At a time when most bookstores have enough floor space to sell station wagons or livestock, Query Books is one of the pleasant anomalies--a smartly and idiosyncratically stocked shop with more character than square footage. On this rainy Sunday afternoon, Memorial Day Eve, Query's narrow main room is somewhere between cozy and cramped, with 30 or so people on hand to hear Will Fellows read from his new book, A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture. As Fellows reads, a few customers from the adjoining Wilde Roast Café, which is doing a brisk breakfast and lunch business, walk over and quietly buy a paper.
Next, Robert Seger, a Minneapolis man interviewed for the book, tells the mostly male crowd about his collection of 45 vintage washing machines. With somewhat sheepish enthusiasm, he explains the "high drama" of the 1947 Frigidaire's bobbing agitator, the logistics of restoring long-in-the-tooth appliances, and the special appeal of '50s washers in pink and turquoise. A man with 45 washing machines, I figure, is a man with exceptionally clean clothes, and a guy you probably don't want to help move.
To Fellows, Seger represents something larger. The Milwaukee-based author argues that gay men are disproportionately represented in neighborhood revitalization, historic preservation, and restoration (of homes, Frigidaires, what have you) because of five major cultural traits: gender atypicality, "domophilia," romanticism, aestheticism, and what he calls "connection- and continuity-mindedness."
"Rather than dismissing these realities as the stuff of stereotype," Fellows writes, "I see them as the stuff of archetype, significant truths worthy of exploration."
Like the men profiled in A Passion to Preserve, Wilde Roast's co-owner Dean Schlaak is a restorer with a keen aesthetic sense. Previously self-employed as a carpenter, Schlaak did much of the work on Wilde Roast's interior, a spacious room with a giant portrait of Oscar Wilde above the counter and sepia-toned, Victorian decor to match.
After the reading, Schlaak's business and life partner Tom DeGree chats with Fellows about the café and bookstore, both of which opened this March, and about the live theater (T.H.E. Theater & Wash & Brush Up Company) that's set to move in across the street. "You see," a customer nearby jokes, "we're taking over things."
Edina Realty's Brad Palacek thinks that quip isn't so far from the truth: A new, more moneyed neighborhood, he argues, is set to become Minneapolis's gay locus. But before we let him elaborate, let's put a label on what "things" may or may not be undergoing a gay takeover. We're talking about the still-expanding shopping and entertainment district on and around East Hennepin and Central Avenue and the homes, apartments, and ritzy new lofts in the vicinity. We'll call the district Near Northeast.
"[Near Northeast] is ripe to become a real Mecca for gays and lesbians," says Palacek, who regularly takes out large ads in Lavender. "The days of Loring Park being the Twin Cities' gay hub, I truly believe, are gone, and Uptown just doesn't offer that much anymore," he adds. "It really has moved to that side of the river. There's potential for Northeast to become one long stretch that you can walk down, like [Chicago's] Boystown or Dupont Circle in D.C. And that's the fun. That's what people want: a six- or eight-block walk where they can parade themselves--good, bad, or indifferent."
Some would argue that a nexus of queer culture, even if it's just a shopping district, is not what Minnesotans want--that any type of gay ghetto is an obsolete concept in an era of increased acceptance. Others argue that Minnesotans are simply too reserved to foster a true gayborhood. GLBT Minnesotans are Minnesotans first, they say, and liberal straights are only tolerant of homosexuality as long as they don't have to see it or talk about it.
As Palacek notes, Northeast doesn't offer a gay walking tour yet, but its trendy entertainment district is probably the area's densest concentration of queer or queer-enough establishments. Near Northeast's fleet of gay-owned or gay-oriented businesses includes Boom! and Oddfellows, the swanky video bar and its accompanying upscale restaurant; the Bobino/Starlite Lounge/Elbow Room complex; Margarita Bella, which hosts a Wednesday-night dance night aimed at the Hispanic GLBT community; Portfolio Studios, a commercial photography outfit with a specialty in beefcake; plus several other gay-owned businesses and straight businesses that attract a gay clientele. While many of these places target a GLBT crowd, most are going after a mixed clientele, especially, of course, the restaurants (the extent to which food can be classified according to sexual orientation remains open to debate).
At turns funky, quaint, and bland, Near Northeast has some of the aura of bygone Uptown, some of the working-class, European character of old Northeast, and some of the bourgie gentility of 50th and France. Its gayness tends to be stylish and integrationist--probably about as close to the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy model as Minneapolis would want to get. And while the neighborhood's queer factor is relatively muted, it's definitely open. When Boom! opened in January of 2000, part of what made it so different was that it had windows. Not cloudy, porthole-like windows, or windows covered with hefty-bag-like stuff, but giant, look-at-the-fun-going-on-inside windows.
