• Natalie Hillerson

Capitol Hill and the "Gayborhood"

In the spring of 2015, I had the opportunity to take a class at the University of Washington titled “American Studies and the Politics of Space.” Our final project for the class was to examine a spatial phenomenon in Seattle and construct an analysis of the chosen space; we were guided by questions such as: Who is included and excluded from the space? How is the space connected to race, gender, class, or disability? Is the space empowering? I teamed up with two other peers (one of whom is Team Demo Hugo’s own Tyler DeFriece!), and together, we created the most successful and interesting group project I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on.

In fact, this project was the reason I got involved with Team Demo Hugo. During a late-May study session with our lovely Assistant Director Cali Kopczick, I had the chance to share with her our group’s findings about our spatial phenomenon: Capitol Hill as the “gayborhood” of Seattle. We mainly focused on analyzing Capitol Hill as a “safe space” for the LGBTQ+ population and to what extent this neighborhood offered a solace away from the predominantly heteronormative places of the larger Seattle area. Cali later invited me to join the team, hoping I could offer some of my Capitol Hill research to the film’s larger narrative of gentrification. And here I am.

While not explicitly related to the Hugo House or the Capitol Hill arts scene, the importance of the LGBTQ+ population in Capitol Hill’s development and characterization is extremely relevant when discussing the progression and gentrification of the neighborhood as a whole. In the late 1970s, Capitol Hill became a place for members of the LGBTQ+ community to escape persecution from the larger society, and since then has been colloquially known as Seattle’s “gayborhood.”[1] However, census data indicates that over the past decade, same-sex couple households have been decreasing in Capitol Hill and increasing in other neighborhoods of Seattle, namely West Seattle, Wedgwood, and First Hill.[2] Was this shift indicative of the deterioration of “safe spaces” in Capitol Hill by means of increasing gentrification? To briefly summarize a month-long research process: yes. Through various interviews with both current and former Capitol Hill residents identifying themselves as part of the LGBTQ+ cohort, our group came to the conclusion that an increase in gentrification, both on a social and economic level, was in part responsible for the disappearance of “safe spaces” in the neighborhood.

We found the process of economic gentrification to be described as follows: first, gay men and lesbian women clustered in metropolitan neighborhoods after “fleeing discrimination elsewhere,” but then restorations done by the LGBTQ+ community made the urban area more attractive to non-queer individuals, who then moved into these neighborhoods.[3] This migration subsequently led to “steep rises in rents, frequent conversion of rental properties to condominiums, and competition for commercial space,” hence pushing economically disadvantaged LGBTQ+ individuals out of a space that they once claimed ownership over.[3] Because the LGBTQ+ cohort has been shown to be disproportionately economically disadvantaged compared to the larger population, these rent increases are particularly detrimental.[4] Many of the people we interviewed had stories to share about being displaced from their current homes, their buildings often fated to replacement by luxury condominiums—an occurrence Team Demo Hugo is all too familiar with, as well.[5]

Our project also focused on social gentrification, or what we called the heteronormative invasion of “safe spaces.” The LGBTQ+ community has seen an increase in their widespread acceptance and de-stigmatization, but we found that this trend also has negative effects. For example, the external appearance of “straight” bars, like the colorful and flashy carnival-themed Unicorn, capitalize off of and borderline appropriate the perceived hipness and trendiness of Capitol Hill’s queer community. This heteronormative invasion is even more obvious within the bars themselves, where, as one interviewee pointed out, straight women often hold bachelorette parties— an act done not to support the LGBTQ+ community, but to benefit from the lack of straight men in gay bars.[6] The increase in heteronormativity in the “gayborhood” leads to the feeling that this space is no longer safe for queer individuals and thus contribute to the decreasing amounts of LGBTQ+ people residing and coming to Capitol Hill.

To me, this research project really highlighted the gray nature of urban change. While widespread acceptance of the queer community is undoubtedly a great thing, there are negative effects that could lead to the homogenization of the population, rendering unique, individualized narratives and cultures impossible to maintain. This realization leads me back to the Hugo House and all the factors playing into its destruction and subsequent rebirth—working on this documentary has given me so many positive experiences, but are there negative effects to this memorialization? Are we pushing back against gentrification while also contributing to it? I’m hopeful we’ll find a balance among the rubble.

P.S. Love the Gayborhood? Support our history of Capitol Hill by donating to our Indiegogo campaign - only one week left!


1. Doan, P., & Higgins, H. (2011). The Demise of Queer Space? Resurgent Gentrification and the Assimilation of LGBT Neighborhoods. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 31, 6-25.

2. Balk, G. (2014, July 31). Map: Is Seattle’s ‘gayborhood’ vanishing? The Seattle Times. Retrieved from

3. Hill, C. (2003, April 12). Queer History in Seattle. HistoryLink. Retrieved from

4. Gates, G. (2014). Food Insecurity and SNAP (Food Stamps) Participation in LGBT Communities. Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. Retrieved from

5. Personal Communication, April 14, 2015

6. Personal Communication, April 23, 2015