The crest of the Brass Rail rises into the sky, an insistent purple and flesh-pink-deco-kitsch rectangle, colors mounting colors. It might be the prow of a ship — a purple, flesh-pink, and terracotta ship, with its name spelled out in black letters on a bright yellow sign — sailing northeast, carrying in its hold the seeds and history of Hillcrest’s life as San Diego’s gay district.
3796 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
The Brass Rail provided the occasion for my own discovery of the gay community in Hillcrest, four years ago. After three months of living in Little Italy and bumming around downtown, I went looking for an apartment and happened to turn left off of Grape Street and onto 5th Avenue. By the time I got to University, I was enchanted by the look of the area, and when I chanced on Balboa Park, bordering Sixth Avenue, I knew where I wanted to live. A friendly guy who gave me directions struck me a probably being gay, but nothing else tipped me off. (This was before Gay Mart opened on the corner of Sixth and University.)
There were no vacancies along Sixth, so I took my search back to Fifth Avenue and found the boxy, stately pink stucco house next door to Celadon. Thirty-six twenty-four, a one bedroom apartment on the first floor, was about to be vacated, and I jumped at it. The ceilings were high, the windows weighted, the rooms spacious, and most importantly, the place felt old and solid and elegant, like houses back East.
An older guy I knew from college needed somewhere to live, so we rented the apartment together. (Something made me want to explain to the lady renting it to us that we would not be sharing a bedroom, but I wasn’t sure what.) Since I paid more rent, I slept in the bedroom, and he set up in the dining room, building a standing closet to serve as a partition from the rest of the apartment.
The day I signed the lease, I took a walk down Fifth toward the shopping district, past the Brass Rail. It was then I made my discovery. On the side of the building hung a banner that read: “Every Wednesday — Whipped Cream Wrestling With The Go-Go Boys.” The banner was adorned with a drawing of na buff fellow in a thong, in case of any difficulty in imagining Go-Go Boys. I had just rented a one-bedroom apartment with another man — an older, more muscular man — two blocks from the epicenter of San Diego’s gay district. What would my girlfriend, miles away in Kansas City, think?
We didn’t live in Hillcrest long after we married — we found a secluded guest house in Mission Hills that was more to our liking – but I often wondered how Hillcrest was chosen, if it was chosen at all, as the center of gay life in San Diego.
The August 31, 1973, issue of the Pacific Coast Times, a now defunct locally based magazine for gays and lesbians, features an interview with “Ed from the Brass Rail.” In it, he recalls an establishment that, “during the middle ‘30ss, became the smartest restaurant in town. A chef wearing a tall white hat was always visible in the front window, and the food he prepared was extremely delicious…[T]he old-fashioned image was completed by the authentic brass spittoons and a genuine brass rail. This was the first Brass Rail, and both restaurant and br were popular with theatergoers.”
The Brass Rail was located at the corner of Sixth and B downtown, in the same building as what was then the Orpheum Theater. In 1957, the restaurant and bar was purchased by Lou Arko. Lou no longer owns the Brass Rail, but he owned it for a long time, long enough to see it flourish in its current location.
I meet with Lou at #1 Fifth Ave., a bar owned by Omar Lowry, who has been tending bar in San Diego since 1969. Omar is with us and adds his own insights and stories to Lou’s. Lou’s hair is white, and he peers out though black horn-rimmed glasses. Though he’s not gay, he has been owner or part-owner of numerous gay bars and considers himself a friend to the gay community. He is at turns genial and gruff, businesslike and affable. Omar, younger, tall and bearded, introduced him as the man to talk to if I wanted to know about Hillcrest.
Lou remembers the Orpheum, which occupied the corner at Fifth and B, “was the biggest theater at the time. In between (the Orpheum and Brass Rail) was a sandwich shop — on the first floor, that is. All the rest, upstairs – I think it was a six-story building — were offices. Insurance companies, attorneys. It was very ornate from the outside. You had these columns, you know, the kind of old-fashioned fancy work.”
Inside, the Brass Rail “was high-ceilinged, 15 to 18 feet. A lot of it was painted. I think the place opened in 1934, right after Prohibition and all that. The guy who owned it had a party in 1936 – I’ve got a picture – and there were tons of people. They were not all gay. During the war, I think, for whatever reasons, little by little the military started to come in. Then, how it turned out to be gay, I don’t know.”
