northward. Ald. Tom Tunney's office noted, in the research, Northalsted's shifting from a residential district to an entertainment destination.
Several businesses have also moved from Northalsted to Andersonvilleor opened second locations there.
Areas to the north, like Edgewater and Rogers Park, seem to be gaining, perhaps benefitting from LGBTQ+ folks displaced northward by housing prices.
Image #1: 1975 edition of Chicago Gay Crusader at the Gerber-Hart Archive and Library. This was one of the dozens of periodicals researched for a Georgetown University study on Chicago's gayborhoods and safe spaces.
Image #2: 1965 LGBTQ+ Chicago - This map illustrates the prominence of downtown destinations among LGBT populations in 1965. The Georgetown research found 33 records in the 1965 Guild Guide. The Primary hotspot in the '60s centered around the Loop and stretched into Near North and nearby "Towertown." Other blips show furtehr north in East Lakeview (which would later become Boystown/Northalsted), the Andersonville enclave, as well as Rogers Park, the city's northernmost neighborhood. Source: Guild Guide
Image #3: 1975 LGBTQ+ Chicago - Six years after New York's Stonewall uprising, amidst the burgeoning "Great Gay Migration," what would become Boystown/Northalsted emerges as a hotspot by 1975. The Loop and the stretch between the two neighborhoods remain active, but no Chicago gayborhood changes more between 1965 and 1975 than Boystown/Northalsted. An uptick in LGBT publications rendered a much greater and diverse number of records: 241 locations from June 1975 editions of five periodicals. Sources: Blazing Star, Chicago Gay Crusader, Chicago Gay Life, The Chicago Gay Directory: Fourth Edition and Lavender Woman
Image #4: 1985 LGBTQ+ Chicago - Chicago's gayborhood landscape showed a clear shift northward by 1985. Downtown areas like the Loop show less activity, while Boystown/Northalsted continues to grow. Andersonville and Rogers Park represent significant blips, while Hyde Park on the South Side shows resilience among largely non-business and educational activities. Between 1975 and 1985, many Chicago LGBT publications merged, changed or shuttered. The number of records goes down from 241 to 182. Source: Chicago Gay Life
Image #6: 1995 LGBTQ+ Chicago - An astounding 538 records illustrate a surge in the "Gay Nineties." Geographically, Boystown/Northalsted still dominates, but figures show a continued move northward, with Andersonville starting to emerge in the Edgewater and Uptown neighborhoods. Hyde Park and Rogers Park remain significant and largely consistent from 1965 through 1995. The Loop and other downtown locations continue to show less prominence compared to 1965. Sources: Outlines, Windy City Times
Image #7: 2005 LGBTQ+ Chicago - The snapshot in 2005 shows Andersonville gaining heat, while Boystown/Northalsted remains prominent, if perhaps more geographically restricted. This yearperhaps more than any yearshows the contrast between 1965 Downtown culture and the LGBT progression north over time. The push northward, anecdotally shared among LGBT residents, illustrates perfectly by comparing 2005 to 1965. The 304 records from 2005 skew heavily further north than 1965's downtown hotspot. Sources: Identity, Nightspots, Windy City Times
Image #7: 2015 LGBTQ+ Chicago - Despite a similar number of records as 2005 (305), the LGBT heat map dims somewhat by 2015. Boystown/Northalsted and Andersonville remain clear activity centers and places like Rogers Park and Wicker Park see upticks, but one could theorize minor LGBT activity center dispersal. Social acceptance, assimilation and digital hangouts could be explanations. Northalsted's hotspot largely blunts south of Belmont Avenue, a clear shift from 1995 where it extended toward Fullerton. Sources: Grab, Nightspots, Windy City Times