The Grit and Glamour of Queer LA Subculture

Bohemians and Yuppies

Contested and Imbricated Space

Our oral history narrator Joseph Fiorillo, a long-time resident and real estate agent in Silver Lake, speaks in this audio clip about attempts to nominate a gayborhood.

Silver Lake has been characterized as a Latinx enclave, a gay district, a bohemian quarter, and a yuppie haven. Most recently, Silver Lake has made the news as style watchers have declared that the "Brooklyn lumberjack" look of millennial hipsterism has been displaced by the "Silver Lake shaman" style, replete with a recycling of Laurel Canyon's signature 60's hippie aesthetic.[1] To be sure, the irony of the back-to-the-land, living-low hippie ethos being converted to elite aesthetics in a neighborhood where the median house price is over a million dollars merely accentuates the broader commodification of late twentieth-century dissident subculture in the US.[2] Yet the "Silver Lake shaman" moniker also speaks to the New York style industry's tendency to "LA-splain" the US's second city to Angelinos themselves and to New Yorkers who wonder why their city's status as the cultural capital of America still justifies rough winters and summers. For Silver Lake locals, this "shaman" styles seems much more a desert style that dropped on us with the advent of the internationally renowned Coachella Music Festival. Staged over two weekends a hundred miles from LA, Coachella's bands and fans drop into the indie rock Echo Park/Silver Lake music venues between the bookends of the festival. These venues were once gay bars and Latinx dance halls that gave way to the organic Silver Lake music scene of the 1990s. Rather than suggesting a simplistic narrative of gentrification and minority displacement, however, this neighborhood speaks to how income, style, and subculture have globalized since the Birmingham school of cultural studies started its inquires.

As Daniel Hurewitz narrates in his book Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics, the earliest queer presence arrived in the 1920s when vaudeville actor and female impersonator Julian Eltinge built his estate atop a hill in what was then called Edendale, Los Angeles's first silent motion picture production area.[3] Alongside Tom Mix cowboy movies, Charlie Chaplin's early work, and Laurel and Hardy's "music box" struggles (now fetishized by Silver Lake's "stair walkers"), the neighborhood's mix of political dissidents, artists, and bohemians made fertile ground for a gayborhood, according to Hurewitz. Three decade later and two blocks away from Eltinge's mansion, Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society as the first "homophile" group in the country, its legacy now landmarked by the city at the site of the "Mattachine Steps." The Black Cat riot and following protest happened in Silver Lake in 1968, a year before Stonewall. Hay would go on in the 1970s to co-found the Radical Faeries, a group who routinely commemorates Hay on these steps yet is unlikely to be commemorated in its own right. 

By the 1970s, some queers branded Silver Lake as East Hollywood. The West Hollywood nightlife was—and arguably still is—known for exclusionary modes of racism, agism, and fashion codes. Even as an alternative to this intra-group hegemony, the history of Silver Lake nonetheless raises questions about the idea that white gay men in the US are what urban theorist Richard Florida calls the "canaries" of the "creative class" who lead to the gentrification of neighborhoods.[4] Here is what our oral history narrators had to say about how Silver Lake since the 1970s has maximized the "bohemia" that Hurewitz locates over the neighborhood's arguably longer dureé:

“Gays always bought in areas where the properties were cheap and they would go into marginal neighborhoods and they would gentrify the neighborhood and then resell to move up a better neighborhood and would often times sell to straight couple. They would live in the flats and then sell that and then buy in the hills.” —Joseph


“Freaks welcome. You can be whatever you want. There will be no judgment here. The freakier you are, the better you are, you know?” —Bill


“[The retail scene] was all very small, private, boutique companies, and the clientele were mostly gay. It was just one gay couple after another. That’s one reason the Ivanhoe school district was so good. There were so few kids in the school. They had plenty of money. Once that became known, we started to see young marrieds wanting to move into the neighborhood. That would have been in the late 80s and early 90s. Now the school is overcrowded. It’s saturated now.”  —Joseph


“How would I describe the fashion? Less conventional. More asymmetrical haircuts… Not West Hollywood. Not super cleaned up. Not coiffed. The butches were not wearing lipstick. There was more of a butch-femme aesthetic. More like rocker.” —MW


“But yeah Levi / Leather … as opposed to like what you saw in West Hollywood, which you think of as Pet Shop Boys fans. And I say that lovingly … But you picture people in pastels and kind of like ‘Oh yeah, we are doing our dance to Diana Ross covers’ kind of twinks … But you had a more edgy, more hardcore, more gritty scene over here… I would say I gravitated more over here.” —Bill


“There was no queer community. There’s a lot of different queer communities.” —MW

In the early 1990s, the Silver Lake music scene both overlapped with and displaced the queer scene. Today, across the street from The Silver Lake Lounge, a trans/gay Latinx bar that has survived by hosting indie rock shows, there is a new mural commemorating white straight musicians Jackson Brown, Beck, and The Silversun Pickups, all of whom lived in Silver Lake at certain times in their lives. José Muñoz commemorates this space in Cruising Utopia. 

Our oral history narrator Bill Tutton ruminates here on the "salvation" that Silver Lake's music clubs and night life have offered and denied to overlapping subcultures.

“Basically the tribe that I was finding were people who were either gay or gay friendly, but had an emphasis on deep digging with music. People you could go to thrift stores with or like you could travel with the purpose of finding the record stores. That was basically the people -- If I made friends with people who were gay first and they didn’t have anything interesting going on with music it was very difficult. It would be years before I could relate to people who didn’t have music as the focus as their existence.”


“There was no word Queer Core back then. Yet I think names happen after something exists.”


“There was no unifying sound. The sound was people having fun together.”


“[Silverlake Lounge] would have bands on Thursday nights but the other nights of the week there would be having these pretty low budget Mexican and Latino drag shows, and I say low budget endearingly because these people made the best costumes with the cheapest materials. Oh god, it was so fantastic.”


“Suddenly these rock minded people are showing up and saying ‘hey yeah,” and the club owners were going, ‘new audience; they spend money. Lets let their band play.’ […] This is what happened over here at the Black Cat. Same thing. It had been a Latino tranny bar and then they started to have a club there. At Le Barecito, Club Fuck. They would have electro like Nine Inch Nails sort of music and heavily tattooed people dancing to Ron Athey.”


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