When the new census figures are released, Milwaukee elected officials must cover their eyes. Once a vibrant, populous city, Milwaukee has been hemorrhaging residents for the past decade, as more and more citizens head for the suburbs, taking their jobs and wealth with them. This leaves lower income residents in the city to pick up an increasing share of the double digit tax increases foisted on them annually by barely competent elected officials.

Yet many cities are finding urban revitalization in an unexpected area. Specifically, they are counting on the Love that Dare Not Speak its Name to provide a spark.

Cities across the country have begun to openly cater to gays and lesbians, in an attempt to attract their wealth and lifestyle. In many cases, gay neighborhoods account for the highest property values and the greatest per capita wealth in inner city settings. They also provide centers of creativity, artistry, and innovation in urban areas desperately in need of revitalization.

This theory was famously detailed in the book “The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life,” by George Mason professor Richard Florida. Florida argues that as cities lose artists and gays, they also lose significant wealth. Florida actually ranks cities based on a “creativity index” to ascertain which urban areas do the best job of catering to their gay populations – Milwaukee ranks in the middle. (On the other hand, Madison, just an hour west, is number one in the “small city” category.)

Florida later published a study titled “There Goes the Neighborhood: How and Why Bohemians, Artists and Gays Effect Regional Housing Values,” in which he demonstrated (via his new “Gay-Bohemian Index”) how creative neighborhoods boost property values in inner cities. Florida argues that gay and artistic neighborhoods cultivate a “tolerance” and “open culture” premium that is attractive to high-income gay and straight residents alike.

Milwaukee already has several neighborhoods with significant gay populations. The revitalized Third Ward District and Sherman Park both cater to gays, while a conglomeration of gay bars can be found at Walker’s Point on the south side. But the race to attract gay and lesbian residents is on, and Milwaukee is falling behind. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley has recognized the value of gay neighborhoods – in 2006, he agreed to endorse and host the Gay Games in Boystown, which claims to be America’s first officially recognized gay village.

But what can a city really do to be more accommodating to gay residents? It would seem that many gay neighborhoods grow organically, rather than being foisted on a city. In an effort to revitalize a portion of their inner city in 2004, Oakland tried to set up a gay neighborhood, with mixed results. Plus, it seems any attempt to institute gay-friendly surroundings by elected officials would seem exceedingly stereotypical. A Milwaukee city council meeting where they discuss the types of things gays like would be comedy of the highest order. (A friend of mine with knowledge of Washington, D.C. gay neighborhoods suggested implementing Mazda Miata-only parking as a start.)

Sure, some religious and culturally conservative groups would have a problem with a city openly attempting to attract gay residents. But let’s be honest here – those groups most likely fled the city long ago. If you don’t want to visit a gay neighborhood, don’t visit a gay neighborhood. Those condemning for moral depravity in the inner city should see the gay lifestyle as a significant upgrade – at the very least, gay couples (generally) don’t produce fatherless children that go on to terrorize our streets. Plus, it’s not like the preponderance of art galleries and coffee houses makes anyone gay any more than there mere presence of a church in a neighborhood makes anyone Catholic.

So while state and local governments continue to pump billions of dollars into “economic development” programs in the inner city, we may be missing out on a valuable resource that can spur urban revitalization. When seeking out greater wealth and a more solid property tax base, the city should begin to look in new directions. Sadly, it just so happens that the city’s life preserver might be a little too “fabulous” for Milwaukee residents to tolerate.

-October 23, 2008