Bridget Wilson, a longtime gay activist and attorney, might see a connection. She tells me that “like most of San Diego, (the gay community) is a product of World War II and the slightly pre-World War II aircraft industry. San Francisco had had its gay community for years, had its Barbary Coast decadence that had always gone on there, but in this town, the gay community was built by the military.
“I know that would make them crazy, but the fact is that what happened was that people came here in the ‘40s because of the war. Lots and lots of people came here to be in the Navy, be in the Army, go on their way across. World War II was the largest conscription of forces in the history of the country, and in those days, the concept of telling them you were gay to get out of the service was a little less popular. And if you did, they didn’t care, they just sent you over. You were just as good cannon fodder. So really, World War II is where transient populations of all kinds came, saw the beauty, and stayed.”
Whatever the military’s effect, by the time Lou bought the Brass Rail in 1957, it was a gay bar, frequented by local, nonmilitary gays. The military went down to Bradley’s on Fourth and Broadway. According to Ed in the Pacific Coast Times, Bradley’s had started out in the late ‘30s as a “posh” downtown supper club named the Club Deauville. By the ‘40s, it had been renamed Bradley’s and was a restaurant by day and a gay lounge by night.
Lou tells me that when he bought the Brass Rail, its clientele was similarly divided. “Breakfast and lunch were kind of mixed-up – whoever wanted to come in – but it was mostly straight people from the offices upstairs. From maybe four o’ clock until five-thirty, cocktail hour, ll the secretaries used to come down from upstairs and all those guys who were trying to make some of the women.
“The gays would start to come in at five-thirty. All the straights, either they had their boyfriends or girlfriends at home, whatever, but they had to go anyway. By six o’ clock, there wasn’t maybe but a few that I knew personally. The, at eight or eight-thirty, the piano would start. I had a woman playing, her name was Vera, and she played all kinds of old-fashioned songs — show tunes. Everyone would participate, and she was a good draw. Everybody liked her and that’s how it was.”
Bars were at the center of gay social life in those days. “When I came out,” remembers Bridget, “the only places you could go and be gay were bars. That was it. Even in those bars, you were risking harassment and arrest, but certainly outside the bars you were risking problems.”
The harassment inside the bars manifested itself in a variety of ways, depending on who you talk to. “When I was downtown,” says Lou, “they did require that you could not keep your hands under the table if you were sitting next to another man. They had to be on the table.”
“They had the law,” explains Omar. “Lewd and lascivious conduct could be interpreted in many ways, and they had the hammer. In those days, it was tight. You kept your hands at home. If I was in a bar, talking to you, and I leaned toward you and put my hand on your shoulder to say something because it was loud, the doorman would shine a flashlight on you. That was lewd and lascivious conduct.”
They had the hammer, but according to Lou, they didn’t misuse it. “We never had any problems<; he says emphatically. “They never harassed anybody. I ran a clean place. If they saw something that wasn’t right, they’d say ‘Louie, why don’t you correct it?’ Every once in a while, maybe somebody had one too many, they’d say, ‘Why don’t you slow it down?’ It wasn’t a bust; they’d work with you. The general public, and even a lot of gays, think the vice was tough. No, they were not, not on my people. All you had to do was do the right thing.”
He admits that things may have been different at Bradley’s, since it “was a little bit rougher, due to the fact that on top of catering to gays, it was also military, and you know how the young guys are, especially in the military.” Omar adds that “they had the hookers and the hustlers and all the dirty old men checking it out to see who could do what to whom – it was a downtown bar.”
By the mid ‘70s, things loosened up to the point where, as Lou tells it, “dancing got started in my other joint, the Club. It’s on Kettner and Laurel. It’s not gay now – the Casbah. Women were dancing at the Club; I had a dance license there. The guys used to complain, ‘How come we can’t dance? Isn’t this a free country?’ So one Sunday, I said, ‘Go ahead, you guys, but no touching.’ You know how you used to dance, kind of apart. So they danced. Nothing was said. We had a dance license, a cabaret license, the whole thing. By Wednesday, I believe, I said, ‘You guys can hold yourselves, but no fooling around.’ You know what I mean. Slow dancing.”
I get a wildly different version of events from Rex, one of two men behind a reception desk at the Center. Serving the Gay Lesbian Transgender Community, on Normal Street. Rex is a big, billowy man, with a storyteller’s cadence and a knowing twinkle in his eye. The other man is Dennis, more compact, more reserved, more careful in his speech and manner.
