paint the town pink

In the heart of every city, a Village... Up and down the country, lesbians and gay men are coming out into the light, creating vibrant, American-style communities. Out and proud or just going shopping?
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the manager wore a toga. Flanked by gold-painted muscle men and lissom young women scattering flower petals in his path, he progressed in a stately if somewhat awkward manner through the streets. He was greeted by the Lord Mayor, Joyce Keller, in all her finery, and a bevy of celebrity guests - Mrs Merton, Vera Duckworth, Reg and Maureen Holdsworth, Curly Watts, Des Barnes and Cobra from The Gladiators. A television news crew was in attendance; floodlights lit up the neighbourhood. In Manchester that mid-November evening, all eyes were on the Gay Village.

The occasion was the opening of the Village's latest gay pub, Via Fossa, on Canal Street. The warehouse premises have undergone a remarkable transformation at the hands of the rising star of Irish pub architecture, Frank Ennis, and at a cost to Boddington's brewery of pounds 1.5m. Using bits and pieces rescued from Victorian churches and other public buildings - pulpit rails, hymn number boards, old bicycles and stained glass - Ennis has created a splendid folie de grandeur in the centre of Britain's third city. With the opening of Via Fossa, Manchester's Gay Village (the capitals are de rigueur these days), an inner- city area bounded by Whitworth Street, Princess Street, Portland Street and Sackville Street, now comprises a dozen gay pubs, several gay restaurants and cafes, a gay solicitors office, a gay bookshop, a gay dentist, barber, doctor and taxi firm.

Boddington's investment in Via Fossa is a measure of the confidence in the permanence and viability of the Village. Once a run-down, near derelict warehouse district, the Village has become one of the jewels in Manchester's civic crown, featured proudly in the city council's tourist brochure. Other businesses are investing heavily in the area. Lesbian property developer Carol Ainscow and her business partner Peter Dalton - who were among the first to promote the notion of a "village" - opened the area's first open-fronted, continental-style gay bar, Manto, back in 1990. They now own two nightclubs and a gay record label (Out on Vinyl), and are on the verge of completing the conversion of yet another warehouse on the edge of the Village into a block of 29 luxury flats to be occupied largely by lesbian and gay residents.

Gay villages, in the sense of an agglomeration of gay venues, are not new. As Bill Short, Gay Times's lifestyle editor, says: "The concept of the village is based on the belief - or the need to believe - that a gay community exists." But what is new, at least in this country, is the visibility of these communities.

It wasn't so long ago that lesbians and gay men socialised entirely in secret, in what the tabloids loved to call "the twilight world of the homosexual". With the emergence of the village, at least part of the gay world stands proud for all to see. Phil Burke, manager of one of the Village's gay bars, says that eight years ago, when the area was still run down, gay men would venture there only at night and straights would avoid it all together. Now, although still gay-dominated, the Village attracts a mix of people, from families with kids to lads with their girlfriends. Women, both lesbians and straights, seem to find the area safe and welcoming.

The "village" is, perhaps, really an American concept. Since the early 1970s, San Francisco, the gay capital of the world, has been home to the Castro, a district centred on the charming, if twee, Castro Street, and consisting almost entirely of lesbian and gay businesses and properties. Greenwich Village in south Manhattan has a long tradition of being a magnet for lesbians and gay men. And its social venues have become known worldwide as a crucible of political action for lesbian and gay rights.

Europe has been slow to take to the idea. Amsterdam has several concentrations of gay bars, clubs and cafes and yet has never really warranted the village sobriquet. Similarly in London from the late 1960s onwards, Soho, Earl's Court, Brixton and Islington have all gone in and out of fashion with the capital's lesbians and gay men without ever really being considered a "village".

Soho has only had "village" pretensions for the past few years. And yet, the area has long been synonymous with the underworld: here, in the 1950s and 1960s, were sex clubs, all-night cafes, prostitutes, rent boys, strippers, gangsters, down-and-outs, drop-outs, thrill seekers, sailors on shore leave, lesbians and gay men. But in the late 1970s, Westminster Council began a drive to "clean up" Soho and the heart was ripped out of the capital.

For a while, Soho stagnated. But the recession of the late 1980s saw leases on properties become available at low or no premium. Two new gay bars opened, one on Wardour Street, the other off Oxford Street. These were not your usual type of pub, these were cafe-bars: Village Soho and Village West One. Astute marketing of the "village" concept by their then owner, Gordon Lewis, coupled with media interest in the fanciful notion of "the pink pound", started a bandwagon rolling. More pubs opened in and around Old Compton Street, new businesses moved in. And the Soho Village was born.

In the past month, three more bars have opened with several more in the offing. And Compton's, one of the last surviving relics of the old Soho, has now been redesigned in the modern gay style. The spit and sawdust has made way for shiny surfaces. Bass Charrington, the brewery, which has a big stake in many London gay venues, is thought to have spent close on half a million on the conversion.

Stuart Linden, a photojournalist who has reported on Britain's gay scene for many years, is not alone in believing, however, that Soho lacks the friendly, community atmosphere which the rather cosy term "village" implies.

"Compton Street is still predominantly straight," he says. "In Manchester everybody feels they belong to the Village unlike in London where people are less communicative and less friendly, more hesitant about talking to each other. The businesses have failed to bring people together in the way that's happened in Manchester." Chris Bryan, chair of Manchester's Village Charity, the Aids fund-raising organisation that has done most to cement the village identity, agrees. "There's more to a village than just a grouping together of pubs and clubs," he says.

"The area must feel safe and comfortable to lesbian and gay people, particularly in the summer when people stand outside the bars, as they do in Manchester, drinking in the street. You can't achieve that if gay places are beside non-gay friendly places. In Manchester we're lucky in that our gay venues are close together; in the evenings and at weekends there's nothing else between them."

Those few non-gay venues in the Village have gone out of their way to support the Village Charity's annual August Bank Holiday Mardi Gras festival, which this year raised pounds 62,000 for Aids organisations throughout the north- west of England. The Lord Mayor has sponsored the Village Charity as her favoured charity organisation. "Her work for the charity," says Bryan, "is just one indication of how the city council expresses pride in the Gay Village and views it as an asset to the city."

Westminster Council may soon give its blessing to the Soho "village" by pedestrianising Old Compton Street in the evenings and thereby allowing the pavement cafes really to come into their own. But Soho still lacks its own equivalent to the Village Charity. In February 1993, to mark St Valentine's Day, the gay activist group OutRage held a ceremony to rename Soho's Old Compton Street, Queer Street, but their plan for a Valentine's Day carnival got little support. The annual Soho Pink Weekend which followed is more of a promotional event for drinks companies than an expression of gay pride or community spirit.

Soho also lacks any significant local gay and lesbian residential population. In Manchester, even before the opening of the new block of flats, hundreds of lesbians and gay men lived within walking distance of a night out in the Village. The London and Manchester villages will probably always have different characters, and different futures. Where the Manchester Village seems certain to remain the focus of lesbian and gay life in the city, the Soho village will only ever be a showcase and a tourist attraction. To walk down Old Compton Street can be a thrilling experience for a gay man. Here we all are: out, proud, on the streets and looking fabulous. But it can be a depressing experience too. As gay film-maker Terence Davies told Tilly McAuley in Gay Times recently: "If I walk down Old Compton Street, I feel about 300 years old."

Just as the centre of London has been prettified, so the Soho village represents the yuppification of the gay scene. The sleazy, down- to-earth gay venues will never be part of this; they will most likely stay forever out of sight.

8 David Smith and Colin Richardson are editor and deputy editor of 'Gay Times'