CNY community marketed as gay-friendly

Sunday, June 20, 2004

By Cammi Clark, Staff writer

John Besaw and his partner, Scott Henni, were folding whites at a Laundromat on Syracuse's East Side last summer when a poster caught their attention.

"Rather live in a gay-friendly neighborhood?" The poster was an invitation to attend a tour of homes for sale in the city's Hawley-Green neighborhood.

So Besaw and Henni, who were making plans to move to a more gay-friendly community near Provincetown, Mass., took the tour.

"I never knew such a place existed in Syracuse," said Besaw, 51, who has lived here 28 years. "We'd finally found a reason to stay in Syracuse."

Besaw and Henni are among nearly a dozen same-sex couples they know who have bought homes in the neighborhood the past year after spotting a poster, reading a flier, surfing the Web or thumbing a magazine.

The two men fell in love with the neighborhood and bought a house on Hawley Avenue.

A group of about 40 people, who call themselves Hawley-Green GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender) Neighbors, has been marketing the neighborhood as gay- and lesbian-friendly. They put together about $1,500 to do so. The group hangs posters in coffee shops, bars and bookstores. They place fliers on windshields at gay and lesbian bars and advertise in magazines and on the Internet.

The rainbow flag, which symbolizes gay pride, is displayed at about 15 homes, mostly on Howard and Green streets and Hawley Avenue.

Steve DeRegis, a former city councilor who represented the neighborhood, said one of the group's marketing fliers caught his attention a few months ago, but he wasn't surprised.

"Green, white, black or red, heterosexual or homosexual, you want to live with good people," said DeRegis. "Hawley-Green neighborhood is about quality of life."

Michael De Salvo owns Hairanoia, a hair salon on the corner of Green and Catherine streets, and Friends of Dorothy Catholic Worker House, a home for people with AIDS, on Wayne Street. De Salvo and his partner, Nick Orth, also live there. They have a large rainbow flag painted on the garage.

"It is gay-friendly, but it's also just a very, very accepting neighborhood," De Salvo said.

Hawley-Green, a triangular-shaped neighborhood, is bordered by James and Lodi streets and Burnet Avenue.

Many of the community's 19th century homes are painted in vibrant colors - green, blue and orange.

The historic homes and layout of the neighborhood attracted partners Jeffrey Gorney, 52, and Peter Gembler, 46, about four years ago. They live in one of the historic row houses on Howard Street. They also own three rental properties nearby.

There was a small gay population when the couple moved in, Gorney said, but it was not as apparent as it is now.

Gorney and Gembler have taken an active role in their neighborhood. Gembler is director of the Hawley-Green Neighborhood Watch Group. The couple is helping to market the neighborhood as gay-friendly.

Gorney, a freelance writer, said he enjoys walking to the grocery store, bakery or dry cleaners.

Dominick's Market, on Gertrude Street, sometimes delivers his groceries. He drops off his laundry at Patrick's dry cleaners on Hawley Avenue. He eats lunch at the Pascale Bakehouse & Cafe. His cat, Dolores, gets her nails clipped at Groomingdale's on North Crouse Avenue. Alberta DeStefano, executive director of the Northeast Hawley Development Association, said the housing agency is aware of the gay-friendly marketing, but is not involved.

NEHDA, which promotes home ownership in Hawley-Green, has no role in pushing the neighborhood in a certain direction, DeStefano said. NEHDA takes no position on efforts to market the Hawley-Green area as a gay-friendly community.

"We're aware of the marketing, but we don't have a role in it," said DeStefano.

Efforts to promote the neighborhood as gay-friendly began last summer at the Gay Pride Parade. The neighborhood's gay and lesbian residents and their supporters marched with signs and T-shirts carrying the Hawley-Green GLBT Neighbors group's and gay pride logos.

After the parade, Hawley-Green's GLBT group held its first open house to recruit homeowners.

Around the same time, Gorney wrote an article for QNortheast, a magazine that markets to gay communities in the Northeast. The headline read: "Hawley-Green: the newest gay neighborhood in Syracuse."

The group also created a Web site and began advertising in publications such as the Gay Pride Central New York Community Directory and on gay and lesbian Web sites.

For example, www.navi gaytion.com and www.pink pagesusa.com have ads stating that Hawley-Green is undergoing gentrification by the gay community. Last month, the group held its second open house. The poster advertising the event read: "Gay home ownership in Hawley-Green is growing. Raise your flag with us and come home to our growing family."

Hope Reed and her partner, Morgan Richards, hosted the open house at their home on Green Street. A handful of real estate agent Roxanne Plummer's business cards sat on the coffee table at the couple's home.

Plummer, who has been selling homes for about a year, said the first home she sold in the neighborhood was to a gay man, but she does not steer people to certain neighborhoods because that's illegal.

In a few weeks, Reed plans to send letters to real estate agents asking them to mention Hawley-Green to home buyers who identify themselves as gay.

Lynnore Fetyko, chief executive officer of the Greater Syracuse Association of Realtors, said steering laws prohibit real estate agents from leading potential home buyers to certain neighborhoods.

