Capitol Hill still prides itself as a gay-friendly — if not fully gayborhood — neighborhood. With efforts like the new OutWatch, it is clear residents and businesses here are ready to defend that status. But it’s also clear that Capitol Hill continues to change. As part of that, there is a nightlife boom economy underway. So far, the neighborhood’s many gay bars are surviving and, sometimes, thriving among their new neighbors.
“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” said Brent Lerseth, a manager at Lobby Bar. “It’s good for gay as a whole. It’s just not so positive in the individual gay bar.”
As Capitol Hill and Seattle continues to grow, the neighborhood is no longer the gay center of Seattle’s universe and members of the community have noticed a shift in the nightlife.
Bud Cudmore, 69, has seen Seattle transform multiple times since moving to the city 51 years ago. He still occasionally treks from one gay bar to another, often smoking a thick cigar outside near the front door. He can detail the different scenes: fetish-focused, dance heavy, sporty, the bear bar, the lesbian bar, the twink bar, gay hipster, the “stand and pose” bars.
Bring up the changing face of Capitol Hill during a smoke break outside of C.C. Attle’s and most everyone shares an opinion.
“Sure was fun when it was all guys” … “It’s the Amazon gentrification” … “There’s more crime… And dogs” … “Light rail will force even more change” … “It’s coupling; people are moving out.”
What causes the neighborhood’s transformation and how it will continue to morph is certainly up for debate. What’s clear, though, is that progress has come with a price for those who liked the way things were.
“It’s a good thing, but I feel like gay is becoming normal,” Lerseth said. “It is normal, however it’s not as separated as it used to be. I’m not complaining, but gay is more – more mixed.”
Capitol Hill remains the place to be for LGBTQ, etc. looking to socialize with a drink. By Mike Reis’s count, there are at least 12 gay bars in the neighborhood, far more than anywhere else in the city. But for Reis, a lifelong Seattle resident and co-owner of Diesel, there were two definitive moments when Capitol Hill began to lose its gay gusto, and both happened on Broadway.
The first: in the early 2000s when the super QFC replaced the market space primarily home to gay vendors. The second: late 2000s, when the gay pride festival moved downtown.
“Broadway is no longer ours,” Reis said. “It was very pivotal. It’s never been quite the same since.”
C.C. Attle’s bartender Jeff Willey, 32, remembers Capitol Hill as “Mecca” for homosexual life and culture.
“For gay people it was the place to move,” Willey said. “Now it’s just another neighborhood.”
Reis believes the evolution was inevitable and doesn’t believe gay businesses are being forced out of The Hill. He just hopes that gay nightlife can keep up.
“We are accepting of all people and cultures, but we want to keep the authenticity of gay Seattle alive,” he said.
Gays priced out?
Reis and his partner Mark Hurst used to throw epic parties at their Burien, Washington home, which is dubbed Club luXorbear. Up to 100 bears — masculine, ruggedly hairy, bearded gay men — from around the Pacific Northwest would come for free booze and debauchery. It was a “giant flop house” for people who didn’t quite belong with the other LGBTQ scenes.
Reis said police were frequently called for noise complaints and would occasionally receive peep shows through the front window.
Some men stayed at LuXorbear for days or weeks. Sometimes for up to a year. Hurst and Reis were the grizzliest bears in Washington. Or at least the most popular.
Although the TV room, poker table, disco ball and custom “Luxor Bar Club” glasses remain, the pair decided in 2011 that they could host more than just parties.
”All we knew is we needed a place,” Hurst said.
There is plenty of turnover in the Seattle bar and restaurant scene, gay and straight alike, but Diesel has served its niche well since 2011.
Yet, as more people move to Capitol Hill, businesses are seeing rent prices soar and not a huge spike in clientele.
Jodi Ecklund, talent buyer at Chop Suey and founder of the ‘Mo-Wave! queer festival, recently moved from the area after her rent jumped from $795 to $1,495 per month. That’s a steep incline for a neighborhood historically beloved by musicians and people of the arts.
“It’s really sad for long time residents to see what is happening,” she said.
The escalating rent prices have forced some gay bars to rethink their business models. Lobby Bar, which opened on E Pike in 2009, no longer caters to gay crowds on the weekends.
“We have gay events but there is not a gay crowd that comes in,” Lerseth said. “Gay people come in, see straight people and leave. We are in the Pike and Pine corridor. It’s just not happening here.”
Lobby Bar, by the way, is a CHS advertiser.
At Diesel, Reis said business is doing “OK,” and would be devastated if rent pushed he and Hurst out of their dream jobs.
“We’re staying in business, making the numbers; not going way over,” he said. “We never set out to be millionaires.”
Intermingling of crowds
Capitol Hill’s gay bars are not hiding their identity. You might find porn on the video screens and a drag show as the prime entertainment.
“We need a place to go other than straight places,” Reis said. “A place to be ourselves.”
“It’s a double edged sword because you do want your bar, but don’t want to kick (straight people) out,” Willey added.
Hurst and Reis said there has never been an issue with the intermingling of the two crowds, and that they also understand that women feel safe with gay men, which leads to straight men following.
“To be honest, we’re fun,” Hurst said. “We are fun to hang around.”
But there is also some resentment, especially with bachelorette parties that come in for the novelty of a “freak show” and sexually tensionless dance.
“There is something about having a safe haven when you know it’s ‘your people’s’ place,” Lerseth said. “And that’s changing. It isn’t as freeing as it used to be.”
There have been reports of hate crimes on Capitol Hill over the past year, and Reis said he warns all of his customers to be careful when walking after bar time and drives the bartenders home at night.
Ecklund said she’d never been gay bashed in her 15 years on The Hill until recently. She says the “wrong type of people,” who have never previously been exposed to gay culture, are flocking to the area. It wasn’t long ago that she and her friends felt safe walking home after the clubs closed at 3 a.m.
”You can’t anymore,” she said. “You don’t feel safe. That just never was an issue for years. Now we all take cabs.”
Reis and Hurst had a well-documented tiff with a printing company after the company refused to print flyers for their bar. And while dealing with homophobia and competing with a diminishing gay market, they also found a surprising amount of competition amongst one other when they opened.
“We were very naive,” Reis said. “We thought we would one be one big happy family. We didn’t think a bear bar would be competition.”
The pair said some gay bars started rumors about the pair — scathing, blatant lies, they say — trying to push them out almost immediately.
“It got ugly,” Reis said.
The gay establishments to the west and east of Broadway have “a bit of a turf war,” Reis said, as each fights to keep their side of Capitol Hill gay friendly.
But moving forward, Reis and Hurst know the bars all need to work together if any are to survive.
“There’s enough straight places,” he said. “We’d like to have our little piece of gayborhood in Capitol Hill.”