With its affordable prices, renovation-ready brownstones and (relatively) central New York City location, Harlem would seem like a logical neighborhood for LGBT gentrifiers. And it is. Over the past decade, Harlem’s traditionally African-American population has made room for an unlikely influx of middle-class whites, adventurous Europeans, African immigrants, and a sizable community of lesbians and gays. As many Harlemites themselves were startled to discover last year, 2008 Census data revealed that Harlem—for the first time in nearly a century—is no longer majority-black.
Yet even within this newfound diversity, Harlem still lacks that classic totem of urban upward mobility: A vibrant, visible LGBT social scene. Despite a population of more than 200,000 and a geographic area spanning a full eight ZIP codes, Harlem remains the only major Manhattan district without a formally gay bar. Sure, there are gay-friendly Harlem restaurants and watering holes. And for years, local landmarks like the Lenox Lounge hosted organized “gay-themed” party nights. But head north of 110th Street and bona fide, exclusively LGBT leisure establishments simply do not exist.
From racism and homophobia to class-consciousness and the black church, the answers are as complex as they are contentious, particularly considering Harlem’s colorful LGBT history. During both the Harlem Renaissance and civil rights movement, artists and activists such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and later Bayard Rustin were famously “in the life.” But then, as now, Harlem maintained a conservative, church-going, quasi-closeted atmosphere that tolerated deviance while demanding “don’t-ask/don’t-tell”-styled discretion.
“From jazz to speakeasies to sex and drugs, Harlem has always had this ‘underground’ kind of vibe to it,” explains Brian Palmer, the gay owner of the Harlem restaurant Native and the gay nightclub No Parking, just north of Harlem in Washington Heights. “People would head ‘uptown’ when they wanted to ‘have fun’ without being found out.”
Today, this longstanding adherence to discretion—sometimes referred to as the “down low” or “DL”—is being tempered by the increased openness in Harlem to newcomers of all races and backgrounds. This has translated into a far gay-friendlier neighborhood, complete with an annual gay film festival and a Harlem Pride celebration each June, but overtly gay-themed businesses have yet to follow.
Much of this has more to do with practicalities rather than sexualities. Until recently, for instance, Harlem’s sheer size inhibited the growth of a central nightlife zone or “restaurant row” to lure “the kind of critical mass necessary to support a gay bar,” says Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, executive director of Harlem Park to Park, a neighborhood merchants association. “Harlem was always a place where people lived,” she adds. Only now with the redevelopment of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, “is Harlem also becoming a destination where folks eat, sleep, and play.”
Then there’s the state of New York’s long-standing 200 Foot Rule, which prohibits restaurants or bars that serve alcohol from operating within 200 feet of churches or schools. With some 400 houses of worship across Harlem, “it’s very difficult to even find the kind of space that would work for a bar,” says Nicholas Leonard, owner of a trio of gay bars in New York and Los Angeles, including Chelsea’s popular Gym Sports Bar.
And Leonard ought to know. Five years ago he scoured Harlem for a potential gay venue before abandoning his search amid the economic downtown. Even so, Leonard still views Harlem as a logical location for an LGBT establishment. “We saw the kinds of people moving up there and were actually surprised gay bars hadn’t already arrived,” he says. As for fears of bumping up against potentially conservative Harlem neighbors, Leonard says “we really weren’t concerned...(and) we’re definitely not ruling out trying in Harlem again.”
Even if the economy does improve and entrepreneurs like Leonard ultimately head uptown, would Harlem’s gay community show up? “Absolutely,” says HPP’s Evans-Hendricks. “As Harlem becomes more progressive, (gay bars) are an inevitability.” But others, like Palmer, are far less certain. Gay black Harlemites, he suggests, are still too “discreet” to go out openly in the neighborhood, while white gays have plenty of other Manhattan neighborhoods to choose from. And gays who do want to publicly socialize in Harlem already are, just not in exclusively gay environments.
“They don’t necessarily need a gay place, just a friendly place,” says Palmer, whose restaurant, Native, along with Lesbian-owned Harlem bar Billie’s Black, have cultivated a strong LGBT following. Karl Franz Williams, owner of Harlem restaurant Society Coffee and cocktail lounge 67 Orange Street agrees: “We’ve had an openly gay clientele since we first arrived. Harlem has always been about diversity, and gay people are a vital part of that diversity.”
And it’s this diversity -- along with a hefty dose of affordability -- that’s actually luring LGBTs to Harlem in the first place. “I liked that I could go out to mixed places, but never be made to feel uncomfortable or ostracized,” says Melvin Murry, a gay fashion executive who lived in Harlem from 2006 to 2010. “My main reason for moving to Harlem was more about finding a bigger space, I did not really give much thought as to where I would socialize; typically when I did go out, I would head downtown.”
Perhaps, therein, lies the heart of Harlem’s predicament. In this moment of mid-gentrification, it’s not that Harlem doesn’t want gay bars—it just doesn’t need them. At least, not yet. “We don’t have upscale Indian or Asian or Middle Eastern restaurants in Harlem,” says Franklin. “So the neighborhood is still waiting for new businesses of all types.” On the flip side, with the pool of middle- and upper-class Harlemites still relatively small, area establishments can’t yet afford to segment their clients on the basis of sexual orientation. “I’m not sure they would be able to survive,” Williams says.
While he may sound pessimistic, Palmer actually believes gay bars will never find a home in Harlem. Unlike Atlanta or Chicago or Washington, D.C., which all have established gay watering holes in historically black neighborhoods, Manhattan’s unique geography and ease of mobility will always pull Harlemites southward. “Gay consumers are fickle; they want many options in a single location,” Palmer says. “And those kinds of clusters already exist down in Chelsea or Hells Kitchen, just a short train ride away.”