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Last call

Why the gay bars of Boston are disappearing, and what it says about the future of city life

Several Boston-area gay bars and clubs have closed in recent years, including Chaps (shown in 2005). Several Boston-area gay bars and clubs have closed in recent years, including Chaps (shown in 2005). (Photo courtesy of Edge Publications, Inc. )
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert David Sullivan
December 2, 2007

THE FIRST THING I ever did to identify myself as a gay man - before coming out to a friend or relative, before putting a rainbow-flag pin on my jacket - was to walk into a gay bar. This was not so unusual in the early 1990s, when few gay men identified as such before they left high school. Some of us needed to walk around the block four or five times before finally pushing open a dimly lit, unmarked door.

At the time, there were plenty of dimly lit doors in Boston. The Napoleon Club was a piano bar near Park Square that attracted theater students and older men who left big tips on small glasses of red wine. A few blocks away, Luxor was a video bar for younger guys; nearby were Buddies (all ages) and Chaps, a dance club where dressing conservatively meant keeping your shirt on. In other parts of town, there were Sporters, a friendly Beacon Hill dive, and Playland, a Combat Zone bar known for its sketchy clientele, banged-up piano, and year-round Christmas lights. In all, there were 16 gay bars in Boston and Cambridge, according to Pink Pages directories from 1993 and 1994.

Today, that number has been cut to less than half. None of the bars I've mentioned are still in business, and most of the city's seven remaining gay-every-night bars have sparse customers for most of the week. (Lesbian bars were never numerous to begin with.) The gay population may have political clout and the right to marry in Massachusetts, but it has fewer and fewer public spaces to call its own.

The disappearance of places like Buddies and Chaps may sound like a problem limited to gay men, but it is part of a much larger trend reshaping American cities. As gay bars vanish, so go bookstores, diners, and all kinds of spaces that once allowed "blissful public congregation," as sociologist Ray Oldenburg described their function in his 1989 book "The Great Good Place."

In New York, the Jewish deli - a staple of the city's identity - has all but vanished. In the Boston area, many of Harvard Square's bookstores, Kenmore Square's student eateries, and myriad other places that guaranteed a diverse urban experience have closed their doors, replaced by a far more uniform lineup of bank branches, chain stores, and upscale restaurants.

This change is a serious challenge to the city, which has historically been defined by the breadth and variety of its street-level experience - and the wide diversity of people it threw together. "City air makes free," a saying that dates to medieval times, was a favorite of urban-studies pioneer Jane Jacobs. But as a wide range of gay bars dwindles to a handful of survivors - and the city's diners, indie bookstores, and dive bars yield to high rents and shifting patterns of commerce - that air is becoming the province of an increasingly narrow set of people.

Oldenburg calls public gathering spots a "third place" where we can temporarily step out of our household and workplace roles. Besides taverns, he cites drugstores (the kind with soda fountains), pool halls, and barber shops as examples. But if you were a gay man in the late 20th century, the place with all the qualities of an ideal third space was the gay bar.

For many closeted gays, bars were the only places where they could safely be themselves. They were also a nexus for political organizing and charitable work, they promoted safer-sex education after the onset of AIDS, and they served as a welcome mat for gay newcomers to a city.

"When I was in college, I'd go out to a few different bars with my friends every week," says gay novelist Wayne Hoffman, who came to Boston in the late '80s and now lives in New York. "It was a chance for us to socialize off campus, meet new people - including new boyfriends - and figure out how we fit into the larger gay world. The bars opened up a whole world of possibilities for me."

For decades gay bars kept a low profile (unmarked doors, blackened windows), and were often run by mobsters or underworld figures, since more respectable businessmen weren't crazy about the prospect of frequent police raids. The general population was either unaware of them or saw them as sinister.

But in 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn, a rather boisterous Greenwich Village bar, and the gay patrons unexpectedly fought back. The resulting riot helped to turn bars into flag-bearers for gay culture, and "Stonewall" itself began to be used in the names of gay and lesbian political organizations (the Stonewall Democrats, for example) as shorthand for "don't push us around."

