Gays, Real Estate, Pride and Heritage

An Exchange with Alek Douglas

by Lawrence D. Mass

Alek Douglas is a student of theater, especially gay theater, and history, especially gay history. He’s an NYU graduate, still in his mid-20’s and filled with levels of gay pride that can seem increasingly rare. Singular among my younger gay friends in sentience and prescience, Alek has been right there on the same page with me in screaming bloody murder, echoing Larry Kramer, about the dire seriousness of what we’re facing — what I call the Nazi takeover of the world.

Of course, all gay people, even some Log Cabin Republicans, are now concerned about the ferocity of the current global, antigay tsunami. But there is still that tendency out there to think that if we just get our act together — by turning the other cheek on drag queen crackdowns and trans rights, by being more respectful of mainstream and family values, by behaving with more decorum — we can retain status we’ve never truly had but tricked ourselves into thinking we did. Working with today’s Nazis and fascists, we could retain heteronormativity and thereby acceptance.

Not Alek. One day some years ago, I received an inquiry from a student wanting to know if we could meet so I could autograph his copy of my Larry Kramer anthology, We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer. We did meet and have been good friends ever since.

Alek’s interest in gay culture runs deep and he has emerged as an independent scholar. Tech, internet and website savvy, he has mined his own collection of gay cultural and historical artifacts, and has earned the nickname from me of “Strand Sleuth” for his hobby of spending days at the Strand bookstore, coming up with oddities never known to exist or rarities lost in time.

The following exchange took place 7/2/23. Alek had seen a documentary on gay life in Greenwich Village and it had elicited feelings of great loss of gay communities in enclaves once predominantly gay. In addition to our huge losses from AIDS, which Alek was expressing acutely, we can seem like proverbial wandering Jews in our historical saga of seeking identity, home and acceptance; a history that, as Larry Kramer captured so profoundly in his novel The American People, has been suppressed and otherwise destroyed.

We are still in the earliest stages of trying to reclaim our history, and with that our pride.

email to Alek Douglas from 7/2/23

Good Morning, Alek,

As always, I’m delighted by your gay self-awareness, intelligence and pride.

Only someone with an abundance of those qualities could have the sense you’re onto of the role of gay people in the history of neighborhoods and real estate in America.

This is too big a subject to try to go into beyond summary points. But it’s something I’ve always been aware of. So far as I know, it’s a story that has yet to be formally told by anyone — historians, city planners, sociologists, culture writers, though Larry Kramer was indirectly onto it.

Here are some relevant points:

With our history of seeking refuge in deteriorating inner cities, gay people have, perhaps more than any other factor, been the linchpins of inner-city redevelopment.

This pattern has been been striking and pervasive in America for at least the last half century. The pattern is simple: Gays, displaced from our families and small town and suburban life, from mainstream life, move into the inner cities, into areas of urban blight, where we recreate and redevelop, making them once-again appealing to the mainstream that fled them. So much so that we are eventually displaced by middle-class people, primarily straight families now fleeing the burbs and commuting. San Francisco’s Castro district and New York’s Greenwich Village are outstanding examples, but this same pattern is discernible in virtually all other large cities in America, and probably everywhere else.

As you immediately keyed into, AIDS has played a huge role in this, though not an all-defining one. This pattern was well underway prior to AIDS and has continued since. In the bigger picture, oppression, more than AIDS specifically, has been the driving factor.

In this bigger picture, it wasn’t just our seeking refuge in places others didn’t want to live that fueled this trend, it’s also our precious gay sensibility, elusive as that always has been to define.

So, the old Pennsylvania hotel in Manhattan, across from Madison Square Garden, has been in a long process of closing.

The last big feature article on it was in the NYT Magazine. One little story with a picture showed a presumably gay man — a collector of antiques — with his purchase of an old silver tea set. He was beaming with joy and pride. Here’s the link. Scroll down to see the picture.

That image of gay sensibility, in a nutshell, is the history of gay people and heritage. It is indeed a heritage of pride, not only of and for ourselves, but for all peoples and the world we share. Because we’ve been denied our own history and heritage — aggressively suppressed and/or destroyed (which, as noted, Larry Kramer was centrally keyed into in his novel, The American People), we can value all the more the heritage and pride of everyone and everything else.



Reply from Alek Douglas, 7/3/23:

First, thank you for the kind words, however I cannot take credit for this realization. I was watching a documentary on HBO last night, called “The Stroll.” It’s about the titular “The Stroll,” which, if you don’t know, was 14th St in the meatpacking district, where trans women did sex work. It was a beautiful, moving documentary.

It is funny that you wrote that gentrification has been occurring before AIDS, as Albert Poland, a legendary figure in the NY theatre scene for many decades, commented on my Facebook post about my revelation last night. I guess I’m more out of the loop than I thought! Hahaha

You’re right, we are the ones who, after the immigrants during the late 1800s and early 1900s, took the tenements and other dwellings and recreated them. As a community we would make noteworthy what was once written off.

Yes, that displacement definitely happened in NYC, though by the time the 80s came about, I feel that it shifted to the wealthy. Fueled by AIDS, recession, and, quite possibly as significant as AIDS during that time, was the Wall Street boom. “Greed is good,” as Gordon Gekko says [in the movie Wall Streeet].

Yes, our sensibility is to see more underneath, to see potential. I think it’s because we are and have been maligned and relegated to second class status in this country that we have grown to become immensely empathetic and critical in our thinking. But yes, this does seem to have lessened a great deal with the younger generations of LGBTQ+ folks. That leads me into a tangent on assimilation into the heteronormative world, when we ourselves become the ones writing off neighborhoods…

I knew about the Hotel Pennsylvania, it’s a crime they didn’t landmark the facade. The third to last vestige of the original Penn Station, gone. Now we have the Post Office and the Services Bldg.

I read the NYT article when it came out. That guy is definitely one of us, and, funny enough, lives in the town next to me. I live on the border of Dix Hills (where I live) and Deer Park (where he lives). Tangentially, I live a few minutes away from the house of John Coltrane, the legendary jazz artist. It’s now dilapidated, but still standing. He lived there until his untimely death in 1967. He’s buried at Pinelawn National Cemetery, about 15 min away.

I concur with your last paragraph, a very apt assessment.