Mind Your Manors

Oakland Park gets a makeover thanks to its gay southern neighbor

Larry Gierer is annoyed.

"That's where the carport was," Gierer says, pointing to the front of his Oakland Park home. A large blue tarp covers his roof. His landscaping, once lush and tropical, looks as if it was put through a shredder.

Nearly one month after registering for disaster assistance, Gierer has yet to hear from the federal government. And he doesn't like the wait one bit. As an Oakland Park city commissioner, he wants answers.

"If this is happening to me, an elected official, this is happening to everyone else as well," he says, pausing. "Or could it be because I'm a registered Democrat?"

And a gay Democrat at that. As he stands in his driveway, Gierer folds his arms across his chest. The front of his T-shirt reads, "Provincetown, Massachusetts," advertising the gayest city in the United States.

Gierer, a tall, slender, 50-year-old former actor who moved to South Florida in 1984 to take a bit part on Miami Vice, is an unlikely elected official given Oakland Park's history. Once a blue-collar area whose politics were influenced by neighboring Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Oakland Park is turning gay.

"We had a reputation of being a biased, bigoted city," Gierer admits as he makes a pot of coffee in his kitchen. "People thought of Oakland Park as a redneck area."

But times have been good for one of Broward's former municipal eyesores. Benefiting from the overflow of an exploding gay population in Wilton Manors, located immediately south of the city, Oakland Park has seen property prices skyrocket and tax revenue soar. In 2004 alone, Oakland Park's tax base increased 31 percent — the largest bump for any city in the county.

"A lot of people come to Oakland Park because they want to be close to Wilton Manors but not there all the time, in the middle of everything — gay, gay, gay, 24 hours a day," Gierer explains.

The demographics seem to support those claims. According to 2000 census data, 5.91 percent of Oakland Park's population consists of same-sex couples, making Oakland Park the third-gayest city in Florida, behind only Wilton Manors (13.9 percent) and Key West (6.54 percent). Additionally, these numbers don't take into account gays living alone or changes in the last four years.

In Wilton Manors, the large gay community has already had a marked effect on local politics. In 2000, voters first elected (and have since upheld) a majority-gay City Commission. The city's second openly gay mayor, Jim Stork, used his political capital last year to launch an unsuccessful campaign against Republican U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw.

And as it did in Wilton Manors, the gay community has changed the political landscape in Oakland Park.

"We're seeing more and more members from Oakland Park," says Ken Keechl, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and president of the Dolphin Democrats, a gay and lesbian political organization. "These days, I'd be happy to live in Oakland Park. Most gays and lesbians would feel the same way."

It wasn't always that way.

Despite the fact that Oakland Park in 1993 elected its first openly gay commissioner, Chris Wilson, political homophobia persisted. Gierer made his bid for the commission in 2001 in a three-way race against John O'Sullivan, a Naval Reserve officer, and retired cop Roger Mann. In campaign literature, Mann pointed to O'Sullivan's favorable coverage in the Express, a gay newspaper, to imply that O'Sullivan was gay himself. And in door-to-door canvassing, Mann also questioned Gierer's fitness for office as a gay man with AIDS.

"It was a difficult time for me," Gierer says. "I don't know how you go through a campaign like that and not be deeply affected, emotionally affected."

But the gay-bashing backfired. Gierer won the 2001 election, and since then, the city's gay population has ballooned, and businesses have followed. The administrative offices for Georgie's Alibi, the popular gay bar in Wilton Manors, are located in Oakland Park. The Independent, a gay newspaper that started shortly after attorney Norm Kent sold his Expressto gay newspaper chain Window Media, opened its offices across the train tracks from the Oakland Park City Hall.

"A gay newspaper located in Oakland Park?" Independenteditor and co-founder Michael James says. "Even two years ago, this wouldn't have been possible."

Suzanne Boisvenue agrees. In March, Boisvenue ousted incumbent Don Migliore from the City Commission. The gay community played no small part. Boisvenue placed ads in the area's gay newspapers touting her support for domestic partnership benefits, an issue that helped win her the support of the Dolphin Democrats. "I think we have a very diverse community, and I embrace that," Boisvenue says.

In July, Oakland Park approved domestic partnership benefits for its employees. It's one of many changes in the city. Commissioners have pressed forward on an ambitious plan to redevelop Oakland Park's downtown strip along Dixie Highway, which will push out many of the old mom-and-pops to clear the way for restaurants and condos. Illustrations for the city's proposed downtown look eerily similar to another downtown drag — Wilton Drive. The comparison isn't necessarily unwanted.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see more gay and lesbian candidates run in Oakland Park in the future," attorney Keechl says. "It's a natural extension of what's going on there."

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