When gays moved out of the shadows during the '70s, then began settling in certain areas of major cities (like the South End in Boston), gay bars evolved. Some became respected neighborhood institutions, offering meeting space to social groups, sponsoring softball teams and arts festivals, distributing condoms and health information, and buying ads in local newspapers. By the mid-1980s, they were a major force in turning Gay Pride holidays into citywide celebrations, sponsoring eye-catching parade floats and raucous block parties.

But at the same time, larger trends in American life were massing that would soon sweep these bars away.

One was the rising price of urban real estate. Gay bars traditionally appeared in marginal neighborhoods, or in predominately gay neighborhoods, with cheap rents and accommodating (or indifferent) neighbors. As those areas have progressively been developed with high-end housing, bars have struggled to pay their rent, and neighborhood groups have been increasingly hostile toward anything that creates noise or attracts idlers. The same forces have stripped such neighborhoods of other iconic businesses, such as fringe theaters and free and low-admission art spaces.

Meanwhile, the gay population is becoming more dispersed. As gay men feel more comfortable coming out to family, neighbors, and co-workers, they may also feel more comfortable living in small cities or towns rather than in the "gay ghettos" of large cities. As a result, it's much harder for a neighborhood gay bar to attract a steady clientele.

Perhaps the most important change, however, is the Internet. When Internet access became widespread in the mid-1990s, gay chat rooms on America Online and other subscription services quickly attracted a crowd. More elaborate sites such as Gay.com quickly followed, usurping gay bars' most important function: a place for men to meet each other.

At the time of the Stonewall riots, "gay people had to go out to a bar to meet other gay men," at least if they didn't want to go to more dangerous cruising areas such as parks and men's rooms, says Michael Bronski, Dartmouth College professor and author of "The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom."

There are several gay chat sites where a month's membership can cost as little as the price of one cocktail at Club Cafe - and on a recent Saturday night, one of them listed nearly 600 Boston-area members online. The site claims 600,000 members nationwide.

As a result of these changes, there are stories of gay bars closing all over the country. Since the early '90s, New York has lost its two biggest leather bars (the Spike and the Lure), as well as piano bars (the Five Oaks and Pegasus) and martini lounges (the popular but short-lived Hell). In Laguna Beach, Calif., the first city in America to elect an openly gay mayor, one of the two biggest gay bars closed this spring, and the other has been purchased by a developer who wants to tear it down. And the oldest gay bar in Pittsburgh (ironically, the setting for the TV series "Queer as Folk") closed earlier this year, after Carnegie Mellon University purchased its building.

Gay bars are just one kind of business struggling to survive in what is, to use the phrase popularized by Chris Anderson in his book of the same name, the age of "the long tail." That phrase refers to an economy in which the Internet can make even low-demand products profitable. Until the Internet, large cities offered the closest thing to a long tail economy. Thanks to Cambridge's concentration of intellectual shoppers, for instance, Harvard Square had stores full of the most obscure books, magazines, and records you could think of buying. The students in Kenmore Square kept cheap eateries, music clubs, and record stores alive; the South End's gay population once supported not just bars, but also inexpensive card-and-gift shops (such as Tommy Tish), a sex-toy shop with the feel of an old-fashioned general store (the Marquis de Sade), and a gay bookstore.

Now the classic example of a long tail business is online retailer Amazon.com, which stocks close to a million book titles - including more gay novels and intellectual books than any local store could offer. As long tail businesses migrate to the Internet, cities like Boston are being skinned alive.

Businesses like bookstores, video stores, and gay bars can no longer afford to occupy valuable real estate when their goods or services are more easily and cheaply delivered electronically. As these businesses disappear from Boston streets, they're usually replaced by more profitable land uses, such as office towers and high-end restaurants. The result is a variant of the "tragedy of the commons": Hotels, condo complexes, and other upscale businesses market themselves as part of a vibrant city, but they can also make it more difficult to maintain that vibrancy. (The ground floors of new office and housing buildings are often reserved for retail use, but CVS and other chain stores usually snap up the space.) These high-end businesses attract new residents and consumers to urban neighborhoods, but when they aren't balanced by other types of economic activity, the result can be a sterile streetscape rather than a diverse ecosystem.

