Last edited: February 14, 2005

Gay Business Comfortable in R.I.

Providence Business News, June 25, 2001
300 Richmond Street, Suite 202, Providence, RI 02903

By K. Alexa Mavromatis, Staff Writer

With national recognition as an accepting, liberal place to live and work, Providence is developing a reputation as a welcoming place for gays.

The city’s combination of education, art and a community that is accepting to gays is attracting entrepreneurs who are enhancing the retail, service and high tech industries, among others.

Angie Mackey, owner of Hairspray Salon and co-owner of the Alternative Body Day Spa on Wickenden Street, said that to her, doing business in Providence is about different kinds of people working together.

While Hairspray’s staff is equally divided between gay and straight ("about 50/50," she said) Mackey said the majority of her clientele is straight — on a given day you can see older people, parents with their kids coming in to have their hair, makeup or nails done.

"I just don’t think anybody cares that much anymore," she said.

Last winter, for the second year in a row, Providence was designated among the top ten "Best Lesbian Places to Live" in the U.S. by Girlfriend magazine.

Based on standards including cost of living, job growth, unemployment, crime statistics, municipal anti-discrimination laws, a recently repealed state sodomy law and the number of gay and lesbian-friendly businesses, organizations, entertainment venues and spiritual organizations, Providence was ranked fifth in the sixth annual Best Lesbian Places to Live edition of the magazine.

In 1999, the city tied for tenth on the same list.

Mackey finds Providence a radical contrast to Oklahoma City, where she grew up.

She’s participated in Gay Pride parades in Oklahoma City met with protesters, but in Providence, Mackey said "people line the streets and cheer you on — everybody’s got their little ‘Straight but not narrow’ pins on. It’s amazing, really, that it’s so different."

"Providence has always prided itself on its eclecticism," said Pamela Padula, who co-owns the Castro coffeehouse with partner Lorianne Green. "It’s a divided state, a divided neighborhood."

Both Padula and Mackey commented on the high concentration of gay-owned businesses on Fox Point’s Wickenden Street.

"The gay community tends to do better in a minority climate," said Padula.

Fox Point is a traditionally Portuguese neighborhood, with a third of its population claiming Portuguese ancestry.

"The same thing happened in the South End of Boston," Padula said. "It was the gay community that revived that area. I think the East Side of Providence and Fox Point are moving in the same direction."

The location of the Castro, near the east end of Wickenden Street, could be a potentially difficult one for a gay-owned café. The Castro (named for a gay neighborhood/business district in San Francisco) is across the street from the Fox Point Boys and Girls’ Club and the Fox Point branch of the Providence Public Library. Vartan Gregorian Elementary is just around the corner, and its closest neighbor to the south is Fox Point Manor, a housing development for the elderly.

Still, Padula said she hasn’t had any major problems.

"This business has been embraced by the community, our neighbors," she said. "Elderly people from the Manor come in, kids from the school come in — they’re either beyond prejudice or before it."

The Castro, which opened two years ago, is expanding, and Padula credits "the growth of Providence — the mall, the hotels, the trolleys" with helping her business find its audience.

There are no hard figures on the number of gay-owned businesses in the state or even in Providence, but the impact of Providence’s gay population is significant enough that four years ago, a liaison to Providence’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community, W. Fitzgerald Himmelsbach, was appointed by Mayor Vincent A."Buddy" Cianci Jr..

Himmelsbach said that Cianci (who served as Grand Marshal for the Gay Pride parade on June 16) is the first Providence mayor to incorporate such a position into the city’s administration.

Laws regarding hate crime and a repealed sodomy law are part of what makes the city attractive to gays, said Himmelsbach.

In addition, "Providence is one of the only cities in the country that has domestic partner benefits for police and fire workers," he said. "Even Boston doesn’t have that."

That Providence’s next mayor could be gay does not seem to be out of the question.

State Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-Dist. 4 of Providence) who is openly gay, expects to make an official announcement this fall regarding a run for the office, and said that he sees the City of Providence and Rhode Island in general as a place "where people understand that a person’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with what they can contribute to the community. We — as a community and as a city — have progressed so far."

Cicilline is a highly regarded lawyer who has already been elected and re-elected to the General Assembly. In political circles, he is indeed a strong mayoral candidate.

Cicilline said he feels that the state’s - and Providence’s — relatively small size has figured largely in creating a place that is welcoming toward gays.

"One of the advantages is that you have a greater opportunity to build professional and personal relationships," he said. "I’m not sure you can have that so easily in larger cities."

Where are gays working in Providence? Himmelsbach said that lately the city’s high tech industry has been attractive to gay workers because "companies haven’t had a lot of trouble asking them to relocate to Providence," he said.

GTECH, ranked in the April 30 edition of the Providence Business News’ "High Technology Monthly" as one of the state’s largest IT employers, has offered benefits for same-sex domestic partners since December 1999.

Robert Vincent, GTECH’s vice president for corporate communications, said that the initiative has helped attract workers in what is a tight labor market in the high tech industry.

"We strive to provide an inclusive workplace, and this initiative helps us do that," he said.

When he visited Providence to address the Rhode Island Technology Council’s annual meeting earlier this year, Richard Florida talked about how Providence ranks with the rest of the country in regard to its attractiveness to IT professionals. Florida is the Heinz professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and writes a monthly column, "Brave New Workplace," which appears in Information Week.

Out of 273 cities ranked by Florida, Providence ranked 34th for diversity (gay population) and 57th on the "Boho Index" (artists, actors, writers, etc.)

Florida’s premise is that there is a distinct correlation between the areas where gays choose to settle (along with artists, immigrants and other factors) and the regions of the country that are attractive to IT workers.

In a previous issue of Providence Business News, Florida said:

"What really drives economic growth and development in cities and places is people, and those places that attract the people win and those that don’t, lose....

For her part, Padula agrees with Florida that the combination of art and education is a huge component of what makes Providence so gay-friendly.

"My partner and I are not in the closet, but we’re not separatists," she said. "This is a safety zone space and we’re happy to be a part of that Providence. This is not a narrow-minded place."

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