“Here (in San Diego),” begins Rex, “a gay owner could not keep a bar going for a long time because of the police department. They would harass them out of business. Between 1945 and 1970, at least 30 bars opened and closed downtown. Not for lack of business, but because they were harassed by the police department.” He wonders if Lou’s lack of trouble stemmed from his being straight.
According to Rex, harassment proceeded as follows: “In the old days, the paddy wagons held 24 people. The police would walk in, tree of them, and they’d walk down the bar and (count people). When they got to 24, they’d say, ‘You’re all under arrest,’ and move you out into the paddy wagon and take you and book you for being in a disorderly house. The standard fine in those days – this was in the late ‘40s – was 150 bucks.
“They’d close the place down, and they’d put on the front of it ‘Raided Premises.’ That’s what happened to the Famous Door, the Cinnabar, Mary’s Place, and some others. There was a time in the early ‘50s when the length of a gay bar’s life in this town was about 30 to 50 days.”
The Brass Rail, however, endured in its downtown location until 1963, when a Los Angeles developer bought the building that housed the restaurant and bar, and Lou lost his lease. That set the stage for what Lou considers the founding of Hillcrest as San Diego’s gay district – the northward relocation of the Brass Rail.
Why there? Lou responds, “There were two men, and they were going to put in a beer bar” on the northwest corner of Fifth and Robinson. “George Whitehead, who was the owner of the Chicken Pie Shop” – then located on Fifth – “owned the property, and he leased it to them. But for some reason, the guys didn’t have any money at all, and they were two months behind on the rent. Downtown, we heard they couldn’t pay, so I went to see George. I paid the back rent, and that’s all.” He was digging a ditch for the back bar the day Kennedy was shot.
Lou had to give up the Brass Rail’s restaurant business – his new bar was 1700 square feet, compared to 4000 downtown – but the rent was cheap -- $450 a month.
“And from there the area generated gays,” says Omar. “It was all old people living around here, and they didn’t care about gay. They wanted to rent to gays, because they pay their rent on time, they take care of the property, they’re clean, they’re quiet. They make it fabulous on your rentals.”
“Hillcrest was known for years as the Gay Nineties,” says Bridget. “Everyone who lived here was either gay or ninety. It was a fairly nice neighborhood, and there was lots of old people. And if you’re polite to old people, that’s fine with them. And queers are polite to old people, in general.”
As for Omar’s comment about renting to gays, everyone I interview for this story offers something along those lines. “We’re the only minority where it happens that when we move in, property values go up,” says Karen Marshall, executive director at the Center. Rex compares what happened in Hillcrest to what happened in San Francisco’s Castro district, where gays bought rundown Victorians and rehabilitated them.
“Contrary to popular opinion, bars are not the magnets,” claims Rex. “It’s usually gay individuals going into an area where they can find a bargain, or an area that’s more permissive, and they will rent or buy because they feel safe.” In San Francisco, the police captain in the Castro district was very sympathetic to homosexuals, and so whenever there was anything like a beating, he would put four or five cops on it, get it stopped right then. When that kind of an atmosphere was going on, somebody would lease a storefront or put in a bar. If there were no big problems, then the chickenshit gays would come in and also put in bars around that. That’s how it started.”
So it went in San Francisco. But according to Lou and Omar, that wasn’t the case here. “Definitely, the bars came first,” counter Omar. Lou opened the Brass Rail quietly, not advertising it as a gay bar, but the gay clientele followed him. Aside from the Rail, continues Omar, “there was no reason for the gays to come to this area other than it was a nice quiet little neighborhood. But they started coming, because they had a place to go and were treated right, and the residents didn’t mind – they were kind of gay friendly. The Chicken Pie Shop was cool; the ladies over there had gay hairdressers and they liked the gays coming in.
“So you finally had a nice comfortable little niche, and in those days, there wasn’t any. You kept your mouth shut and your nose down. They finally had a place where they could come out and be welcomed and feel comfortable. They would move into the area to be close to it, and it snowballed.”
The Brass Rail may have been the catalyst for Hillcrest’s birth as San Diego’s gay district, but it wasn’t the only attraction. Gays liked the cheap rents and the feeling of safety that came from not warring with the existing, older population. “Word gets out that it’s a safe area,” says Karen. “People say, ‘Where do you move in this town?’ A lot of it was word of mouth at that point.”
