We’re queer, we’re here: The new Gay & Lesbian Center spurs momentum for an LGBT neighborhood downtown
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Pass the new Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada and you’ll nearly crash your car giving it a hard double take. The first time, you’re marveling at the renovated facility and its towering sign, topped by a purple triangle. The second time, you’re squinting at the group of kids shooting hoops out front.
You can hardly be faulted for wondering why a basketball court is so prominent at a place historically known for providing refuge for the sort of kids disinclined toward sports. And yet, that court is almost never unoccupied.
When you inquire, Candice Nichols, the executive director of The Center, tells you it’s not the facility’s youth program using it. “The minute that basketball court came out, the neighborhood came out.”
And it’s not just the court the neighborhood kids encounter. “They also use the gender-neutral bathrooms,” says Bronze Cafe general manager, David Mozes. “I’ve been thinking about it from the cafe. They have to be questioning how that works. Sometimes the basketball kids also cross the paths of the gay youth-group kids.
“We’re building these bridges of understanding,” he adds. “It wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have that type of gay community center, as opposed to just a gay center. The Center has kept its word and been an amenity to the whole neighborhood.”
There certainly weren’t any curious neighborhood kids, basketball hoops or real amenities at The Center’s previous home, the aging and isolated Commercial Center. At a very cramped 6,000 square feet, the small staff barely had enough space to accommodate an STD clinic, a library, and scant meeting space for various LGBTQ groups.
Even four years ago, Nichols knew she wanted to relocate The Center, but wasn’t sure where. She only knew it had be centrally positioned. Brian Paco Alvarez, chairman of the board for the Liberace Foundation and art curator, recalls Nichols’ interest in the plaza that housed the former Liberace Museum. But as she spoke to the Foundation about the possibility of buying the strip mall for The Center, Alvarez instead asked her when she would move The Center downtown, an area of town he has championed for years for its cultural relevance.
“She was reluctant at the time, but when [The Center] decided to move where they are now, it was a great moment,” he says.
Four million dollars later, he speaks in awe of the completed Robert L. Forbuss Building — named after the public official and community advocate who passed away last year — which officially opens Saturday, April 6.
“I’m very impressed with what Candice has done in a short period of time,” says Alvarez. “The transformation of that building in the 12 months has been dramatic. That takes passion. We’re really witnessing the gay dollar making its impact.”
The 16,000-square-foot facility, located on South Maryland Parkway, where it splits into one-way streets in eastern downtown Las Vegas, would stun even the deepest-pocketed local nonprofit. Besides the whole foods-based cafe and the computer stations in the main lobby, it features a sitting room, a library, a rumpus room and mini-kitchen for the youth program, several meeting rooms with removable walls that can open up into a 617-capacity event space, a separate kitchen for the cafe, a large office for staff, and an expanded health and wellness clinic, which has its own side entrance. The low-to-moderate income reisdents in the area now have immediate access to important health services and HIV/STD testing.
Nichols stresses that the building finally enabled The Center to evolve from being just a service-based organization to becoming a true community center, one that can host cultural events (such as film screenings and author events), as well as meetings for LGBTQ and HIV support groups and outside organizations. Just last week, it hosted diversity training for the McDonald’s corporation.
“It’s a prideful moment for the people that have gone to [group] meetings, or our youth that have come here … that such an amazing space was built for them to use,” says Nichols, adding that the biggest pool of volunteers during the big move downtown came from the kids — not the adult donors — who frequent The Center. That in turn caught the attention of the neighborhood residents, who did not hesitate to engage with the staff.
“The community was sooo curious,” says Nichols. “We’d say, ‘It’s the gay and lesbian community center.’ They’d say, ‘Oh, my son’s like that!’ Culturally, these are African-American and Hispanic people from the area, but everyone had a story, like, ‘Oh, my granddaughter will be so glad when she visits.’ The community around us was really excited, and I think that will just expand.”
But while The Center gets to know its new neighbors, it — along with other downtown gays and businesspeople — has also been thinking about those it hopes to lure into the area now that it’s reopened in such a big way. When Alvarez talks about The Center being a game-changer and a beacon for the gay community — and he does so rather excitedly — he’s referring to the prospect of a something that, according to Nichols, has been discussed for years but never come to fruition: a true gay district, or gayborhood.