Fetyko said if real estate agents receive the letter, the association will advise them not to steer people.

Steering is the practice of leading prospective home buyers to one neighborhood over another, typically because of race or national origin, said Merrilee Witherell, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Central New York. Real estate agents, she said, should not engage in steering because it's discriminating.

Steering, she said, is a "way of artificially limiting someone's housing choices."

However, Witherell said, if a home buyer asks about a gay-friendly neighborhood, real estate agents can mention Hawley-Green's marketing efforts.

Colleen Deacon, press secretary for Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll, said the city is aware of the gay-friendly marketing. "We think it's wonderful this group is promoting their neighborhood," she said.

It's typical for cities of all sizes to have neighborhoods that are generally known as the "gay-friendly neighborhood," said Rea Carey, deputy executive director of National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington.

Gay-friendly neighborhoods, she said, are communities where a group of residents and gay-run or gay-friendly businesses, congregate.

"What's new is the marketing strategy on the part of homeowners to market same-sex neighborhoods," Carey said. "The effort sounds fairly unique or it might just be more formal."

Jason Ost, research associate at the Urban Institute, said the marketing of gay neighborhoods and census figures on same-sex households are an indication that people are more open about being gay.

A report released in May by the Urban Institute found that New York has the second-largest population of same-sex couples, behind only California.

A group studying Central New York's economy found that the region was below the national average on the "gay index," which measures the ratio of same-sex unmarried partners to total married partners. The index is important because it "simply represents a leading indicator of a place that is open and tolerant," according to Catalytix, the company that authored the study.

"Communities that are more open, tolerant and diverse are better positioned to attract a work force that is increasingly diverse - that is comprised of people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and sexual orientations," the report says.

"Essentially, creative, talented people come from all backgrounds, ethnicities and sexual orientations," said Robert Simpson of the Metropolitan Development Association. "What that means for Central Upstate is, to the extent that our community and businesses can be more welcoming to people of all backgrounds, we are better positioned to attract the most talented people to our region."

College communities, Simpson said, are pockets of our region that are the most open and diverse. When young people graduate they will be looking to live and work in communities that reflect their values, he said.

If we want to retain more of the area's college students, the community must appeal to a broad range of students, he said.

Some residents in Hawley-Green have created their own little community - or extended family.

On many Friday nights, a group of women - mostly lesbians - gather for happy hour, often at Gentiles on Burnet Avenue.

Representatives from the Hawley-Green GLBT Neighbors compiled phone and e-mail lists of contacts to inform residents about neighborhood news and events.

They gather once or twice a week for cookouts or other get-togethers.

They take turns patrolling the streets in the evening as part of the Neighborhood Watch effort to deter crime and get to know other neighbors.

On some nights, they gather for a movie at Gorney and Gembler's home, where the couple have built a mini-movie theater.

Gorney and Gembler knocked down the wall between two rooms and made it into one large room. The room is painted a "deep movie red." Walls are speckled with framed movie posters. There's a large plasma television and an assortment of movie director chairs. And, of course, popcorn.

In interviews with about 10 heterosexual residents in the neighborhood, all of them said they welcomed their new neighbors.

Mary Ellen Marusa, who is heterosexual, moved into a home on Green Street in August. She said she loves the neighborhood's architecture. Knowing her neighborhood is gay-friendly is not an issue, she said.

"It's really about the people, and I have friendly neighbors," she said.

One central location in the neighborhood is the large brick apartment complex called Grove Pointe, at Hawley Avenue and Green Street.

Forrest "Kit" Antrum, 47, who moved into the complex two years ago, said some of the building's roughly 40 residents are gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Antrum was born female and began living openly as a male three years ago.

"It's quite a mixture of people," Antrum said. "Most of the neighbors know each other by face and name. We all look out for one another."

The neighborhood is also home to SAGE Upstate (Senior Action in a Gay Environment), a program that offers support for older gay residents.

The Living Room, a place where people "infected and affected" by HIV can come for support or a meal, is at 316 Catherine St. People with AIDS tend to feel like a minority group and this tends to be a community that accepts minorities, said Bob Ciota, director of Liberty Resources, which runs the program.

"I don't see it as a neighborhood that is catering to any particular group," Ciota said. "It's a neighborhood where a variety of people are comfortably living together."

Jamieson Steele, who owns eight rental properties in the neighborhood, said he's glad to see the neighborhood flourishing again after watching it endure some tough times.

Steele said it's more important to have renters and homeowners who take care of their properties regardless of their sexual orientation.

"If all my houses went empty, I'd prefer to rent them to all gay men," he said. "Then I know they'd be taken care of."

A few months ago, Andrea Hinshaw and her partner, Brandy Newsome, saw a newspaper ad for a Victorian-style apartment on Green Street. They drove from Central Square to check out the neighborhood.

"We had no idea that a neighborhood like this existed," Hinshaw said. The two moved into the neighborhood.

"We saw the flags and said, 'We're home.' "

2004 The Post-Standard.


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