In this episode of CuriosiD, listener Ryan Leclerc says…
I’m interested in the history of whether or not there was a gay neighborhood in Detroit
The Short Answer
After World War II, downtown Detroit was a hub for gay bars. Then, starting in the 1950s, the gay population began following the migration pattern of many Metro Detroiters, heading northward. By the 1970s, there was a community in the Palmer Park area that thrived until the late 1980s. But by the 1990s, a mostly-White segment of this population moved to suburbs like Royal Oak and Ferndale. Today, the area around Six Mile Road and Woodward Avenue has remained a hub for the African American gay community.
IMAGE: A map for Palmer Park found in the travel magazine “David” in 1972. Contributed to WDET by Dr. Tim Retzloff.
‘Michigan’s Gayest Square Mile’
Greg Piazza, a former Palmer Park resident, recalls, “There was one building we called ‘The Barracks’: 48 apartment units, 46 of them were gay men.” This was in the 1980s.
Piazza, author of A History of Detroit’s Palmer Park, says the architecture of the buildings, open-minded management, and some child-free living policies, attracted a strong gay contingent. He remembers that on nice days people would congregate on a stretch of lawn nicknamed, “The Green Beach.”
Photo: Two men on the “Green Beach” in Palmer Park in the summer of 1980. Courtesy of Dr. Tim Retzloff
“It was where you went to show off for the season,” Piazza says. “You took your latest friend, your bathing suit… On a day like today there would be 40 people.”
Piazza remembers eight bars, two gay-friendly bookstores and two restaurants. But eventually, he felt the neighborhood change.
“I just turned around one day and it was like everybody was gone, all my friends were gone,” says Piazza.
They moved northward, he says, mostly to Ferndale.
Palmer Park Today
Around 4 p.m. on a recent Thursday, a small crowd has already gathered at Menjos, an iconic gay club that’s been on Six Mile Road near Woodward since the early 1970’s. On the dance floor, between a rainbow flag and a larger-than-life representation of a male organ, there hangs a tattered disco ball.
“This was the actual disco ball that hung in the club when we opened,” says Menjo’s Manager Tim McKee. He remarks that Madonna, who at one time lived locally, used to dance under it. Although Palmer Park has changed, its remained an active spot for some LGBT activity.
Photo: Menjo’s Complex near Palmer Park on a Thursday afternoon. Laura Herberg / WDET
“I think it would be a mistake to say that Palmer Park is no longer a gay neighborhood,” says Dr. Tim Retzloff, a historian who has tracked the gay migration in Metro Detroit. “In some respects there’s still a strong gay presence in Palmer Park, it’s now just an African-American gay presence and not a White gay presence.”
For the past 20 years, the Black gay pride celebration “Hotter than July” has hosted its annual picnic in Palmer Park. Curtis Lipscomb is the executive director of LGBT Detroit, the agency that hosts the event. He recognizes the significance of the area, but says he isn’t actually convinced gay neighborhoods facilitate progress.
“I believe that once I live next to my neighbor, and my neighbor is different than I am, I think that’s when walls can be torn down,” says Lipscomb.
The future of the neighborhood obviously remains to be seen, but as WDET’s Pat Batcheller reported last year, Palmer Park residents are beginning to “see the light.” The actions of a neighborhood group helped bring new street lights on Woodward Avenue and Ponchartrain Boulevard. And Menjo’s Manager Tim McKee says he’s recently noticed a few new businesses and street lights on Six Mile Road.
Geography of LGBT Bars
The above map was created by data compiled by historian Dr. Tim Retzloff in his research document, “Historical directory of gay & lesbian bars in metro Detroit.”