Changing social mores helped make an openly gay neighborhood seem less outrageous to the mainstream. Omar found that “in the early ‘70s, it became very fashionable – you had to know a black and a Jew and a this and a that. You had to have this circle of friends that was very liberal and open, and that’s when it kind of broke loose a little bit.” Dennis, can remember a drag show at a place called Show Biz that proved appealing to gays and straights and helped “make Hillcrest a place where gay things were happening.”
“There’s a comfort zone,” says Nicole Murray, one of San Diego’s more prominent gay activists. Nicole is Latino and compares his status as a racial minority to his status as a homosexual. “Like any other minority, people like to be among their own. Gays and lesbians have the luxury in many ways of being able to fit into any neighborhood they want, (but) it’s a choice that I think a lot of them want to go in and create a gay friendly neighborhood.
“It’s… an attitude of being a part of a neighborhood, being comfortable, knowing that you can go into any restaurant that’s gay-owned, go into a travel agency that you know is gay-owned, go into a coffee shop that you know is gay-owned… Being able to go in and be reminded of your culture, and being able to share it.” Others I speak with mention the freedom to express affection in public without censure.
Nicole also saw migration to Hillcrest as an opportunity for gays to gain political clout. “I’ve written a social column in San Diego for the last 30 years,” he tells me, “and I called for people to move into Hillcrest. It raised a little stink. Even the straight papers caught it and wrote about it. I was pure politics.” Now, “we’ve been estimated at 30 to 40 percent of the third council district.
“As voter turnout gets less and less, you’ve got to concentrate on who’s going to come out and who can deliver volunteers, votes and money. The gay and lesbian community has proven we can deliver all three. It’s not a coincidence that Chris Kehoe, when she first ran for city council, was the number one candidate” in terms of money raised. Nicole says Kehoe also raised more money than any other Democratic challenger when she ran for Congress.
The concentration of the gay population has attracted businesses eager to tap into a market generally considered to have a lot of disposable income, “When Rubio’s moved in,” Nicole says, “one of their officials gave me a call and took me out to lunch to talk to me about how they could get involved in the community. I think that this is a golden opportunity to educate.” When El Pollo Loco opened a shop in Hillcrest, the company donated money to the Center, and Nicole says, “You don’t see hardly any businesses that are straight-owned corporations that are not involved in the community in some way.”
These developments came later, of course. In the ‘60s, Dennis says, “Hillcrest had (living) spaces right around business and that was appealing.”
“Yeah, it’s a village ghetto feeling, interjects Rex. “It’s a gay ghetto. We feel safe in a gay ghetto. It’s the same reason Jews went to ghettos. It’s because they felt safe. They were forced there, so…”
“I think that village feeling is very important,” continues Dennis. “People realized that they could get apartments right around where you could walk to the park, you could walk to the stores.”
That “village feeling” was a big part of what attracted me to the neighborhood. I grew up in a small town, and Hillcrest matched my image of an urban neighborhood: shops with apartments above, lots of restaurants, lots of activity, and a certain snug charm.
Karen reminds me that “ in the mid-‘80s, when a lot of the AIDS services developed, that started bringing people here, because it was near the hospital. UCSD at that time was probably one of the better places to get treatment for HIV.”
Another motivation for moving to Hillcrest may have been the desire to have what gays in other cities had. “West Hollywood and Castro were established,” said Dennis. “Gays down here were looking for something similar. There were a couple of bars, and the Center had moved up here (from Golden Hill) and it did have that village like quality.”
Comments Karen: “If they really want the nightlife of New York or whatever, they’re not going to like our city. San Diego has a very different political climate. People that are used to in-your-face politics like New York and LA, where things happen quickly and they’re out there yelling and screaming, don’t find San Diego a good place to be. Which is okay.”
“There was a joke that was told at one point – if you went to the women’s festivals and you went to San Francisco women and said, ‘Let’s go do this,’ everybody would say, ‘Yeah’ and they’re gone. LA women: ‘Let’s plan it.’ San Diego: ‘Later, were going to the beach.’ And that’s true. That’s pretty much our culture. We’ve done a lot to promote understanding,” she adds, as if to reassure me that the community isn’t totally inactive. “They’ll accept us as long as we’re not going in and stirring trouble and putting it in their face.”
Nicole says San Diego’s reputation has improved on this front. “We used to be thought of as practically hillbillies, not sophisticated, more worried about surfing, too laid back>” But in the last ten years, San Diego has started hosting more and more gay and lesbian conventions, “and we’re notorious for being hospitable.”
