Battle of the Boystowns: WeHo vs. Chicago

Wed. April 27, 2011 5:48 PM by Joseph Erbentraut

the rainbow pylons along halsted st. in chicago's boystown

photo credit // brenden-john
Chicago, IL - As news traveled eastwardly that two West Hollywood, Calif., City Council members have announced their support of branding a one-mile stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard as "Historic Boystown," the development has been met with mixed-at-best opinions in Chicago's own Boystown neighborhood, the heart of the Windy City's LGBT community.

As part of the Lakeview community area, Chicago's Boystown received its official nod of acknowledgment from the city in 1997 with the construction of dozens of rainbow-adorned pylons along Halsted Street, home to a vast array of LGBT-centric nightspots. The project, which came with a $3.2 million price tag, is thought to be the nation's first-ever distinction of a gay neighborhood.

But the stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard between La Cienga and Robertson is also home to vibrant queer nightlife and is thought of as the hub of West Hollywood's LGBT community. According to a 2002 demographic analysis, gay men represent 41 percent of the city of West Hollywood's entire population.

West Hollywood resident and business owner Larry Block is the principal organizer behind the push to officially designate the stretch as "Historic Boystown" by the city. Block has launched a petition and website and spoken at repeated city council meetings, earning the support of two members at a meeting earlier this month. Block has indicated he hopes to see the designation arrive in time for the city's Pride celebration in June -- meanwhile, his shop -- called Block Party -- has already started selling Boystown-adorned t-shirts, shot glasses and other merchandise.

"From the onset of Stonewall, to Queer Nation and Dont [sic] ask Dont tell, Historic Boystown has been the ground zero of our gay community," reads the petition on Block's website, "There are many special designations throughout Los Angeles from Koreatown to Little Ethiopia, from Pershing Square to Little Tokyo and so on.The time has come for our City Council to protect and preserve our LGBT community."

LAWeekly journalist Simone Wilson seemed to agree with Block's assessment and noted Los Angeles' larger LGBT population, as compared to Chicago, as well as the New York Times' recent assertion of West Hollywood as "the country's closest approximation of a gay city." The West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and several WeHo-based bloggers and activists did not respond to's request for comment for this story.

In Chicago, the reaction, as originally reported by the RedEye's Tony Peregrin, has ranged from "The more the merrier" to "You can't beat an original" -- or worse.

Sean Kotwa, manager of both Hydrate and the Halsted's Bar and Grill, told the controversy is just further proof that "when you are doing something right, people will start copying you." Kotwa has lived in or near Boystown for some 20 years and worked in the neighborhood, beginning at Nookies Tree Restaurant when he was 18, for almost a decade.

"As I say, there's nothing like the original," Kotwa added. "Regardless of what they may change their name to, people will still know WeHo as WeHo and Boystown as Boystown."

Shawn Hazen, who handles promotions and marketing for Roscoe's Tavern, said he sees the news as both a compliment and a sign of the continued progress of the LGBT political movement nationally.

"Boystown isn't a brand or a copyright, it's more of an idea. We are lucky to have a neighborhood where we can live, where businesses can thrive, and where we can socialize and organize and feel accepted for who we truly are," Hazen said. "Ideally, every major metropolis and city should have its own 'Boystown' neighborhood."

Commenters on the Boystown Facebook community page also represent varying views on the issue, with dozens of comments posted over the past month as the debate has forged on. One wrote, "Much like there are multiple Little Saigons, why can there not be more then one Boystown?"

Another, apparently not feeling the love from the motion picture industry, wrote, "[W]e all know nothing original comes from [H]ollywood, so I'm not surprised they want to do another 'remake.'"

Regardless of which side of this particular debate Chicagoans fall on, this issue is dwarfed by the enormity of so many others facing our community in the eyes of this writer.

Continual attacks launched against our community by legislators in Springfield. HIV/AIDS drug assistance programs cut while new transmission rates remain staggering. The city and state budget's crisis mode has endangered these and many other social programs. Harassment and discrimination continuing on a near-daily basis -- even in our own "gayborhood," which cannot claim a spotless record of always protecting all of our own that fall under the "LGBT" umbrella.

No amount of bragging rights over being the "one-and-only" can alleviate the very real pain caused by any of the above matters. While our gayborhood remains a huge accomplishment by many of our community's pioneering queer activists and is very much worth preserving, we do not need to look as far west as LA to find an issue worth being riled about.

Then again, it is difficult to come up with an even halfway-decent Hollywood remake in recent years, so what say you, readers?