Las Vegas is one of the most unique cities in the country when it comes to its gay population, which is fairly evenly represented through the valley, from the downtown-adjacent neighborhoods to bougie suburbs like Summerlin and Green Valley. It has no “gay ghetto” — a la West Hollywood in Los Angeles or Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. — which would boast a high concentration of gay residents and businesses. (The “Fruit Loop” just north of the airport does include a small handful of gay bars, though it has waned in popularity with the proliferation of LGBT bars throughout the valley.)
Some have argued that this has resulted in a well-integrated Vegas LGBTQ community. Others maintain it has only divided Las Vegas gays, some of whom don’t attend LGBTQ activities or nightlife events. But people like Nichols, Alvarez and others see The Center as the go-ahead for entrepreneurs and homeowners to finally lay claim to an area that, up until two years ago, no one wanted to develop. And that’s historically what gay communities have done in bigger cities: gentrified and beautified a depressed area, turning it into a thriving, culturally rich gayborhood.
Even Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who began The Downtown Project to put downtown development into hyperdrive, has met with The Center to offer his 2 cents on how it can serve as the eastern connector to East Fremont and the 18b Arts District, as well as how this long-neglected area can prosper in the hands of a very important demographic.
“He explained his whole concept of urban density, and talked about the three things it needs: technology, the arts — and gays and gay businesses!” says Nichols. “So it’s part of the whole scheme of things, but I think getting people down here to see the potential, getting the businesses and the [gay] community to come down here when they might have not come here, was really interesting.”
That exercise has already begun, thanks in part to the efforts of Mel Goodwin, the program director for The Center. She acts as a liaison between the general gay community, the board of directors for The Center and The Downtown Project, which hired her as a part-time community contractor.
“My interest was to lift up the LGBTQ community as a part of what’s happening downtown because we’re all here,” she says. “But there wasn’t necessarily a recognizable aspect that was celebrating that.”
“[We’re] interested in helping downtown Las Vegas to become a vibrant and diverse community,” says Kim Schaefer, communications rep for Downtown Project, which has a $50 million budget to invest in unique and viably sustainable small businesses. “To do that, we are engaging with a broad spectrum of people throughout the greater Las Vegas community. We serendipitously met Mel Goodwin and found out she is passionate about getting the word out about downtown to the LGBT community.”
Once contracted, Mel gathered several community leaders together to discuss, among other things, the luring of gay business owners to downtown, with some in the group particularly enthusiastic about the area around The Center, north of Charleston Boulevard. A few group members asked LGBTQ entrepreneurs to consider opening second or third businesses, or relocating their existing ventures — especially those in the Fruit Loop, which have always lived under the threat of displacement by their expanding neighbors McCarran International Airport and UNLV — there or elsewhere downtown. A few have expressed interest.
The group even agreed on a prospective name for the area: Q-Town, which already has its own Facebook page.
One of the volunteers of this group was chef Peter Bastien. He took an active interest because he lived in and wanted to open an eatery in the area, and sought to “be part of the downtown renaissance,” as he puts it. His partner is Mozes, a developer who helped turn the Hollywood Media District into a thriving, livable area before he and Bastien moved to Las Vegas. At the time, they were putting in bids for the first Bronze Cafe, which spurred their sense of activism because of what Mozes discovered about downtown redevelopment when he tried to launch the multiuse complex he dubbed The Mission in the Arts District — one of two zones (Fremont East being the other) that boasted business incentives and lax rules where other areas of downtown did not.
“The reason why most people want a gayborhood is because it would be fun,” says Mozes. “I wanted one because it was a way of further differentiating an area I need to get actually mapped out by the city, that we can define boundaries to, so the city can say, we want to encourage development there, too, because we understand and appreciate this interest group, so we’ll relax the guidelines and restrictions that make development more difficult elsewhere. And that interested me.”
Given his experience, Mozes accepted an invitation to talk at one of Goodwin’s downtown/LGBTQ group meetings and present his “Triangle” treatise — named after the shape of the geographic area he has in mind; the triangle is also the icon of The Center, and frequently used in gay iconography — that not only recommended the parameters, needs and goals of a gayborhood plan, but could serve as something to present to officials and community members in order to provoke discussion regarding the merits of promoting redevelopment, especially east of Maryland Parkway.
“By having a plan, by starting to chip at the plan, we could demonstrate to the city that not only people want this, but here are the people that want this, the people from Paradise Palms and the Huntridge District, constituents of The Center, people that live in the lower, middle and upper-middle residential complexes around here that would appreciate having things in this area,” says Mozes. “We wanted to basically encompass this no-man’s land. And that’s where the Triangle plan came from.”