Comparing Hillcrest with gay districts of other cities, Dennis cites Hillcrest’s spread-out quality, as opposed to the few blocks that make up the Castro. Also, “People say we tend to be a little bit friendlier here. There’s not so much emphasis on youth and looks as there is in LA, or on attitude and costume as there seems to be in San Francisco. So a lot of people move here and find it very comfortable. It’s surprising – the vast number of people who come here aren’t just coming from Minneapolis. Lots of people are coming from LA. They can’t take the scene anymore. San Franciscans tend to love the city and never want to go, but if it gets a little too intense or the weather gets to them, they will come.
“We see them all the time, middle-aged guys who have sown their young wild oats in San Francisco and LA, and now, they’re starting to notice that they aren’t young and pretty. West Hollywood is a place where you really have to be buffed and young to meet a certain requirement to function easily. They come to San Diego and they’re a new face and they’re happy, and they don’t have to have quite the same hipness.”
Bridget makes Dennis’s allusion to Castro intensity and costuming explicit. “Hillcrest has never been the kind of gay neighborhood that, for example, the Castro is. You never had guys with leather codpieces and erections wandering the streets, even during the height of gay decadence. You always had more of a mix.”
The mix is growing. “I’m having dinner at Pizza Nova, and there’s this guy and his girlfriend, an African-American man and a much younger white woman. That’s an old gay custom – when I lived in the Midwest, interracial couples would go to gay bars, because they wouldn’t get hassled. This man was saying to his date, who obviously hadn’t spent much time in Hillcrest, ‘I love Hillcrest. I know a lot of people who won’t come here because it’s so gay, but the food’s terrific. You can’t go anywhere and get a bad meal.’” Once, interracial couples came to Hillcrest for safety. Now they come for the food.
And not just interracial couples. “It seems to me there’s this huge invasion of heteros in Hillcrest,” Bridget says. “It’s definitely more straight people than I can remember in years. Is that good? I don’t know. As long as they leave me alone – and they do, for the most part. Especially the younger kids, the goths, who actually like hanging out with us. It’s kind of cool.”
Certain heterosexuals have always visited Hillcrest, for the same reason that interracial couples used to visit gay bars – to avoid hassles. I ask Karen if the gay district is a magnet for such sexually oriented shops as Snow’s Erotic Apparel, Condoms Plus, and Whiplash, along with the Crypt and the F Street Bookstore on Hillcrest’s eastern edge.
“Yeah, there’s more of an understanding about it,” she replies. “My hunch is that some of the bookstores cater to gay and nongay,” while some “cater more to nongay, but they’re located here. I think people think it’s safer to go into them. You know, it’s kind of like if you go into that area – ah, who cares?’
Also, “the gay community is the ony one that talks about the leather community, even though I would bet that half of the people in the leather community are not gay. But they’re not going to come out in their community, so they come to a community where they can’t be seen.”
Now, however mainstream San Diego is bleeding around the edges. Before I moved to Hillcrest, I had never seen two Starbucks in the space of two blocks – Fifth and Robinson, Fifth and Washington. Recently, the Coffee Bean & Tealeaf split the difference, opening near the corner of Fifth and University. I had also never seen the Gap outside the confines of a mall, and rumor has it that Banana Republic will move into the space that now houses the City Deli.
Dennis tells me the deli is leaving because the rents recently doubled in their building. Little Tokyo has already departed. Lou says the same thing happened years ago to the Chicken Pie Shop. “They wanted to raise George’s rent from seven to nine. He said, ‘I’m gonna move,’ and he did. And it sat empty until they found Starbucks and all that. The guy that owns the office supply store was next to George, and he had to move out.”
The Brass Rail was also displaced by incoming business. After ten years on the northwest corner of Fifth and Robinson, says Lou, “the building became for sale. I made an offer. The owner agreed. Later on, the bank came along. Who are they going to sell it to, the bank or me?” Across the street, on the southwest corner, an employment office had just moved, and the bar settled into its current location on the intersection’s southwest corner.
Rents are rising all over Hillcrest, to the point where many gays looking for a place to live can’t afford to move into the neighborhood. That rare, coveted village feeling and the rehabilitated properties have driven prices out of range. “Hillcrest has gotten so chic,” laments Dennis, “the gay area is moving towards 30th. The younger generation coming up can’t afford (most)… Hillcrest apartments, so they have to start a new area.”
Karen explains that you see more men than women in Hillcrest, “because more men can afford to live in it. The women tend to move out into Golden Hill, North Park, Normal Heights, because they can afford to live over there.”
