The economic downturn that began last year hit the city of Cleveland hard. Poor market conditions and other factors toppled LTV Steel, TRW laid off workers, and Dillard's downtown closed its doors. But some downtown Cleveland neighborhoods are on the upswing, in large part because of a growing, uncloseted gay and lesbian culture on the city's near-West side, that's opening up to the urban community. 90.3 WCPN's Janet Babin reports.
Janet Babin: A few years ago, if you asked a gay person where to go in Cleveland for a decent meal and a few drinks, they'd probably say, Columbus. Ok, maybe Lakewood. But the gay community says that's changing. Now there are a number of gay owned and operated establishments clustering west of the Cuyahoga River.
On a recent rainy weeknight, several young people are heading to the Lesbian Gay Community Service Center of Greater Cleveland, on West 65th and Detroit Avenue.
After passing a front desk person, members of an African American youth group head downstairs. Some are playing pool, while a women's group gathers in one of the private meeting rooms surrounding the kitchen and open area. Executive Director Linda Malicki says when the Center opened in 2000, it received a mostly positive response.
Linda Malicki: It's a very diverse neighborhood, and I think they realized that respectful people were coming here, not what they expected.
JB: The Center serves as an anchor for a slowly evolving urban neighborhood that's approaching real diversity. While one neighborhood gallery is in trouble, several gay restaurants, a bookstore and local theatre are thriving. Columbus businessman Rajesh Lahoti says Detroit Avenue from Ohio City to the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood is an area that many gay couples are choosing to call home.
With strong neighborhood roots, Lahoti felt confident investing nearly $2 million in a huge building that he's turned into a restaurant and entertainment complex called the Union Station Bounce Project. While the space is gay owned and operated, Lahoti says the establishment appeals to a mixed crowd.
Rajesh Lahoti: We want the straight people to come - we want people to realize that we are a minority, that doesn't have the rights of every other minority.
JB: One Cleveland Councilman is working to improve the rights of gays and lesbians, and non-married partners working at City Hall. Nelson Cintron plans to introduce legislation that would provide domestic partner benefits for city workers. The law would offer health care to same-sex and opposite-sex couples who aren't married, but are life partners. Cintron says major companies including the top three automakers, University Hospital, and Case Western Reserve University now offer such benefits. He believes the law could end up improving the city's economic development prospects.
Nelson Cintron: This is the kind of benefit that can attract hi-tech companies to our region.
JB: According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, nearly all of the Fortune 500 companies and more than 90 state and local government or government agencies provide domestic partner health benefits.
But getting such legislation passed is often more difficult than legislators anticipate. Often citizens reject domestic partner benefits based on religious grounds. Hamilton County State Representative Bill Seitz was a lead sponsor of the State's Defense of Marriage Act, which passed the House in October and is awaiting hearings in the Senate. While the Bill allows a municipality to make its own decision on domestic partner health benefits, Seitz opposes them.
Bill Seitz: I think there would be significant cost associated with (the benefits) and a number of definitional issues involved in determining what is a partner.
JB: Lakewood Councilman Michael Skindell co-introduced domestic partner benefits in 1999, with what he thought was the backing of the other council members.
Michael Skindell: I think what happened in Lakewood was that a group of folks, a number of folks, the Religious Right and others, and spoke up loudly against the issue, and the council members changed their position.
JB: The ordinance failed in Lakewood by a 5-to-2 vote in 2000. Cintron was planning on introducing the domestic partner benefits in Cleveland this week, but he's been urged to do some coalition building. Cleveland Stonewall Democrats President Patrick Shepherd says he appreciates Cintron's bravery in bringing up domestic partner benefits.
Patrick Shepherd: We went to the past admit to get support, but unsuccessful, so that fact that in an unsolicited way the councilman has decided to take the initiative, we're immensely appreciative of that.
JB: Cintron's opponent in last year's election was an openly gay candidate, but the councilman says he's been considering domestic partner benefits for some time, because his sister was a lesbian.
Cintron says he's forming a committee to study the issue. He hopes to bring a domestic partner benefit ordinance forward prior to the summer recess.
Council President Frank Jackson says he's in favor of healthcare for all workers, but doesn't want the debate over benefits to spiral out of control. In Cleveland, Janet Babin, 90.3 WCPN News.