Laguna Beach used to be a gay Mecca. We had our own goodly district of gay bars, restaurants and clubs. Then time and local demographics changed that and now the Mecca has moved. It went mostly to Palm Springs.
Palm Spring’s reached its height of pre-gay notoriety between 1950-70, when actors of those generations made second and third homes there. Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Elvis and others made it a playground. It was an easy drive from L.A. and a place for good times, golfing and goofing around the pool. But even before the end of the 1960s, the city entered a period of slow decline as the action moved down-valley and into gated, golf-resort communities. Unlike Palm Springs, none of them had any real downtowns or sense of “place.”
Yes, their manicured lawns and golf courses were beautiful and serene, but they were isolated and boring. You went there only for long weekends, where you probably drank too much because there was not much else to do. Or you went for retirement. You could sell your home on the coast and buy a better place in the valley for less and have cash left over to play.
The gay migration to Palm Springs started in the early 1990s because it was cheap and because gays liked its mid-century modern architecture. Let me make a stereotypical statement: most gay guys really do have better taste than straight guys, including me, and when they got to those old mid-century homes in Palm Springs, they went to work. Within less than a decade, the city had been transformed into renovated architectural marvels. The trend accelerated during the early 2000s with the construction of new, cool stuff, but then the great housing depression hit it hard. Values in any second-home community are finicky and Palm Springs was no exception. Within a few years, values had dropped a good 50 percent, maybe more.
But still the migration continued and today, the city’s voting population is about 40 percent gay.
I bought a second home there in 1999. It is not mid-century modern. It is more college dorm-room with a big pool and lots of bedrooms and nothing is worth stealing. My kids love it, especially if not accompanied (nowadays) by adults.
But still….still, the city got hit hard and early. The housing depression started there in early 2005. It’s been seven years now and the vacancies on the main drag have been ugly.
So I am very pleased to report the city now is in full recovery. A few weeks ago, my friend Peter Blake, the Laguna Beach art gallery owner, invited me to the Thursday night opening party at the Palm Springs Fine Arts Fair at the Palm Springs Convention Center. He had a booth there. It also was the first day of the 11-day Palm Springs Modernism Week. The town was packed. Every friend I know who lives there (and I know many) were involved in an event or happening or tour or museum display or something. It was exciting and full of promise.
Further, it marked a turning point. Palm Springs was tired of being on the down low. Its people were tired of it. Collectively, they had toiled for 20 years to remake Palm Springs into something once-again special, but a different kind of special, one marked for its gay sensibility.
This last month, during Modernism Week, their goal was accomplished. The city is alive again, and vital and fun, and a hive of potential.
Michael Ray grew up in CdM and now lives in Laguna Beach. He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.