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Pike/Pine’s booming bar scene comes at a price for gay nightlife


Inside Lobby Bar (Image: CHS)

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.”

The boys at Diesel prior to the 14th Ave bar's 2011 opening (Image: CHS)

The boys at Diesel prior to the 14th Ave bar’s 2011 opening (Image: CHS)

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.”

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44 thoughts on “Pike/Pine’s booming bar scene comes at a price for gay nightlife

  1. Looking forward to the day when we can go out without seeking a ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ venue — when it’s all good. The only thing I’d really like to know at that point would be if one can expect a bunch of kids running around ;-)

    • Seriously. When, as a gay man, my dating pool of men is only 10% of the male population by the most liberal estimates, I’d like to be able to go to a bar/neighborhood where I can meet someone who could potentially be into me. If I go to a mainstream bar, I’ll only have a 1/10 chance that the guy across the room would even be into me. We NEED gayborhoods.

  2. With the rise in “social media services” it seems fewer go out to clubs like they used to. Also, with a wider acceptance, folks are more comfortable in more than just gay bars. I hope there will always be gay specific bars and clubs tho.

  3. For the past five decades, gay activists nationwide have fought, and ultimately won their struggle for equal rights. Now you have these people griping about gays and straights intermingling!!! Well folks, that’s the result of this long fight you won. Society now openly respects and accepts gay people for the most part and see no grounds for separation. It may be kind of a bummer for those who were used to the old days, but it’s also a sign of victory, no?

    • It’s not an either/or. There is a difference between everyone being accepting and tolerant, and there being no difference between gay&straight bars. If gay guys or lesbians go out looking to meet somebody, they don’t need straight people looking over their shoulder watching them. If a straight guy is hitting up a girl he likes, he doesn’t need an audience either. Or to be hit on by gay guys. Or to have the girl he’s working on chatted up by gay boys. It’s just nice for there to be at least a few bars where like people are there for like reasons. That totally does NOT mean anybody’s anti-gay or anti-straight. Or that anyone isn’t welcome.

    • Why does equality mean total assimilation to you? I’d suggest if you’re uncomfortable with radical diversity, then the struggle is far from over.

      • The bar that I worked at for seven tears on the Hill actually had such diversity. Regulars who were gay and straight along with a staff that was both showed respect and appreciation to everyone and they all kept coming back.
        I do see Jim’s point however when it comes to the dating scene or looking for a potential “loved one”. It may feel awkward.
        Places like RPlace actually state on the door that they are a gay bar. I don’t think the Lobby does. But either way, a bar is also a business looking to do business and will take anyone’s money as long as they act decent.
        Yes, the Hill has changed. Christopher Street in NYC, once a very gay haven is really no longer that anymore. The same is happening to Castro Street in SF. Perhaps the Hill is following that evolutionary course also.

  4. If Capitol Hill is not still the center of gay culture in Seattle, where is it?

    The 90’s on the Hill was a great time, but that was 25 years ago. It’s not reasonable to think that time and change are going to stop just because that was your favorite era.

    • Good point. 25 years ago, you and I went out to places more often. As we get older, we now do that less. On the nights we do go out, we see the following generation as the crowd today and all the new places and scenes through our bifocals.

  5. “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….”

    Did Reis just “out” Fred Meyer?

    • And the Gap, Urban Outfitters, the movie theater that was up there, Hot Topic. In fact the only gay vendor I remember inside the Broadway Market was the Pink Zone and maybe a gay(ish) travel agent. The rest of the stores were not really “gay.”

      • Been here since ’94. Broadway Market had been gayer in the sense that there was a central seating area (like a mall would have) but you didn’t have to buy anything to sit there. There was B&O Espresso, Bulldog News, a men’s underwear store, Gravity Bar, a smaller version of the Cramp (just shoes), I think Crown Books, Pink Zone upstairs, also BQ Workout, and the movie theater (which played some gay indie films), and the half price ticket booth (for plays/musicals/music).

        Also because there was the central area, community groups could table or hand out health promotion materials or do surveys. And Fred Meyer had apparel and music. Plus the video store had a gay section (yes both kinds of gay sections). And the men’s rooms had reputations (sorry about it but they did, snap).

        But the changes had started before QFC took over. So that was just one person’s opinion on a seminal moment. It’s more intricate than that. But clearly you can see though there were not literal gay stores besides the Pink Zone, the overall effect, and range of services and products and people (since you could sit there even if you were broke), was much more lgbt for sure. And I didn’t see that same setup/feel occur anywhere else. It was specific to that geography/design/and time.

        As for the parade moving to downtown, it’s a much better parade there and Capitol Hill still has plenty of lgbt events around pride. Like Dyke March, Trans Pride, and more.

        I don’t see the neighborhood specifically through a lens of bars. and neither do bar goers on the whole. I think generic gay bars may be on the outs, but ones that are more niche may do better (whether hipster or bear, or whatnot). Still miss The Easy though (lesbian bar where Lobby is now). Alas.

