Which Way is the Gayborhood? Seattle’s Capitol Hill

Earlier this month I attended “Evolution of the Gay-borhood” co-hosted by the Greater Seattle Businesses Association (GSBA) and Out for Sustainability. The event focused on defining the notion of a Gayborhood and had voices from around the community to speak about various topics related to retaining the neighborhood’s identity and sense of place.

One of the standout presenters was Louise Chernin, CEO of the GSBA. She articulately defined the meaning of a Gayborhood. Her definition is as follows, a Gayborhood is a place where LGBT people historically have lived in large numbers. Their presence usually has a noticeable impact on the surrounding community values and businesses. Today these places retain cultural history and are important destinations to celebrate key milestones in the fight for LGBT equality.

Louise was quick to point out however that Gayborhoods shouldn’t be thought of as the only LGBT place in the region. Historically Seattle’s gay population has called a variety of neighborhoods and cities home; we’re beginning to see members of the LGBT community live in places far outside of the historic center. Two notable hot spots include West Seattle and Vashon Island. Louise went on to stress the fact that neighborhoods develop and retain identities tied to their “founders.” Similar to ethnic ghettos long inhabited by Jews, Blacks, or Asians, Gayborhoods will always retain a sense of history and place of importance to the community.


Michael Brown, a geography professor from the University of Washington followed up shortly after Louise and added a few noteworthy points to consider. Like many items in Seattle, Capitol Hill is a place heavily infused with mythology and hyperbole. He challenged the audience to think about the fuzziness and ask, “Where are the blurred lines and what’s being left out of the discussion.” His point behind this statement was Seattle’s gay history when reviewed as a whole is actually more complex than just a single place.

Looking not too far back into the city’s history, Michael noted that Seattle’s Gayborhood was actually birthed in Pioneer Squareand has shifted a number of times since to accommodate new tastes and demands. As he jokingly put it, “No one wants to go to their parents’ gay bars.” The visibility and scale of the community also added pressure for it to move to a new location. It first migrated up to the upper portion of Capitol Hill – roughly between 12th St to 15th St (west-east) and East Mercer St to Pine St (north-south), and has since migrated back further down west to encompass a larger swath of land, arguably – like all Seattle neighborhood boundaries, I-5 to 15th St (west-east) and East Mercer St to Pine St (north-south).

The future of the neighborhood is increasingly unsure. With the city as a whole doing well economically, there is increased pressure to further develop the neighborhood which is leading to some changes in the built environment and community. Tom Rasumusn, Seattle City Councilmember, spoke first on this point. He highlighted the city’s growing commitment to retaining the neighborhood’s diversity and character by preserving “auto row” style buildings and encouraging small businesses to develop over big chain stores. The Pike/Pine Corridor has even gained special protection under the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District which dictates what types of development can take place. In terms of preserving LGBT community within the area, there is a big push being backed by Capitol Hill Housing and GSBA to support the creation of a LGBT community visitor center within the new Capitol Hill light rail station. The center would serve all members of the community but would also place heavy emphasis on supporting LGBT youth and elders – a segment of the population which is considered ignored by many experts.

Washington state and Seattle specifically is fortunate to have Capitol Hill. It’s a major local economic engine and has become an international beacon for the LGBT community. Moving forward it will be increasingly important to continue dialogue about maintaining the character of the neighborhood while still allowing for growth. Gayborhoods and other ethnic ghettos will always continue to evolve and change, the most important question however is how.
[Photos Courtesy of Out for Sustainability, Seattle Times, and City of Seattle]