By Sarah Dryden
Silver Lake honored former resident Harry Hay – considered by some to be the father of the gay rights movement – earlier this month with the naming of The Mattachine Steps on Cove Avenue. Hay was the founder of the Mattachine Society, one of the nation’s first gay organizations in the 1950s. But while residents celebrate the neighborhood’s gay past and its role in the gay rights movement, the ongoing closure of Silver Lake gay bars and shops has some wondering where have all the gays gone?
That question might surprise a newcomer to Silver Lake, where same-sex couples can be seen pushing baby strollers around the Silver Lake reservoirs, and gays and lesbians hold leadership positions in neighborhood groups. But Silver Lake’s gay scene, like those in other gay enclaves across the country, is less visible as gays and lesbians find greater acceptance in the mainstream. Hyperion Avenue, for example, is now home to more preschools than gay bars.
“When I first moved to Silver Lake from San Francisco, it had gay bars everywhere,” said Scott Craig, who arrived in Silver Lake in 1981. Now many of those bars – such as Detour, Le Bar, and Flamingo – are gone. Many of the restaurants and shops – including A Different Light, which became a national gay book store chain – that once catered primarily to gay customers are only memories now. Craig said his Silver Lake neighbors were once predominately gay. Now he estimates that his immediate neighborhood is half gay – at most.
“It’s changed,” said Craig, who owns Akbar, one of Silver Lake’s last remaining gay bars. “I would say the gay presence is more subdued.”
Silver Lake has long been a refuge for gays. By the 1960s, several gay bars and hangouts – such as New Faces and Black Cat Tavern – had established themselves less than 20 years after Harry Hay had founded the Mattachine Society. In 1967, Silver Lake was the scene of one of the nation’s first gay rights protests after police raided the Black Cat after men were seen kissing on New Year’s Eve.
Silver Lake’s community blossomed during the gay rights movement of the 1970s as new gay-owned bars and businesses opened and gays and lesbians moved into the neighborhood’s old bungalows and Spanish Colonial-style apartments. The neighborhood was nicknamed the “Swish Alps,” and Silver Lake was promoted by real estate agents as an alternative to West Hollywood, according to Gay L.A. Their slogan: “West Hollywood is Moving East.”
But acceptance of gays in Silver Lake has been far from universal. Following an influx of gays to the area during the 1960s-1980s, there was a clear divide in the community between working class Latino families and the new inhabitants, who had come to make up about 20% of the neighborhood’s population, according to some city estimates.
In 1979, two men were killed during a robbery near a gay restaurant. In 1980, a fire bomb was thrown into the Frog Pond, a Hyperion Avenue gay restaurant and cabaret, by a suspect who yelled Die faggots!” In a 1984 L.A. Time story, a 22-year-old Salvadoran mother said she warned her children to be careful: “I tell them to watch out for two things- cars and gays.” The now defunct Sunset Junction festival was established in part to heal tensions between gay and Latino neighbors.
But the bars and street fairs could not shield Silver Lake and other gay communities from the AIDS epidemic that swept through the neighborhoods during the 1980s and 1990s. By the time Silver Lake began to emerge as a center for indie music lovers during the 1990s, gay shops and businesses had begun fading away and replaced by businesses that appeal to straights as well as gays. Cuffs Bar, for example, on Hyperion Avenue is now Hyperion Tavern and Detour on Sunset Boulevard is now 4100 Bar; the Black Cat Tavern was reshaped into Le Barcito, which held strong for many years as one of the longest running gay bars in the area before closing last fall. The building – which was declared a city historic landmark in honor of its role in the gay rights movement – is now in the hands of new owners who have expressed an interest in reviving the Black Cat name and keeping the iconic black-and0white cat sign above the bar entrance.
Gay bars – perhaps the most visible symbols of the gay scene – have closed in part because the Internet has emerged a popular place for gays to meet and socialize, said Craig, co-owner of Akbar, the Silver Lake bar that has a mix of gay and straight customers. Akbar represents a departure from the exclusively gay bars of the past. When Akbar opened 15 years ago, it replaced a former gay piano bar called Jolie’s, where the jukebox was filled with show tunes. After Craig and his business partner, Peter Alexander took over, the show tunes were replaced with rock and roll, and the piano – which “smelled like booze and cigarettes” – was carted off and sold, Craig said.
“We didn’t want it to be a traditional gay bar,” said Craig. “We just wanted everyone to come in and have a drink.” Craig likes to say that Akbar is “straight friendly.”
Today, Silver Lake gays live, shop and drink in a neighborhood populated with deep-rooted Asian, Latino and White families, liberal thinkers and stylish urbanites, many of whom can be considered gay friendly. Perhaps in 2012 there is less need for exclusively gay establishments? Several predominately gay bars – including Akbar and MJ’s – host large numbers of young straight locals, and many so-called straight bars are known to hold gay nights, including El Cid with Club Rhonda and Silverlake Lounge with Giant Drag.
Despite this new inclusivity, many local gay residents are saddened to see the gay landmarks like Black Cat Tavern/Le Barcito close and a part of the community’s history lost with them. These were places that helped define gay residents and, for older gays in particular, they were places that once protected them, providing a sense of community and the feeling of protection in numbers for a group who were often targeted by local teens and gang members. From the Castro in San Francisco to Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., residents of well-known gay neighborhoods have faced similar experiences.
“The disappearance of bars and bookstores is a nationwide phenomenon, which even includes West Hollywood,” said Wes Joe, a long time Silver Lake resident who has conducted research on the neighborhood’s gay past.
While Silver Lake continues to attract new gay residents, some may not be aware or care that much of the neighborhood’s gay glory days.
“I feel as if people today are so very much about living in the now,” said Silver Lake resident Harpal Sodhi, a 32 year old local business owner and graphic designer. “ It just seems that so many of us are more concerned about a lot of superficial, materialistic and fleeting things … that we can be very dismissive of the footprints of the past that brought us to where we are today.”