Town, the massive gay dance club in Shaw, announced last week that it will close next summer after rumors to the contrary. The owner sold it to a developer who plans to build an apartment building in its place.
I came out twelve years ago, and like many queer kids in DC, I sought out gay bars as a refuge. Yet many of the places I frequented are gone: Phase 1 in Barracks Row, Apex in Dupont Circle, Icons in Fairfax (which wasn’t a gay bar, but hosted a lot of drag shows), not to mention all of the LGBT clubs in Navy Yard that closed to make way for Nationals Park over a decade ago.
When Town opened in 2007, the sleek, warehouse-style club seemed out of place at 8th and Florida, far from DC’s traditional “gayborhood” on 17th Street. But it did lead the gay community’s shift further east towards Shaw, ushering in a new generation of bars, like Dirty Goose, Takoda, and Uproar.
What does Town closing mean for the city’s gay community? Contributors agree that the “gayborhood” isn’t going anywhere, but it won’t look the same in the future. Jared Alves notes that Town didn’t close for lack of visitors:
Town was the first gay bar I ever visited, but I met my boyfriend of the last three years at a (straight) bar. Still, I'm sad to see Town close not because of a lack of attendance, but because of market forces. As an urbanist I celebrate many of the changes in our city because they signal a new energy and the type of incremental change that makes cities worth visiting and calling home. All that said, I hope that the owners of Town follow the lead of DC Eagle and Secrets, which found new homes so they could continue to welcome both people at a gay bar for their first time and people who experience it every week.
Canaan Merchant noticed a similarity between gay venues and DIY music venues:
“I've seen similar reactions to replacement of popular spots for DIY music shows. I have mixed feelings overall. Obviously it sucks to lose a well-loved place but at the same time…I don't think the actual activity (whether its gay bar or DIY music shows) is disappearing necessarily though the landscape is certainly changing. I don't see the evidence for the city getting blander or more corporatized even if Chipotle is opening new stores in places you wouldn't have expected.”
Tracy Loh says it’s no surprise that Town led to other development, citing the example of other “gayborhoods.”
A lot has been written before about the role of gay “pioneers” in jumpstarting growth in property values by incrementally investing in real estate and communities. In Mount Rainier, it's basically the suburban version of what is more stereotypically an urban pattern, i.e. a community with a lot of disinvestment but historical charm, gay people are the only ones not racist or otherwise prejudiced enough/desperate enough for a place to stake a claim to see the value opportunity and have the risk-tolerance to act on it, and so a gayborhood is born.
Matt Friedman says DC has lost a lot of gay venues, but new ones are always taking their place.
I've lived in DC twice. From 1987 to 1995 and 2007 to now. Town opened soon after I returned. It was on the frontier then. Crowds followed, as did development. At the news of the closing of Town, I joked to some friends that “the gayborhood is everywhere now. Dupont Circle. Logan Circle, Shaw, Columbia Heights, Buzzard Point.”
During my first run in DC, most of the gay bars were located around Dupont Circle. It was a time before the internet and long before hookup apps. Gay bars provided a safe space at a time when it was a lot harder to meet other LGBT people. Many are gone now. Including, Rascals, The Circle Bar, Badlands/Apex, Omega/The Frat House, Mr. P's. Tracks, Lost and Found, Remington's, Be Bar, Hung Jury, and Phase 1.
Bucking the trend, new gay bars have opened, like Trade and Uproar. Other venues like Wonderland Ballroom and DC 9 host LGBT-geared dance parties. Gay bars aren't dead. They just continue to evolve, as they have for decades.
Payton Chung pointed out that businesses can’t survive on nostalgia alone, quoting Marty Chernoff, then-owner of Tracks, a popular DC gay club in the 1980s and 90s.
“Like everything else, Tracks’ time had come,” Chernoff says. “You can’t hang on to the previous concept and expect it to move into the next decades and next generations. What made Tracks unique and phenomenal — it had run its course.”
A similar statement that really stuck with me was in an article a few years back about a kitschy shopping center in Waikiki:
“You get sentimental, you get a little misty eyed,” he says. “Because it will never be the same. But you don’t want it to be the same. It can’t be the same. So tear it down, do it quickly, and rebuild something special. The next generation of kids will have no idea that this was ever here, and they need a place for their own memories.”
I've thought about this quote a few times recently, as I've written about a few places from the 1960s that were beloved — but nostalgia doesn't pay the bills. Just because a business means a lot to me, personally, doesn't mean that it'll resonate with the next generation of customers. We remember places from our youth most vividly, and so it hurts most to lose those.
Ned Russell wonders where the next Town might be.
I'm not surprised it's closing, but it does bring back memories of when the same thing happened to Nation in southeast. Nation was my first gay club and I have fond memories of going there when I was in college. I never spent much time at Town but I know it represents the same thing for many other guys in DC that Nation represents to me. In that sense, it's sad to see it go.
But development marches on and it doesn't pause for sentimental feelings. Town is in a prime developable location, one that I said would probably face similar pressures as Nation when it opened so many years ago.
That said, I hope a new, large gay club space emerges in DC. Maybe it isn't a dedicated gay club as much as a couple nights a week at a club but I think there is still a need of such a space where gays can be gays and there is no judgment (except maybe about someone's outfit).
What do you think? Where is the “gayborhood” in DC going?