The gays join the tunnel and bridge crowd
A neighborhood with a rough-around-the-edges reputation becomes home to a thriving gay community that helps to spur development. Sound familiar? Yeah - it sounds like the South End. And Dorchester. And Jamaica Plain, for that matter.
But in case you haven’t heard, it’s East Boston that is now a growing “gayborhood.” Most often associated with its strong Latino and immigrant population, East Boston is becoming a popular pick for young families and gay singles, lured by an inclusive atmosphere and an affordable housing stock of newly developed high-end condos.
“The gay community is really changing things here,” says Diana Morell, manager of Ecco Restaurant and Martini Bar. Morell says that even within the last year she has become aware of a large influx of gay residents to East Boston, particularly to the hipster-friendly Jeffries Point neighborhood. And she credits the gay community for enhancing the neighborhood’s overall quality of life. “The gay community owns property here. They’re involved and invested, and very organized as a community.”
That growing community needs a place to gather. So in January, Morell launched a weekly Sunday gay night at Ecco. She says she was inspired to do so because, as a Colombian immigrant, she has seen how gay people can be treated in strongly Catholic cultures. “I have two gay uncles and a gay sister,” says Morell. “I saw how society treated them. I want there to be a place that welcomes our gay family.” Ecco’s weekly Sunday gay nights have become hugely popular, making the restaurant a gay favorite on most nights. And it has even encouraged Morell to launch a women-focused event series, “Women, Chocolate, Wine & Art,” on the last Wednesday of each month.
It has also encouraged the local gay community to deepen its roots in Eastie. “It saves us a twenty dollar cab fare to the city,” says Ecco Sunday regular Jessie Torres, 27, a flight attendant based out of Logan Airport. Morell says that a big segment of her gay customer base has ties to the airline industry, and Torres agrees that East Boston’s nearness to the airport is a huge reason he and many Logan-based colleagues have chosen to move there. “Let’s face it, the majority of male flight attendants are gay. And Eastie’s proximity to the airport provides us a perfect place to live,” says Torres, who relocated from the South End two years ago.
East Boston’s diversity is what encouraged Francisco White to move to the neighborhood two years ago. Now the 26-year old youth organizer is running as an out at-large candidate for City Council. (See next week’s Bay Windows for an interview with White.) And addressing LGBT homelessness is a major piece of his platform; White was homeless for two years as a teen, a result of family fallout over his sexuality.
“The East Boston gay community is becoming increasingly vibrant and visible,” says White, who will march in the neighborhood’s May Day parade, which acknowledges International Workers Day. White says he doesn’t know whether the gay community is directly spurring economic development in the area, but he believes that East Boston is characterized by a strong activist spirit (casino development being another hot button issue) that keeps the community as a whole engaged.
Torres agrees that while he’s not sure the gay community in East Boston is necessarily growing, its presence is becoming more strongly felt. “We’ve certainly spiced things up a bit!” says Torres.
Indeed, what makes East Boston’s gay community unique, say some, is its increasingly harmonious relationship with a more socially conservative (by Boston standards) working class. Morell says that Ecco, owned by the same family as iconic Santarpio’s Pizza, attracts its fair share of “old world” Italians. “They have open minds,” says Morell, who says that many of the older regulars have made a point to come on Sundays – even though they’re not gay. “They just say, ‘Oh my god, I love the energy of this space!’”
Besides, in a neighborhood like East Boston, familiarity tends to trump prejudices, says Jim Iannuzzi. Iannuzzi and partner Jonathan Harker are the out co-owners of Italian Express Pizzeria, a spot so popular it was recently featured on Guy Fieri’s Food Network hit Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. He says that the restaurant attracts a large gay clientele, but that even the “old school” regulars have come to view him and Harker as extended family. “They grew up in a different time, but they know who we are. We don’t try to hide it,” says Iannuzzi, who displays a rainbow sticker in the kitchen. “And they still go to hug and kiss us when they leave. To them it comes down to the person, not the label.”
Iannuzzi is proud of the way that being out business owners has helped foster the sense of inclusiveness in East Boston. “I think we really paved the way for people to feel accepted,” says Iannuzzi, who moved Italian Express Pizzeria to Eastie about four years ago. “When we came here the area felt run down and scary. A lot of people were afraid to walk around at night.” Now, he says, pride in the neighborhood has skyrocketed. “We’re the heartbeat of this community. In the summertime, when the patio is open, you look out there and it feels like a T-dance!” he laughs.
And with the weather finally feeling fine, seems like a good time to go east.
Pay as you go: Our web site is free, and we want to keep it that way. Bay Windows turns 31 this year. Will you pledge your support for the upcoming year by contributing funds? Your contribution will help us keep the website and paper free and improve our coverage. Please, if you are able, we welcome your support. Please note - your contribution is not tax deductible.