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"The city had such potential," Fiore says. "Wilton Drive was a ghost town."
The rise in the gay population overlapped much of the city's development. One boost may have been the rapid rise in prices in Fort Lauderdale's posh and once largely gay Victoria Park neighborhood a couple of miles to the south. First, the northern migration moved a mile north to Poinsettia Heights; pretty soon, the older, larger homes in Wilton Manors were looking attractive. It's tough to quantify the gay migration into the city, but it's striking.
Gary Gates, a demographer at UCLA who studies gay and lesbian populations, says the 2000 Census showed that the number of same-sex households in Wilton Manors grew six times faster than the national average during the 1990s. The city's transformation into a gay haven is unusual, he says, because Wilton Manors is neither urban nor a resort town.
"There's a portion of the gay community that's attracted to that more mainstream lifestyle," Gates says. "It's just a nice little community. That's part of a broader transition in the gay movement, which is this shift from focusing on how gay people are different to... wanting things to be the same."
The real estate boom/bubble in South Florida has received enough ink to drown a giraffe. The particulars will not be belabored here; suffice it to say that unless you can afford to pay 300 large for a 1,000-square-foot condo, you're too late for downtown Wilton Manors. If the swell in prices of a single-family home is any gauge, the town has become one of the most sought-after addresses in Broward and Palm Beach counties. In 1996, the year before Georgie's Alibi opened, records show that the average home in Wilton Manors was valued at $85,480, about 81 percent of the county average. In 2005, the single-family homes in Wilton Manors are more than $300,000 -- 115 percent of the county average and a whopping 256 percent increase.
"We knew it was only a matter of time before we were on the list of neighborhoods," Fiore says. "I knew they were coming here. In the quantity that occurred? Never."
To nurture the change, the city courted businesses while denying or refusing to renew permits for less desirable shops and bars. Not much stuck, the ex-mayor says, until the city got aggressive. Just before Georgie's opened, water and sewer lines were renovated, a $3 million parks bond passed, and the commission amended the city code to allow valet parking, outdoor dining, and sidewalk sandwich boards. The big step was designating a .8-mile stretch of Wilton Drive that Georgie's neatly bisects as an "arts and entertainment district," a step that allowed businesses to acquire liquor licenses in close succession.
People began referring to Wilton Manors instead of saying their addresses were in "North Fort Lauderdale." Manors City Commissioner Gary Resnick, who was elected in 1998, recalls a period in the late '90s when more than 1 percent of the homes were changing occupants every month. "What I told this city was, 'You need a gay bar,'" Resnick says. "I can't overstate how important Georgie's Alibi was. It really did turn things around."
But there's no gay way to fix a pothole or pick up the garbage. Fiore recalled the City Commission meeting in which the gay-majority council debated which color bricks to use at Wilton Drive and 26th Street. Someone yelled, "Oh great, the gay guys are going to pick the color of the sidewalk," and as stereotyping goes, it was pretty harmless. The fruits of their debate are now on view at the intersection.
"You take a community like Wilton Manors, where sexual orientation isn't much of an issue," says Dave DeCicco, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute, which tracks and supports openly gay politicians. "People are more comfortable volunteering, more comfortable serving on different commissions. This type of community engagement often leads to public service."
The best estimates of the proportion of gay Americans is between 2 and 7 percent, yet openly gay elected officials nationwide number only about 300, according to DeCicco, suggesting that many gays either don't feel welcome or are not accepted by others in public life. (DeCicco says the number has increased about six times since 1991, when the institute began promoting gay and lesbian candidates.) Seventeen of those 300 serve in Florida -- more than any state except California and New York -- but only two of them were elected north of Oakland Park, and none serves at a state level. For all its apparent normalcy, the Island City is a rare outpost of integration.
That integration went smoothly in part because the rising property values allowed bigots to sell their houses for two or three or five times the values from just a few years earlier. "All the damned houses are painted pink in Florida anyway," says Fiore's partner, Pierce.
When Fiore was elected mayor in 2000, it was national and international news; there were no more than a couple of openly gay mayors nationwide. That election also gave the city only the second gay-majority council in the country, (West Hollywood was first). Word of his victory ran in at least one British newspaper; he recalls doing an interview with a Colombian radio station that was cut off three times because of repeated terrorist bombings.