Joel Brown fantasizes about an Eden inhabited exclusively by elderly gay men. At 60, with a balding head and a starched, monogrammed shirt, Brown looks almost grandfatherly. Since 1988, he's operated the Parkside Male Residential Hotel, a refuge for men who have nowhere else to go. He's harbored sex offenders, convicts, and recovering drug addicts. A graying gay, Brown understands what being stranded is all about.
That's why he's now focused on giving sanctuary to his own, by rebranding his flophouse in Akron's warehouse district as a gay retirement center. Fifteen of the three-story boardinghouse's 51 rooms are reserved specifically for gay retirees. The Parkside's website describes the facility in lavish terms: a fitness room with a tanning bed, bathrooms meticulously scrubbed twice a day, an executive suite that boasts a surround-sound theater for gay movie nights, gourmet home-cooked meals three times a day, and a picturesque location just minutes from downtown. All this for as little as $1,400 a month.
Unfortunately, reality falls short of Brown's vision. The Parkside's gray concrete structure sits in the heart of a post-industrial ghetto. Its windowless entrance faces South Main Street, which remains empty except for a muffler shop, Schermesser Funeral Home, and a few sagging houses. Though the interior boasts some extravagant decorating touches, from mirror-covered walls to tropical-rainfall shower heads, all the bathrooms are communal. The gym is actually a cluttered storage space, with furniture blocking the free weights and a tanning bed in need of a good dusting. The gourmet meals are prepared by the maintenance man, Tom Taylor, whose specialty is curiously nicknamed "Lesbian Lasagna." And though it does feature a drop-screen theater, the executive suite is actually Brown's own bedroom.
"It's really a work in progress," Brown says.
Which isn't to say that he's got the wrong idea. Developers who have already tapped this market have struck gold. Florida's Palms of Manasota, a gay retirement community that opened in 1998, has proved so popular that another 40 villas are being added to the 35-acre resort. In New Mexico, RainbowVision is a $34 million facility with 146 units and, two years before its scheduled opening, a long waiting list.
"This market is only going to get bigger in the next 10 years," says RainbowVision CEO Joy Silver.
Indeed, experts project the number of retirement-aged gays to be as high as 4 million and growing. Many of them lack the support system available to straight seniors. Because homosexuals can't marry, they're more likely to live alone. Even those in long-term relationships lack the Social Security, tax, and medical benefits that protect surviving members of conventional couples when one spouse dies. And they're unlikely to have children to care for them in old age.
Checking into a conventional retirement home can mean going back into the closet. A tight-knit community of seniors who came of age in a less tolerant era isn't likely to embrace a mincing dandy with a soft spot for Bette Midler. Homosexuality might also trouble staff members who perform such intimate tasks as changing adult diapers.
"The fear is that if it is known that they are gay or lesbian, people won't want to give them the care they need because of prejudice," says Richard Gollance, co-chair of the San Francisco-based Lesbian and Gay Aging Issues Network.
That presents a problem for people like Terry Bates, board chair for the Akron Pride Center. "I see myself being this crotchety old queen, and I don't think that'd really fly in a conventional home," says Bates, a slender 55-year-old with an impeccable George Michael five o'clock shadow.
Unfortunately, there aren't many other options. Though Bates describes the Parkside as "so gay-looking," its charm is largely overshadowed by its sketchy location and shady clientele. Eight of the Parkside's 38 current residents are sex offenders. Small wonder not a single gay retiree has moved in.
But Brown's boardinghouse is still more than other local developers have managed to offer. The Cleveland-based A Place for Us has been working on getting a full-scale $34 million retirement facility off the ground for the past seven years, yet not one brick has been laid. The nonprofit organization hasn't been able to round up the necessary funding, says president Linda Krasienko.
Another problem: Cleveland is no Palm Springs. So far, successful ventures have sprouted in the Sun Belt, near thriving gay scenes. Northeast Ohio's weather is famously bad, and the political climate for gays is even worse. State legislators' hostility toward gay marriage has been so extreme that even moderate Republicans have tried to rein it in, arguing that it could further cripple Ohio's weak economy.
Yet the Parkside's Brown remains convinced that he can offer housing as nice as any five-star joint in Fort Lauderdale, even if his first attempt does seem to be dying on the vine. That's why he's already at work on his next great scheme: The Incredible Roman Baths.
Brown purchased a $75,000 warehouse in the center of an abandoned Akron ghetto, which he hopes to gentrify into a geriatric-gay paradise. His plan is to create a posh, members-only resort surrounded by homes for gay retirees. He's already planted 120 poplars around the property's chain-link fence to safeguard the privacy of future members.
As he digs through the clutter of the Parkside's "gym," Brown exhumes a blown-up reproduction of a 16th-century etching of a beefy, naked Roman boy emerging from a river. The picture will one day perch over the entrance to the complex, he says, envisioning colossal Roman columns lining a 20-man Jacuzzi whirlpool.
"We're really taking our time with this one," Brown says.
For now, Brown's vision remains nothing more than a homemade flier embellished with clip art and a long wish list of future luxuries. His vision is a long way off, and graying gays aren't getting any younger.
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