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Gay beyond Boystown

C.J. Fling an employee The Brown Elephant resale shop North Halsted helps customer load car Aug. 2. | Michael R.

C.J. Fling, an employee of The Brown Elephant resale shop on North Halsted, helps a customer load a car Aug. 2. | Michael R. Schmidt~ For Sun-Times Media

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VIDEO: Tracy Baim discusses Chicago LGBTG neighborhoods
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Updated: September 12, 2013 6:06AM



As the Halsted Street area hosts another Northalsted Market Days street festival Saturday and Sunday, the heart of the gay business district — Boystown — is enjoying hearty economic vitality and a renewed sense of optimism.

From 2007, the depths of the recession, through last year, at least a half-dozen gay bars expanded, and gay-owned businesses in Boystown succeeded in a variety of formats, ranging from hair salons and wine stores to restaurants, vintage boutiques and technology startups.

“When the whole world was shutting down in the past five or six years (during the recession), Boystown thrived, with several bars and nightclubs remodeling, opening additional locations or doubling or even tripling in size,” said Zach Haller, CEO of Found In Town (FoundinTown.com), citing as examples Minibar, Roscoe’s, Scarlet, Sidetrack and Spin.

The business district, whose “ground zero” for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning/queer community is considered Halsted and Roscoe, has also broadened its reach as more people, straight and LGBTQ, feel comfortable there, said Haller.

For instance, Gaymart, an irreverent gift shop at 3457 N. Halsted, has expanded its selection to include “Star Trek” and “Dr. Who” items, in addition to gay novelties.

“We strive to be an ‘everybody-friendly’ business,” said store manager Chris Howard.

In many ways, the flourishing Boystown business district parallels the LGBTQ community’s growing political, economic and societal acceptance. Recent examples include the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions on June 26 that allowed same-sex marriages in California and ruled that married same-sex couples are entitled to federal recognition.

On the other hand, Boystown’s growth and gentrification have driven some mom-and-mom and pop-and-pop companies out of the neighborhood in favor of corporate chain stores.

Mark Thomas, owner of four retail stores at Belmont and Clark and an opponent of Walmart’s entry into the neighborhood, bemoans the loss of locally owned stores in the Boystown and Central Lake View business districts. He cites as an example the now-closed Pink Frog clothing boutique at the Belmont and Clark intersection that is now the site of an H&R Block office.

“I think landlords are making bad choices” by renting to chain stores, said Thomas, owner of lingerie/adult toy store Taboo Tabou, punk/gothic boutique The Alley, hippy-influenced jewelry and collectibles shop Architectural Revolution, and specialty cigar store Blue Havana.

Thomas said his customers are as diverse as ever: “Black, yellow, gay, straight, bisexual. We never cared who you (customers) were. ...We love being here.”

Thomas survived the recession, but employs about one-third fewer employees at half the number of stores he did in 2007. Thomas employs 22 people at his four stores compared with the 75 people he employed at eight stores before the recession started in 2007.

While some activists say there is work to be done by large corporations on gay rights in the workplace, others say they see no need to even discuss what a “gay-friendly” business means.

“I remember, years ago, there might be snickering in a restaurant about the waiter’s jewelry or how the bartender acted, but now all of the bars in Wrigley have gay symbols and hang the Pride flag,” said Gus Isacson, executive director of the Central Lake View Merchants Association. Isacson’s family has lived in the area for three generations.

“Being gay-friendly or not doesn’t even register with 20-year-olds because they don’t know what a non-gay-friendly business would be,” he said. “It seems so arbitrary to me. And the lines have been blurred. Men, not just gays, are getting waxed and wearing yellow and blue pants and tank tops. … Retailers do sponsorships as just another marketing avenue.”

The Boystown neighborhood boasts a median household income of $69,189, compared with the greater Chicago median income of $46,195 and greater Lake View’s $70,746, according to the most recent data available from 2010.

According to a Re/MAX luxury real estate report, Boystown’s luxury property sales from January through June totaled two detached units sold at a median price of $825,000 over an average market time of 93 days, and 244 attached units sold at a median price of $307,000 at an average market time of 83 days.

“Many gay couples who could be described as GDINK — gay double income, no kids — have disposable income to spend on dining, nightlife and other leisure pursuits,” Haller said.

