This week, I’m leaving my world and heading for Jupiter. No, literally. I’m trading the blue bubble that is New York City for the red rubble that is Florida. Like many good Jewtalians™, my parents are snowbirds in the Jupiter/West Palm Beach area, and so my whole family is visiting them for my mom’s 70th birthday. I came down a few days early before the mayhem of 16 people under one roof begins, and I figured I’d take my dad (my actual dad… not my “daddy”) on a drive down to the Wilton Manors neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale!
Wilton Manors is about 45 minutes south of West Palm Beach and 45 minutes north of Miami, which makes it the perfect location for the gays of South Florida. It immediately became clear that I had to disabuse my notions of what a “gayborhood” should look like. I’ve only ever lived in massive cities with multi-block gay neighborhoods: Philadelphia has The Gayborhood; Baltimore has Mt. Vernon; London has SoHo; Chicago has Boystown and Andersonville; Los Angeles has WeHo and Silverlake; New York has Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea. So my idea of what a gay neighborhood “should” look like is decidedly formed by a metropolitan style of architecture and expansiveness of the area.
At first look, Wilton Manors is essentially one small strip, on one side of the street, with about 10 gay bars…or so I thought. My dad and I stopped off at The Pub located in the heart of the strip, and I got the chance to pick the brain of my extremely handsome waiter to get his thoughts on the area and what he loves about it. I unfortunately didn’t get his name since he was bopping around from table to table at an impressively busy noon crowd. Fresh from the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago (the Lucky Pierre between Andersonville and Boystown), he said his best friend convinced him to move to the area in November and he’s been working at The Pub since.
When I asked him what he loved about the area, there were the expected answers: very gay, very safe, and a true sense of community. Because the residents of Wilton Manors are historically an older crowd, he also loved that he is the “fresh meat” of the area, constantly getting compliments from the older gentlemen who love a spring chicken. We all know the feeling of going to a new town and having your Scruff blowup since you’re the fresh meat. It must be great when that’s a daily occurrence! He also said that while you only see the 10 bars that make up the main strip, that there are another 20 or so bars scattered around the neighborhood. We love choices! If you're looking to watch the big game, you can head over to Gym Bar, and if you want to listen to some country music before you enjoy a great drag show, you can head to Scandals Saloon.
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In terms of what he wished for the area, he said that while there are around 30 bars in the neighborhood, they are just that: bars. He’d love to see Wilton Manors have more clubs where he can just let loose and dance. I don’t know the area well enough to speak to that, but I’ll generally always trust a local’s opinion (even if a relatively new local).
Something my dad pointed out—and this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has spent any amount of time in a gay neighborhood— is that it was essentially entirely men, save for one woman. “Where are all the lesbians?” my apparently woke father asked. I explained to him that like every other gay neighborhood in the country, there is an unfortunate dearth of lesbian-centered spaces. Everyone is welcome everywhere, of course, so it’s not as if women can’t go to male-centric gay bars, but it is a shame that the spaces for lesbians have dwindled more and more every year. He quite literally did a double-take when I told him how few there were even in New York City. “In the biggest and gayest city in the world, I would expect there to be literally hundreds of them.” You’re not wrong to think/hope that, Dad, but I guess it all comes down to how much patronage any establishment gets; if the business was there, they would have stayed open. When I typed “lesbian bars in Wilton Manors, FL” into Google Maps, the results it gave me were The Eagle, GYM Bar, etc. Again, everyone is welcome everywhere, but in terms of those bars…well…IYKYK.
My dad and I walked the strip for about 20 minutes, and what was quickly apparent was how friendly and communal everyone in the neighborhood was. Everyone who walked by smiled a warm “hello” at me, regardless of the fact I knew none of them. Also, like a gay(er) Norman Rockwell painting, people would wave into the windows of stores saying hello to the shop owners-that-became-friends. That’s my kind of town. There are also a plethora of Queer-themed businesses and establishments in Wilton Manors. I saw street banners referencing Pride, a youth learning center seemingly focused on Queer kids, and something called The Pride Center at Equality Park. The Pride Center’s website describes itself as “a welcoming, safe space—an inclusive home that celebrates, nurtures and empowers the LGBTQ+ communities and our friends and neighbors in South Florida.”
Another aspect about Wilton Manors I learned on this first jaunt was that it’s an island. We know gays love an island moment (see: Fire Island, Key West, PTown, etc.), but what is particularly beautiful about Wilton Manors is that it isn't an island off the coast, but rather an island smack dab in the middle of Fort Lauderdale. Surrounded by the North and South Forks of the Middle River, Wilton Manors is also known as “Island City.” The canals that surround the city make Wilton Manors seem like a Queer island oasis, protected from the outside world (Brigadoon could never!). And within that island are five city parks located along the river: Colohatchee Park & Boat Ramp, Donn Eisele Park, Island City Park Preserve, Richardson Historic Park & Nature Preserve, and Snook Creek Boat Ramp. With all of those parks, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Wilton Manors became the 17th City in the United States to become a Certified National Wildlife Habitat! If you're into exploring parks and seeing the animals that make up its ecosystem, Wilton Manors most likely has something that you'll love, including rare and endangered species. The water that surrounds the island are home to both wood storks and manatees, and can I just say that it's high time that we had a drag queen named Wood Stork, and a drag king name Man A. Tea? Let's make it happen, hm?
But maybe you don't want to watch the birds; maybe you want to watch the cats, as it were. Well, if you're looking to lay out in the sun and check out a slew of hot men of all types, then head over to Sebastian Street Beach, Wilton Manors' best gay beach. It's located near all of the best gay resorts in the area, some of which I've written about in the past. Who knows...maybe while you're catching some rays, you'll end up catching some feelings, as well.
(Video credit: @RealGayBoysofOrlando - YT)
I only got the chance to spend the afternoon bouncing around the main strip, but with so many great offerings of Queer spaces, I know that I decidedly want to come back! Have any great recs for my next trip to Wilton Manors? Let me know! I'd love to hear from you.
Questions? Comments? Email [email protected].