The Gay Mecca That Got Away 

Former Oakland councilman's dream of a lavender district languishes on the back burner two years later.

Roughly two years ago this week, former Oakland Councilman Danny Wan proposed that the city help jump-start a sort of Castro East — a gay and lesbian business district in the city's Eastlake neighborhood, home to the beloved Parkway Theater. These days, however, Eastlake visitors will encounter a neighborhood no more lavender than it was in March of '04. Despite good intentions, Wan neglected to do his homework.

True, the city seemed to have demographics on its side. A 2004 analysis of census data by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan DC think tank, put Oakland first among fifty large cities in lesbian households per capita, and third — right behind San Francisco and Seattle — in combined gay and lesbian households per capita. But such numbers are merely a prerequisite, certainly no guarantor of success for a prospective gay-oriented business. City marketing manager Sammee Roberts notes that Oakland's gay community was itself mixed on the idea. "There really wasn't a consensus," she says. "Some folks thought it was a great idea; others weren't so sure. Folks also wanted the city to take a look at other areas — downtown, uptown, Glenview, Temescal."

When the city's gung-ho redevelopment crew set out to make things happen in Eastlake, they met with scant opposition from the straight community, and instead ran headlong into a stack of decidedly equal-opportunity obstacles. "There wasn't a lot of vacant commercial space in the area, so the idea of having a targeted business group was difficult," explains Bill Lambert, then the city's economic development manager. "Some of the steps were to talk to property owners and see when their leases were expiring, but the pickings were slim."

Redevelopment staffer Wendy Simon, who works with Eastlake business owners to spruce up their storefronts, figures the city's hands were tied. "Maybe if we were Soviet Russia we could do it, but we're not," she says. "The city is limited to doing stuff like banners and facade improvement, but that has nothing to do with being gay- and lesbian-friendly. I think Mr. Wan's idea wasn't going to work in this paradigm."

Roberts insists that the ex-councilman's effort was laudable, yet she and others concede that themed business districts tend to come about organically, not by government hands. "These areas are difficult to manufacture," she says.

Wan, now an attorney for the Port of Oakland, views things differently. "I understand that point of view, but if you look around the country, other cities emulated our proposal," he says. "I think cities can absolutely be helpful in making people aware there's a market to be served, and search out potential investors and be a partner."

In Eastlake's case, Lambert says, circumstances were aligned against the plan. "You need to have a lot of things fall into place to make it work: commercial district awareness, vacant space, willing landlords, the right product or service for the neighborhood, and then it comes down to a solid business plan, the operator, and that sort of thing," he says. "It's hard enough to find a retail business that will make it in the long haul anyway."

Wan still meets quarterly with a group of gay and lesbian residents hoping to keep the dream alive. A city staffer attends the meetings. The former councilman, who is openly gay, says he doesn't think his proposal was naive. "I do think it was a bit ahead of the game, as far as our ability to attract private investment," he says. "Actually, the area is more vibrant than it was before — there's a coffee shop and another one planned, two new restaurants, and the new Albertsons opened around the time of our proposal.

"The attention paid to that area was not lost," he concludes. "It just wasn't gay-and-lesbian specific."

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