BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
For more than a decade, Wilton Manors has been known anecdotally as South Florida’s gayest city. Day and night, same-sex couples promenade hand-in-hand along the main drag, Wilton Drive, which is lined with rainbow flags, gay and lesbian bars and shops with names like Gaysha sushi and Gay Mart.
Now, the 2010 U.S. Census has provided numbers to back up that reputation: With about 140 per 1,000, Wilton Manors is the No. 2 city nationally in percentage of same-sex couples, second to Provincetown, Mass.
The demographics of Wilton Manors developed over 15 years, after the first major gay bar, Georgie’s Alibi, opened in the boarded-up shell of a shuttered bank in the heart of Wilton Drive and sparked the revival.
- Real-estate prices skyrocketed, peaking in 2007 at nearly $400,000 for the average single-family home.
- Wilton Manors has become a comfortable place for gay people to live and work, providing an alternative to traditional gay-friendly places, such as Fort Lauderdale and South Beach.
- The gay community has evolved and matured as people settled down in relationships and sought a quieter, family-friendly place to put down roots.
Vincent Frato, Alibi’s general manager, said Wilton Manors is “a very convenient neighborhood to live in.”
“It’s one of the few neighborhoods in South Florida that you can park your car when you come home and walk to the grocery store, walk through the neighborhood, walk to a bar,” he said.
Until about 15 years ago, “nobody wanted to put Wilton Manors as their [postal] address, they used Fort Lauderdale,” said Coldwell Banker Realtor Andy Weiser, who has sold homes in the area since 1998.
“It was very down market, very déclassé at the time. But not any more,” Weiser said. “During the boom, prices in Wilton Manors were rivaling many parts of Fort Lauderdale. Now that prices have readjusted, prices are lower, but they’re much higher than they ever were before gentrification.”
In 1996, the year before Alibi opened, the average single-family home in Wilton Manors was worth $85,612. In 2007, the average price was $396,150. In 2011, it is $215,548, according to Ron Gunzburger, general counsel for the Broward Property Appraiser’s Office.
By contrast, the average single-family home in similar-size Dania Beach sold for $76,476 in 1996, $328,426 in 2008 and $150,087 in 2011.
Before the Wilton Manors renaissance, many Broward gays and lesbians lived in Fort Lauderdale’s Victoria Park neighborhood, Weiser said.
“When Victoria Park was gentrified, everybody moved on to Wilton Manors,” Weiser said. “The prices were incredibly, incredibly low. ... When the properties began to be renovated, people began to take notice of it. All of a sudden it wasn’t this rundown neighborhood.”
Wilton Manors Commissioner Scott Newton has lived there since 1960, when he was 3.
“This city was a middle-class to low-class redneck community,” Newton said. “As the years progressed, the community got transformed to a more elegant neighborhood.”
Jennifer Morales, whose partner Laurie Whittaker owns Sidelines Sports Bar on Wilton Drive, says “it’s a delight” to live and work there.
“You feel a sense of — I don’t want to say freedom — relaxation, and being able to be who you are without any kind of fear of retribution. The people are wonderful.”
Gays and lesbians began moving to Wilton Manors from faraway places like New York and Washington, and nearby Northeast Miami-Dade and South Beach.
South Beach was the region’s internationally known gay destination through the ‘90s and into the new century, but when it got increasingly expensive, crowded and to some, chaotic, gays began to leave.
Jason Tamanini moved from Philadelphia to South Florida 10 years ago and managed Halo bar (now Mova) on Lincoln Road from 2007-09.
“When it was a gay mecca” in the 1980s and ‘90s, South Beach was very affordable, Tamanini said.
“You could have a one-bedroom apartment on Meridian [Avenue ] for next to nothing, but when I was living there, I was paying $1,600,” he said. “Sometimes South Beach can be intimidating. It became too fabulous. The average person wants to go out to a restaurant, go to a bar without dressing to the nines and paying a $30 cover.”
Two years ago, he helped open The Manor restaurant and nightclub complex on Wilton Drive.
“It’s filling a void in Wilton Manors ... making a more affordable product that appeals to the masses,” said Tamanini, The Manor’s general manager.
Carol Moran moved from the Beach to Wilton Manors in 1993, after growing weary “of riding around for a half-hour trying to find a parking space.”