There are still issues of contention, however. Some Boystown gay-bar websites feature discussions about women holding their bachelorette parties there, with some bars banning such get-togethers because they are seen as insensitive or insulting to take advantage of gay bars and nightclubs to celebrate marriage, when gay couples have no such right in Illinois.

And bar and restaurant owners must vie with new ways that young LGBTQ people hook up, including online dating sites and at mainstream entertainment venues where they don’t feel the need to “self select” with a gay crowd, said Tracy Baim, publisher and executive editor at Windy City Media Group, which produces Windy City Times, and author of several books about Chicago LGBTQ history.

Baim says despite the seismic shift in support for gays, big companies often fail to spend much-needed advertising dollars in the community. At the same time, Baim judges each business “as its own case study,” especially as companies struggle to figure out how to build loyalty among their target audiences amid today’s crowded social-media field, and fight conservative groups that threaten boycotts and other retribution.

The Human Rights Campaign, a LGBTQ equality-rights advocacy group that rates businesses on their policies, says Walgreen, Hyatt Hotels and Northern Trust have participated in the campaign’s scoring procedure since its inception 11 years ago. Of the Chicago-based companies that scored 100 percent in 2013, Hyatt, Orbitz Worldwide, MillerCoors and Jenner & Block also are members of the campaign’s Coalition for Workplace Fairness, while Exelon, MillerCoors and Winston & Strawn are members of the a coalition that supports efforts to treat health insurance benefits the same for gay and straight couples for tax purposes.

Yet it remains with mom-and-mom and pop-and-pop, LGBTQ-owned businesses to carry the flag at the grass-roots level.

“My company launched relying entirely on the support of gay-owned and -operated businesses,” Haller said, noting that he test-marketed his business idea in Boystown. Found in Town offers a free service in which users receive serialized ID tags for valuable personal items, such as smartphones and keys, that could go missing.

Boystown’s residential community long ago expanded into Andersonville (formerly called Girls Town for the number of lesbians who live there and now claiming one of the highest densities of gay couples with children in the nation) and now includes Edgewater, Lake View, and, to some degree, Uptown and Rogers Park.

The Williams Institute at UCLA, which is a gay-oriented numbers cruncher, ranks Chicago No. 4 in Illinois based on the number of same-sex couples per 1,000 households, behind No. 1 Oak Park, No. 2 Forest Park and No. 3 Evanston.

Baim’s book on the history of the gay community, “Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community,” Surrey Books, shows that gay nightlife encompassed the Gold Coast and the South Side as far back as the 1920s.

“I’ve been covering the community since 1984, and we’re talking about hundreds of thousands in Illinois who live throughout the city, the suburbs and downstate,” said Baim, who founded the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce here in 1996.

Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon, co-owners of Women & Children First bookstore, have operated their business the same way — with LGBTQ employees given the same benefits and respect as straight employees — since the company’s start nearly 34 years ago. The bookstore is credited with putting Andersonville on the map as a center of lesbian identity when it moved from the Halsted and Armitage area in 1990, after many gays and lesbians had relocated to take advantage of Andersonville’s then-more-affordable and family-centric housing stock.

“We were welcomed with open arms by all kinds of businesses,” said Christophersen. “We have played a role in advocating for LGBTQ-friendly issues, awareness and political gain. … We have functioned as a neighborhood bookstore, so we carry a broader stock (of books). We have supported politics and fiction of various struggles and movements” that interest the greater community.

Jim Ludwig, owner of Roscoe’s bar at 3356 N. Halsted and a 26-year mainstay in Boystown, says the Boystown business district has gained strength even as the outlying neighborhoods have become more gay-friendly, and one community’s revitalization takes nothing away from any other’s.

Indeed, the Halsted corridor that serves as the backbone of the Boystown business district has become even more stable as the “vast majority” of bar and nightclub owners bought their properties. Ludwig noted that by doing so, the bar owners aren’t chased away by higher rents and can plow their profits into upgrading their buildings.

The bar owners also have gotten wise to social media as a way to keep young people coming back — whether gay or straight.

“The young crowd is way more accepting of gays and embracing of the entire community (compared with the old days),” he said.

Email: sguy@suntimes.com Twitter: @sandraguy

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