This development would have disappointed William H. Whyte, the sociologist who may be rivaled only by Jane Jacobs in the cogency and passion of his arguments for active city life. Albert LaFarge, editor of "The Essential William H. Whyte," says that the ideal urban neighborhood from Whyte's point of view is fueled by "the intensity and unpredictability of different people using the same space for their own reasons, and often contradictory ones, but all respecting the goals of vibrancy and function."

If a place like the South End accommodates fewer and fewer of these reasons for a person to be there, says LaFarge, it not longer meets the definition of a successful urban neighborhood.

Gay neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco are reportedly undergoing the same transformation as in the South End, but there is at least one exception to this trend. In Philadelphia, the city has encouraged the development of its "Gayborhood," a nine-block part of downtown, by adding rainbow flags to street signs, and the city's tourism board has an aggressive campaign targeted at gay travelers. Jeff Guaracino of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. says that the Gayborhood provides "a very good economic return for the city. Businesses are making a profit there."

Making a profit, of course, isn't always the same as serving a community's needs. Gay bars seem to be doing well in resort areas such as Palm Springs and Provincetown, but they're more vacation party spots than true third spaces for locals.

The fate of the Jewish delicatessen in New York is a reminder that "theme park" gay bars would be no substitute for what we've lost in Boston. Thousands of delis have disappeared from New York since the 1930s. Many of the dozen or so survivors seem to be thriving, but the tourist-oriented Carnegie and Stage delis, with their long lines and rapid turnover of tables, don't bear much resemblance to the classic model. At a panel discussion called "Jewish Cuisine and the Evolution of the Jewish Deli," held this summer and reported on by The New York Times, food historian Joel Denker described the delis of the '50s and '60s as having "this sort of yeasty combination of intellectuals, writers, and leftists, sitting together over tea and cottage cheese and fruit, talking about the issues of the day."

Sitting and talking for hours at a time. Sadly, that's not considered an efficient use of space during today's supposed revival of city life.

Boston's gay community is adapting to its scaled-down bar scene, but there's still a sense of something missing. There are probably more spiritual groups, youth programs, and health resources than ever in the gay community, but none of them really fit the definition of a third space where one can drop in and hang out. "There was a whole group of friends who I would only ever see at the Napoleon Club," says Rick Park, a Boston-based actor, "and when it closed, they all disappeared."

You can see the change for the worse in the city's annual Gay Pride celebration. Years ago, the highlights of the parade were the outrageous parade floats, featuring drag queens and go-go boys, sponsored by gay bars. Now those delightfully pointless displays are outnumbered by contingents of waving employees from banks and utility companies in matching T-shirts. It's a positive development that so many people are out at work, to be sure, but the parade has become a lot less fun for gay and straight spectators alike.

A few weeks ago I attended a panel discussion sponsored by the History Project, which maintains archives on Boston's gay and lesbian history. A lesbian of a certain age, reflecting on the changes in the gay community since the Stonewall rebellion, said with rueful irony that "life may be easier now, but it might have been more exciting then."

That sounded a little bit like Red Sox fans complaining that they liked watching the team more when it was laboring under an 86-year curse. But I knew what she was talking about. So does Abe Rybeck, artistic director of the gay-themed Theater Offensive. He no longer considers himself a bar regular - there's too much to do running a theater company and participating in other activities - but he says that he would feel their disappearance.

"I went to Fritz to watch a World Series game this year," he says, "and it was fun to be in a room with a bunch of gay men enjoying a sports event in the way gay men would. In their minds, they were all going home with Jacoby Ellsbury. I was glad I could watch the game with my people."

Robert David Sullivan is the managing editor of CommonWealth magazine and primary writer of the blog Beyond Red & Blue (at massinc.org). The History Project (historyproject.org), which maintains archives on Boston's gay and lesbian history, provided much of the information in this article.

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