Though Goodwin is still contracted through Downtown Project, she’s lately had to concentrate on The Center move, while Mozes and Bastien have focused on establishing The Bronze Cafe at both The Center (now open) and at ArtSquare — the same location where he planned and withdrew his Mission development — which is slated for a late spring/early summer opening.
One important distinction for Q-Town is that it wouldn’t necessarily be the sort of all-or-nothing gayborhood found in other metropolitan cities. Rather than be densely packed with LGBTQ businesses like The Castro in San Francisco, it would more likely resemble Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a large urban center containing many of the city’s gay institutions that complement the other numerous cultural and commercial entities around them. To wit, neither The Center nor the gay-owned businesses in the Arts District would be within walking distance to another LGBTQ-related development downtown (and new investment for The Downtown Project), Krave Massive, set to open as the world’s biggest gay nightclub in June at Neonopolis.
And while some gay homeowners would find their way into the area, others would likely settle in existing neighborhoods outside the commercial district.
But that’s already happening.
THE GAYS OF MCNEIL
You could call Felipe Crook and Chris Chebegia community-builders. You might also think of them as social engineers.
In December of 2009, the couple moved from the western suburbs into the downtown-adjacent McNeil neighborhood, bordered by Charleston Boulevard, Oakey Boulevard, Rancho Drive and Cashman Avenue. They loved the big, distinctive ranch-style homes; they sought a home with a nice pool; and they wanted to be close to cultural destinations like The Smith Center (which was still being built at the time), the Arts District and Fremont East, with their new bars and eateries.
Shortly after they moved in, they discovered three friends also lived in the neighborhood. Surely they had other gay and lesbian neighbors. “I had a mission,” says Crook. “I wanted to make McNeil the gay neighborhood. We have a lot of friends, so it wasn’t like we needed more friends. But I definitely thought there could be a little more cohesion in the gay community.”
To find, unite and socialize with the LGBT homeowners in McNeil, they began a private Facebook group called the McNeil Gayborhood Manor page (of which this writer was made a member back when he lived in the adjacent Westleigh neighborhood), and invited their gay neighbors one by one.
“There was no one previously trying to make this a gayborhood,” says Crook. “I thought, OK, let’s put it out there, let’s claim it, and it started attracted other gays.”
Two years ago, the page had 20 members. Today, it’s at 35 and growing fast, in part due to Crook and Chebegia themselves. They’re enthusiastic, friendly men with whom others would want to associate, and they’re also very visible in the community, whether frequently out and about in downtown Las Vegas, participating at various charity events, or hosting progressive dinners and game nights for the Gayborhood. (Chebegia is also the vice president of the McNeil neighborhood association.)
The group has clearly grown, though, from the influx of gay and lesbian homeowners moving in to the area, just like they are in similar residential areas near downtown. Crook is a realtor who says that 40 percent of his clientele is gay, and he heavily promotes McNeil to it, not just because he wants the create a gayborhood there, but because he knows gay homeowners like him want to own and maintain a home unencumbered by the homeowner’s association restrictions so often found in the valley’s ubiquitous tract-home developments.
“I’ve always wanted to design homes, and I would never live in a gated community where they have rules about what color to paint your home, and that’s why gays move into neighborhoods like McNeil,” says Chebegia, a construction manager who studied both engineering and architecture. “You can do whatever you want to your house.”
When asked about a potential bigger gayborhood in downtown Las Vegas, the two men have the same response as many other gays living and working in the area. Their presence downtown is largely rooted in the desire to be in or near a vibrant, robust and arts-friendly urban center, not necessarily help establish an area heavily populated by the LGBT community. In fact, Crook and Chebegia, like many of their downtown peers, are more likely to meet their friends at “straight” bars like Artifice (which nonetheless holds monthly gay-themed events), just as heterosexual revelers have been singing the praises of Neonopolis’ flamboyant bar and bowling alley, Drink & Drag. The boundaries between the gay and straight communities are blurring as society — and downtown — evolves.
And yet, they also hope that the growth of a gay downtown will not only lure more LGBT residents and visitors to the area, and give a sort of safe harbor to the still-vulnerable gay groups that require it, but also bring together a local demographic that’s long been defined by the distance within it.
“I lived in West Hollywood before here, and worked in downtown during its redevelopment, and got to see that whole process,” says Chebegia. “I also lived in West Hollywood for four years when I had a job there, so I was living in a gay ghetto, and I definitely feel more of a sense of community here in Las Vegas than I did there, where I had friends and was very active in the community. Vegas is still a small town, whether you’re straight or gay. The gays here aren’t united yet — but they will be.”