Also, Moran got tired of living “in a 500-square-foot apartment” and wanted more for her money. “[Wilton Manors] was so cheap and as close to the beach as you could get,” she said.
Most importantly, Moran liked that “I can walk hand in hand with [partner Nancy Goldwin] and no one is going to say anything.”
Moran gave up her corporate job at Red Lobster and opened Kicks, a lesbian bar on Wilton Drive, in 1998. She sold Kicks in 2003 and opened another lesbian bar, New Moon, in ’05.
“I wanted to be on Wilton Drive because I want people to know we have just as much money, just as much power,” Moran said. “We’re just as wealthy, just as poor. We are the same.”
Many in Wilton Manors attribute the city’s revival to George Kessinger and his namesake bar, Georgie’s Alibi.
“I hate to say a bar is what changed a town, but it really had a lot to do with it,” said Weiser, the Realtor.
Alibi is in a strip-shopping center at 2266 Wilton Dr. When Kessinger first saw the property, it was a boarded-up former bank without electricity. The main reason he liked the site: plenty of parking.
“The first thing we did was take down the boards and expose the storefront windows,” Kessinger said. “We proceeded to open a bar. A video bar. The concept was a place that everyone wanted to hang out in. When we first opened, we figured it would be a mom-and-pop organization and we’d work it.”
Kessinger said the day Alibi opened, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, a line of men waited to get in.
Eventually, Kessinger opened Alibis in St. Petersburg and Palm Springs, Calif. Five years ago, he sold the Wilton Manors location to life partners Jackson Padgett and Mark Negrete, who also own a gay bar across the street, Bill’s Filling Station.
Wilton Manors’ gay community first gained national attention after the 2000 Census, when it was determined that between 11 percent and 17 percent of couples sharing homes were "unmarried partners" of the same sex.
Same-sex couples in Florida and most of the United States can’t legally marry. But last year for the first time, the Census actively encouraged gay and lesbian couples to identify themselves as married or domestic partners, said Gary Gates, a demographer at The Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, law school.
In the 2010 Census, 65,601 same-sex couples in Florida identified themselves. Just more than half (53 percent) are female couples, and 18 percent of the couples are raising children, according to The Williams Institute.
Nationally, 901,997 same-sex couples identified themselves, 7.7 couples per 1,000. The actual number of gay people throughout the United States is unknown. The Census did not count gays and lesbians who are single, and it is likely that many gay couples did not identify themselves as such, Gates said.
In 2010, 871 same-sex couples reported living in Wilton Manors, about 14 percent of all households in the city.
The high number of same-sex couples is the reason Wilton Manors Elementary School must be filled with students from outside the city, Commissioner Newton said.
The school has 596 pupils this year; only 270 are Wilton Manors residents. “It’s a magnet school, so a lot of them come from the outside,” Newton said.
Gays and lesbians have fully integrated within Wilton Manors business, civic and political circles. Many community leaders, including Mayor Gary Resnick, are gay.
The city’s first gay mayor, John Fiore, was elected in 2000. He was succeeded two years later by another gay man, Jim Stork. At the time, Wilton Manors had the only gay-majority commission in the eastern United States.
Sometimes, there is political conflict. Days after he spoke against gays openly serving in the military, conservative U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Plantation, canceled a speaking appearance at the private Wilton Manors Business Association after local gay activists threatened a kiss-in protest.
Still, most everyone, gay and straight, gets along in Wilton Manors, according to Newton, who says he often parties at Alibi, The Manor — “even Full Moon,” the lesbian bar.
Years ago, he took his son Patrick, then age 6 or 7, to a gay restaurant in town. “Some of the men were dressed up in drag, short sleeves with hairy arms,” Newton said.
Patrick said, “Daddy, that’s a man in a dress.”
“We had a good laugh,” Newton recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, some men wear dresses around here,’ and we moved on.”
Other top South Florida rankings for same-sex couples: Oakland Park (981 couples or 5.6 percent); Miami Shores (177 couples, or 4.9 percent); Fort Lauderdale (2,677 couples, or 3.6 percent); Key West (375 couples or 3.4 percent); Monroe County (710 couples or 2.2 percent); Broward County (9,660 couples or 1.4 percent); and Hollywood (710 couples or 1.2 percent).