Four emblematic Gay bars in Los Angeles, boasting a combined 130-year history, have closed for good during the pandemic and many more have warned they are on the verge of closing.
Even with the gradual return of nightlife, some of Southern California’s remaining queer bars have resorted to crowdfunding in a last ditch effort to stay afloat, warning that Covid-19 could bring the end of historic institutions that have resisted. the AIDS crisis and several economic downturns.
The pandemic has permanently closed more than 100,000 bars and restaurants across the United States, but in Los Angeles, which has been subject to some form of lockdown restriction since last March., the impact on nightclubs was particularly brutal.
Four LGBTQ + bars closed in West Hollywood last year, including Rage, a legendary nightclub that closed after 37 years, and Gold Coast, a 39-year-old dive bar down the street on Santa Monica Boulevard. Then in January, as Los Angeles became one of the nation’s worst Covid hotspots, Oil Can Harry’s, a beloved gay country bar in Studio City, said it was shutting down for good after half a century of dancing. queer online.
“It feels like death,” said Rick Dominguez, a DJ who has hosted disco and country parties at Oil Can Harry’s for 27 years. “We are losing more than our place to dance. It was a home for us for decades. So many people have met and fallen in love at Oil Can.
Oil Can still had a siren on site that staff used in the 1960s to warn customers that the police were arriving and allowed them to switch quickly to partners of the opposite sex, Dominguez said: “The new generations will not know this space.”
Before Covid, gay bars were already disappearing in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities due to rising rents and gentrification, and as online dating and queer dating apps grew in popularity. Places most at risk of closure are often independently owned and cater to more under-represented groups, including black and Latin American communities, trans and gender maverick crowds, and lower-income neighborhoods, according to research.
Many struggling Los Angeles bars are located outside of the West Hollywood scene, known for its more touristy, white gay male clientele, with owners looking to GoFundMe to weather the crisis.
“These places were our havens, so watching them be the first to go is really fucked up,” said Meatball, a drag queen from LA who played at Precinct, a downtown club that raises money to stay. open. “I can’t imagine a world without Precinct. There are people you only see there, but they are your close friends. ”
Precinct has long had an unpretentious vibe that made it more cozy than many gay bars, Meatball said, “It’s drab, it smells of old alcohol when you walk in, and there’s something so heartwarming about this place. dark and seedy – gays love it stuff. “
New Jalisco, also downtown, is one of the area’s oldest Latino gay bars, run by an immigrant couple who turned it into an LGBTQ + venue in the 1990s. year of rent, the bar has also started to raise funds.
“It’s like you’re at a family celebration,” said Eddy Francisco Alvarez Jr, Chicana and Chicano studies professor at Cal State Fullerton. Alvarez noted that bars like New Jalisco are much more welcoming to undocumented patrons and trans Latinas than establishments in West Hollywood. “You can appear in the multiplicity of who you are versus other spaces that are very white or that don’t seem appealing to working class people… We lose bits of queer Latinx history when these places close. “
Don Godoy, who hosts a weekly night out in Jalisco called Kafe Con Leche, said his dancers have relied on online events and OnlyFans to supplement their income, but they are eager to return to live shows in person.
“We had clients who came every week for three years,” he says. “Stopping all of a sudden was a challenge, especially mentally.”
‘We are resilient’
Club owners said they were initially ashamed to ask for donations but were running out of options.
“We were paying the water and electricity department to keep the lights on,” said Scott Craig, part owner of Akbar in Silver Lake, which opened in 1996. “We have to pay our mortgage, our money. licenses, our property taxes… and what is ours if we don’t know what we’re going to do?
Some of the young friends and longtime clients of Akbar’s owners finally convinced them to try crowdfunding before they sell their property and close, said Peter Alexander, co-owner: “It’s much more important than my own. personal financial well-being – all of these places are more than just gay bars. These are our houses, our living rooms, our large bedrooms. “
The Akbar GoFundMe went viral in December, guaranteeing owners more than $ 230,000 in donations. The success of the campaign has prompted other queer bars to try and enlist the help of their supporters, although some say their debts are still much larger than the donations they have raised.
Oliver Alpuche, owner of Redline, a downtown gay bar, estimates the pandemic has left him nearly $ 400,000 in debt, in part because he has had to keep paying for licenses and permits. He tried making a few food pop-ups, but all efforts to partially reopen resulted in further losses. His owner did not send an eviction notice, but neither did he allow leniency, he said.
“It’s very difficult to ask an already vulnerable and suffering community to help us,” said Alpuche, whose GoFundMe is less than halfway from its target. “But I don’t have any investors or resources to lean on. How many loans can I take out personally to survive this? “The bar will probably continue to lose money when it comes back with reduced capacity,” he said: “But we are still fighting and we will reopen.
For artists and performing workers who relied on gay bars to make ends meet, their comeback cannot come soon enough.
Ricardo Sebastian, who ran Putería, a popular Latin party at the Precinct, said the dancers, DJs, photographers, decorators and other workers behind the events had all suffered. That moment, he added, reminded him of the AIDS crisis when gay clubs became a ghost town until they finally bounced back in the ’90s: “It reset everything… I know that we will return. We’re just resilient enough. But I think it’s going to take time.
Tony Soto, a drag queen who performs at Akbar and Precinct, said some performers gave up and fled Los Angeles during the pandemic, but he was hopeful that the bars that survived would draw large crowds once he was sure. : “We are social animals, we have to be together… Once the vaccine is distributed, I think people will spit in their mouths, and frankly, I cannot say that I would not do it.
He did weekly shows on Zoom, but was desperate to be in the same room as his audience again: “I haven’t heard real applause and laughter for over a year.”