      • I’ve noticed the people who most complain about the parade moving downtown are really not basing their complaints on the parade being not as good. They’re usually self-interested Broadway area businesses whose comments stem from the loss of business the parade used to bring them on Pride Sunday. It’s an indisputable truth at this point the parade is much larger now than it was before, and had outgrown Broadway. Of course, it’s not all that interesting anymore. But it had gotten pretty tedious on Broadway for the last several years, too.

  6. I guess I’m most annoyed that the Seattle I grew up in is gone. I drive around and all I see is gentrification and de-forestation. There were Green Belt laws when I was last here. There was a time when our elected officials stopped bending over and taking it from the top 1% who have come to run my hometown. Where once stood trees, now stand Neo-Barfhaus and Contemporary Chicken Coop condos and apartments.

    I guess I wouldn’t mind so much if they weren’t selling out the soul of Seattle and charging the people for the privilege.

    So, not only did the tech giants build up the Eastside, but they built their homes where you now have to pay to take a selfie with the billionaire’s home! I guess it’s so stark because I have been in Southern California for the last two decades. But am I the only one who sees that the way to make things more safe for your rich self is to charge people access to the road that goes by your house? I know the republicans are trying to deny access to voting booths for the poor. I didn’t know the democrats here were trying to deny access to public utilities for the poor.

    Really, what is going on here? So, the within a year of electing the first openly Gay mayor, openly Lesbian socialist City Councilperson, and Macklemore releases “The Heist,” that they had to re-start the Q-Patrol on Capitol Hill for the first time in decades? Gay bashings and rapes have jumped in what was once a well established neighborhood.

    Where is all this Seattle love and compassion it’s supposed to be famous for?

    Am I to draw that the city officials only want to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour so that folks can afford to pay for the privilege of double paying for a tunnel no one really wants and only favors the landowners who no longer have to put up with the noisy eyesore? We know what happened in San Francisco after the Embarcadero freeway fell. We get to pay for our own natural disaster.

    It’s really time for the 1% in the county to stop thinking about the worlds they can create in foreign lands and look at the world they are creating in their own backyards. Their profits and security have outweighed those of the people for far too long.

    Here’s a crazy idea! If your company is the cause of the increase in traffic on the bridge that goes by your house, maybe you should be taking the lead on paying for the solution to the problem you help create.

    They are creating an Avenue des Champs-Elysées along the southern shore of Lake Union and we get to pay to get out of their way. I swear I feel like Cassandra sometimes!

    • You are not correct that “nobody” wants the tunnel….lots of Seattleites, including me, are in favor of it because it will replace the ugly viaduct (which should never have been built in the first place) and this will allow for an exciting redevelopment of our waterfront.

      And, by the way, I am not aware that Ms. Sawant is a lesbian…I think you are wrong on that.

      • “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.” ~Pauline Kael, NYT columnist. Dec72

        Plenty of people were in favor of the tunnel.

  7. For obvious reasons, gay bars still make sense despite the march towards equality. That’s not to say that they can’t co-exist with straight bars, as this article points out that’s happening now.

    But the influx of Belltown-style douchebags has definitely made being openly gay on weekend nights on the hill a more risky endeavor than it used to be, even just a few years ago. I’ve definitely seen more slurs and intimidation, let alone the few reported incidents of serious violence.

    • Amen. I’m a woman who used to feel pretty safe walking around the Hill at night, but I don’t anymore. And it’s because of exactly the types you’re mentioning; they’re really aggressive toward women as well.

      (Not equating the harassment I experience with the violence specifically directed at gay people at all! Just agreeing that there’s more nastiness and out-of-control behavior on the nighttime sidewalks generally, and I think you’ve pinpointed the cause.)

      • Seconding what HL says.

        Making Pike/Pine/B’way a `destination bar’ or `entertainment’ zone or whatever pisses me off — I think people behave worse when they’ve come to another neighborhood to drink, I’d rather have more daytime businesses on the street, and I am hardly convinced that these people aren’t driving home drunk.

        Neighborhood bars in basements, that’s the ticket. With good fire exits.

  8. I wonder how long the developers will be able to use the marketing stance of ‘move into the vibrant neighborhood of Capitol Hill’ once they have killed off all of what makes it ‘vibrant’. Perhaps it will be ‘move into the bleh neighborhood of Capitol Hill’.

    • This is how I feel when I see marketing that boasts being “a block off Broadway!” or “just steps from Broadway shops and nightlife!” There’s hardly a decent place to eat on Broadway anymore much less nightlife. And shopping? Where? Urban Outfitters? That’ll keep ’em coming for sure! There is not only nothing gay on this stretch of street anymore there’s almost nothing even interesting. Oh wait, there is the Office Max. All people, residents and small businesses alike are being priced out.

  9. I’m new to Seattle (2 years) from the Midwest. I don’t find anyone here to be particularly nice, friendly, or neighborly. I grew up going to gay bars in San Antonio and Kansas City, and I gotta say, Seattle is the least friendly of the three.
    Seattleites won’t even look at people they pass on the sidewalk.
    I went to the Pony twice, CC Attles once, and I’ve not been to a gay bar since.