Of course, a handful of popular spots and a new bookstore and café don't necessarily mean that Near Northeast is fast becoming a gay Mecca. More gay people are moving into the area, but it's not a particularly diverse crowd. "It's pretty hard to get into a relatively decent place in that area for under $300,000," says Palacek, meaning that most of the settlers are older professionals.
Kent Bowker, another realtor with Edina, describes the gay men moving into the neighborhood as "trendy and wealthy." Bowker thinks that Loring Park is still a stronghold for young gay renters, though he adds that new condominiums in that area will diminish Loring's affordability. If Palacek's predictions prove correct, Minneapolis could develop a new gay trajectory, in which small-town boy moves to Minneapolis to be in gay-friendly environment, gets a cheap apartment in Loring Park or Stevens Square, hangs out, gets a job, gets a better job, partners up, and moves on up to Near Northeast.
Randy "Whitey" Rodgers opened the now prospering Whitey's World Famous Saloon at 400 East Hennepin in 1993, when Near Northeast was still fairly seedy and vacant. He doesn't see the neighborhood as being especially gay, and thinks the Edina-fication of the area is the more dramatic change. "I know that there's a lot of businesses that have a gay clientele," he says, "but it sure doesn't have a Loring Park feel to it at all. I can't see that happening. I'm born and raised in Northeast Minneapolis, so I was coming down here 30 years ago. Definitely, the ethnicity of Northeast Minneapolis, with its Polish community, is pretty much gone from what I remember it. I mean it's more diverse now. But along with that, the socioeconomic level of the people that moved into the area--I mean, we're talking [about] condos at 3, 4, 500,000 dollars. Well, that's not the $50,000 Northeast house my parents bought."
Interestingly enough, Charlie Rounds, the owner of Boom!/Oddfellows and a guy as responsible as anyone for giving Near Northeast a gay makeover, agrees with Rodgers. "I believe that Minneapolis at this point will never have a gay neighborhood," he says. "That's a good thing in many ways. It's a good thing politically. It's a good thing socially. It means that we are integrated into the community and don't have a need for a ghetto. I live in St. Louis Park. The neighborhood I live in is pretty darn gay, and there are examples like that all over the Twin Cities. I believe the gay community in the Twin Cities is leading the way in the idea that people can live wherever they want. And, I guess, isn't that the point?"
Historically, Loring Park has been the Twin Cities' well-known center for everything from gay theater and Gay Pride to late-night cruising in the park. Besides offering affordable accommodations in a heavily gay neighborhood, Loring put one in close proximity to most of the major bars, from the Brass Rail and the Gay 90's down to the Saloon and the 19 Bar.
Today, GLBT folk and hangouts are more diffuse. They're still in Loring Park, Stevens Square, and Uptown, of course, but also, as Rounds notes, throughout south Minneapolis, in Golden Valley, St. Louis Park, Brooklyn Center, and other places whose gay populations, in the not too distant past, were almost entirely closeted.
Writer John Townsend thinks that reports of Loring Park's queer demise are premature. "Loring Park has been the gay neighborhood forever, and it will be for quite some time ahead," he says. "It's certainly not what it used to be. I can remember back when I first came to the University of Minnesota at the end of the '70s, that used to be a place where...well, this was before AIDS of course, so you could get picked up, and meet up with other gay guys and have coffee or sex or whatever.
"My sense is that you'll find more of the gentrified, yuppie gay white male probably going to the north side over the bridge. But you're still going to have lower-income guys and younger guys who will go to Loring Park. Because when they're coming out of the closet and they've lived in Montana or Iowa or northern Minnesota or Wisconsin, Loring Park is still the subterranean buzzword of where things happen in Minneapolis."
Ask a GLBT person from a small town or mid-sized city to describe the first time they visited a true gay neighborhood--the Castro, West Hollywood, the West Village, maybe even Loring Park--and kid-in-a-candy-store comparisons tend to come up. Kevin McLaughlin, an actor and the communications coordinator for the Playwrights' Center, remembers his first trip to San Francisco: "There's a feeling that you get in places with a concentrated gay neighborhood, where you can unashamedly ogle and flirt and what have you. You just burst into the Castro, and it's like, This is great. I love this place."
That kind of feeling is just what Brad Palacek is getting at when he talks about a strip in Minneapolis where people can parade themselves, good, bad, or indifferent. "I spend a lot of time in Chicago and in D.C.--in parts of Dupont Circle and Boystown in Chicago," Palacek says, "where you see men and women holding hands, public displays of affection. Here, even in the neighborhoods that we're talking about here, we just don't see that. I mean, very seldom. I definitely think Minnesotans are uptight. As much as we all like to say we're not, we are."
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