Losing your identity on Stark Street

One aspect of Portland that has at times annoyed me and other times comforted me is that we’ve never really had a particularly defined gayborhood akin to San Francisco’s Castro or LA’s West Hollywood. Gays and straights happily commingle in quintessentially PDX bars throughout the eastside and downtown. But I tend to forget, in my neo-punk queer mentality that we do have a historically gay, albeit small, district lovingly labeled Vaseline Alley.

This might not be a bad sentiment for the gay community as provided by new resident Kenny and Zuke’s Deli.

And, though it’s more than a little male-centered and traditional (in the way that only gay people can call bath houses and bars traditional) I’ve always appreciated it for some cheap happy hour drinks at Boxxes, a nice evening of darts at friendly Scandals, or a night of drunken dancing with the boys at Red Cap. I even used to take in a night or two of playing pool amid the naked boys at the much missed Sisters back when it was still around (don’t even try the math, it won’t work).

But with all the moving and shaking on Stark St., the entrance of swanky hipster hotel Ace and it’s Clyde Commons restaurant, or the 15 buck a ticket Living Room Theaters, and the departure of Club Portland and various bars, the once famed triangle might not be so gay for so long.

I’m not one for pointing you towards Oregonian articles too often (yes, we are indeed quite different entities, I’d be happy to explain it if you buy me a drink) but today’s inPortland cover deals with this very gentrification in a thoughtful way.

Boxxes patrons

Gentrification can benefit businesses at the same time it can push others out. Glen Dugger, a principal owner of Scandals thinks that the changes will be good for his business and is quoted in the article as saying: “[The neighborhood’s gay community] is firmly entrenched…That’s not going to change.” While others argue that there are less transients and that it’s “…cleaner…not as ghetto-y…” And I fully realize that the gay community is quite diverse and may even need it’s own separate Pearl. (The last Sissyboy show could have told me that). But at the same time we also value our “gay ghetto.”

The slightly shady, underground, sleazy, back alley image of gay areas of town is part of our past. When we weren’t as accepted we had to sneak around, take advantage of poorer, less developed neighborhoods and survive on our own. Now that we’re cool the developers want to move in?

Besides, I appreciate this secretive past to some degree. We built parts of our identity on these more intimidating aspects and there’s a certain power in that. The first gay club I ever went to was the City Nightclub in 1995 (again, please don’t so the math), then at 13th and Burnside. It was a thumping and dark hole in an otherwise empty street with no windows and a pulsating dance floor. A year or 2 later it moved to a much more open and inviting building on Park and it was just never the same for me. Granted I was probably a lot less scared of the “big gay club” by then anyway, but there’s something to be said for our down and dirty heritage.

The infamous triangle

And yet this is only one side of our multi-sided coin. We are often part of the problem as much a solution, if you can even label changing neighborhoods and gentrification as either a problem or a solution. A couple years ago I wrote a piece about the more lady-centric (as I keep repeating to a new friend because I have a memory like a steel sieve) Alberta and Mississippi neighborhoods’ process and our hands in that. None of these issues are simple but through it all we have to make sure that queers of all kinds can continue to claim their spaces, their communities and their neighborhoods. We’ve fought a long time for visibility and, as cool as straight Portlanders may be, I certainly want to differentiate myself from them.

2 comments to Losing your identity on Stark Street

  • wtg2

    I’m pretty new to Portland so this is a good history lesson for me. But where/how do you meet people here if you’re not into the bar scene? That’s a big drawback of not having a “gay ghetto” I suppose.

  • alley

    True. Portland can be a tough place to meet people. But there’s Q Center, the gay community center, and various groups centered around activities or identities that you can find listed in Just Out. And, of course, there’s always Craigslist…