Besides the push provided by increased housing costs, Nicole thinks many gays are leaving Hillcrest, “because it’s not as important to move into a gay neighborhood. The young want to, just so they can feel it and experience being in a gay district, but I find a lot of gays who are thinking of moving out, because they’ve seen it, done it. They want to go live by the beach, and they’re accepted there. Society has changed very much.”
The move Nicole describes may be something of a homecoming for gays who can remember when the beach was one of the centers of gay life, particularly Mission Beach. Bridget says the beach was relatively bohemian, which created a safer environment for gays. “Before, it was fun,” says Omar. “They used to have an area by the roller coaster – they called it the Pansy Patch. It was a stretch of beach where all the gays hung out.” Beach bars included the Doll Room for lesbians, the Stingaree, the Matador, and the Outrigger, which says Dennis, was the first bar to have dancing, Lou’s story notwithstanding. An increase in the tourist trade at the beaches brought about a rise in rents, and that, combined with the attraction of Hillcrest as a gay district, helped diminish the beach bar scene.
Not all gays lived near the bars back then. Because the bars and some of the beaches were the only places where “you could go and be gay,” a gay neighborhood was out of the question, though many gays did live in Golden Hill, the site of the first Center, which opened in 1973. And there were some gays already in Hillcrest. In the early ‘80s, the Center relocated to the building behind the Brass Rail. Karen recalls that a man who came by the new site said his father used to own the building and that the lady who lived in it during the ‘50s and ‘60s always had gay people hanging out there.
Another gay-niche was carved out up the coast in La Jolla. “Years ago, cove number two used to be gay,” says Rex with a smile. “Scripps Cove – the Children’s Pool, they call it now. That bathroom there was notorious for picking up people.”
Dennis: “And there used to be a real cruising area for older, wealthy La Jolla men. The young hustlers knew that after midnight, they could walk along what’s Windansea Beach now, and the rich old men would come down and take a look to see who was there. It had been going on for up to a few years ago, I remember. You can still see older men in very expensive cars patrolling over there, so you know something is happening.”
“When I was in uniform,” says Rex, “I used to go to La Jolla and get picked up regularly.” Besides the beach activity, there was a bar in the Twin Palms hotel, Skipper’s, that opened in 1947 and was still operating when Ed did his interview with the Pacific Coast Times in 1973. “It was one of those that had a straight side and a gay side,” explains Dennis.
According to Dennis, La Jolla still has a gay enclave, but it’s not like it used to be. Now, “La Jolla rents a lot. If they’re very wealthy, they can rent. Look in the (gay) papers and you can see who the prostitutes are — [when you see] ‘models/escorts,’ read ‘prostitute.’ It’s convenient and, from their point of view, safer. They’re very closeted.”
Middletown hosted a small cluster of bars. In addition to Lou Arko’s joint called the Club, the Bail Express and the Barbary Coast stood on Pacific Highway. Dennis says the bars “were usually in places where there was not a great deal of activity, kind of out of the way.”
Besides hiding out of sight, bars hid amidst other sorts of socially disreputable establishments. Bridget recalls that “gay bars, because of the illegality of even associating, were usually in the red-light districts. They were in the sort of bawdy districts of downtown, which until the ‘80s, were sailortown San Diego. The downtown bars were rougher trade than the beach bars.” And so we come back to downtown.
Dennis tells me bout Bee Jay’s, “a popular and active bar down near the old police station, which was down where Seaport Village is now.” Bee Jay’s attracted the leather crowd. “It’s kind of infamous because instead of a door, they had a hanging cloth that you pushed aside. When it was pushed aside, you could see into the bar. On the weekends, they would have slave auctions. Occasionally, the police would go by and the cloth would get pulled back so they could see what was happening. It was one of the kind of thrills for some people in that bar.”
The block that housed Bee Jay’s was razed for development, and the bar moved north – to Hillcrest. The Chee Chee Club at Tenth and Broadway endures, as do a few bars in Middletown. Hillcrest is the center, rooted in its businesses, even as gays and lesbians move eastward. “It’s cheap out towards 30th, 40th Streets,” says Rex. “I know a friend that just bought a really quite run-down three units on one lot for $50,000. It’s in terrible shape. They’re putting a new roof on it, and then he’s going to rip out the whole interior and insulate it and rewire and replumb it and, you know the usual. The kitchen’s going to be bigger, and the living room’s going to go out this way. I got a walk through last night. I said, ‘Oh yeah, this all looks very familiar.’”