    • The straight bars aren’t especially any friendlier, either. People here aren’t unfriendly, they just have no social skills. And they lean on the “I’m shy” crutch way too much as an excuse for not bothering to make any effort.

    • This is the famous Seattle Freeze and I’m sorry. Although the funny thing is, I’ve lived in the Midwest twice and I couldn’t take their interaction style — everyone started off sugary and then got painfully judgy. I have great conversations with strangers here regularly, so I know it’s possible but I can’t figure out what the signal is. (`Looking at the other person’s shoes.’)

  10. If I were gay I would be frustrated by all the straights straighting up my bars. I mean, it’s the price of mass acceptance of homosexuality, but you want to be able to chat up the person on the bar stool next to you under the safe(ish) assumption that they are at least of the same sexual orientation as you.

    I admit to frequenting the wildrose despite being a straight male, but their musical selection is too good pass up. My apologies.

    Oh and as a doom-and-gloom footnote I would like to add that it’s probably too late for capitol hill. All of the weirdos and homos should probably choose a different, cheaper neighborhood to start colonizing. Most of the good ones are already taken but I think south beacon hill looks primed for a good gaying-up.

    • I’ll take your comment as tongue in cheek. Still, not all of us have cars. Those of us who could and want to move off Capitol Hill have already done so. Some of us who live here are here because we need a central location near downtown, not because of bars. If I drove would I live on Capitol Hill. Nope. Will I ever be able to or want a car. Nope. Not everything is about free will. Life circumstances are a thing.

      • There are some less expensive areas of Seattle with good transit options to get to work downtown. One example is south Seattle (including the nice neighborhood of Columbia City), where light rail is reasonably convenient and fast to downtown. And bus service to some areas (not all) works quite well. You do not need a car to live off Capitol Hill, if you choose the area carefully.

      • OT, but I’ve been spending more and more time in Columbia City, and transit to the south end is appalling. If you live right on the light rail stop and are going downtown or the airport, it’s ok, but most of Columbia City/Rainier Valley is not right next to the light rail, and getting to a light rail station is almost but not quite as annoying as riding the 7 all the way downtown. The 9 is fantastic, but it only runs during peak business hours, and instead of expanding the line, it’s on the chopping block, along with just about every other bus route I use regularly. Frustrating.

        As for gay bars, the straightening of our bars is a natural outgrowth of becoming more mainstream and accepted, but it’s a pity. And Capitol Hill feels far more anti-gay on weekend nights than it did in the ’90s when the whole area was a bit rougher.

  11. If I wanted to hang out with 21 year old bachelorettes or bros looking for their Friday piece of ass, I’d hang out at Tia Lous, Nectar, Amber, or Havana, not Pony or Mad Pub or Diesel. I am all for equality among humans but I don’t seek out shake ass straight bars to see tits and ass – I like my gay bars gay. I like to look at and socialize with gay guys, not ditzy straight girls teetering around in 6 inch heels and barely there skirts – followed around by their bro boyfriends in tank tops looking for a brawl..

  12. In response to quote from Lobby Bar staff person:

    “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.”

    I am a gay male resident of Capitol Hill and have been to Lobby Bar regularly since they opened. I have never walked in, seen that there were straight people present and left nor have I ever heard any of my friends suggest that as their reason for not staying. I have however left because the drinks have been overpriced and weak, attitude from staff has been less than welcoming and music has been awful. Please don’t blame the the change in crowd to the hill to business not being what you expect it to be. You have a great space to work with and a great location on the hill, change those things and it would make me frequent your establishment more often.

    • I concur. There have been many times I’ve walked into the Lobby, looked around, and walked out. It’s *never* been because of straight people. More like I walked in, didn’t see much of any crowd, and walked out.

  13. Capitol Hill, also known as The New Belltown. Sad to say, but its just gonna get worse. Been living on the hill a short 7 years, but I can see it changing every weekend. I avoid the now very bro-fest PIKE/PINE PLAGUE during weekend eves, unless I absolutely have to. With that said, I still love Capitol Hill, especially during daylight hours – I’m just saddened to see what is happening to my hood at a very rapid pace. With that said, as a gay man, I have no problems with straights hanging out in gay bars. I encourage it. I’ve brought many straight friends to pop their “gay bar cherries” for the first time, and they loved it. Usually they are the coolest of the straight folk that are on the hill with no judgements.

  14. I’m thinking Georgetown should become the next gay location, i think it just needs one to start. its already artsy and affordable…it just needs the right establishments and stellar pizza just closed down. Opportunity!!!

  15. I lived in Seattle from 1995-2003, I left just before Manray closed and I was already starting to see a decline in the gay scene on the hill. I went back in 2012 and although I was happy to see the overall restuarant and bar scene much more vibrant than before, the gay scene was absolutely dreadful. The bars were empty and the people weren’t very inviting. The energy was just dead. I used to love the eagle but it’s a total drag now. The bear bar was ok. The only decent bar there now is Pony. I thought this before I left but now I think it even more; there just isn’t enough gay people to support a vibrant bar community. They’re very fickle, they’ll go out to a new space for a while but then revert back to their old haunts before long and then the bar goes under.

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