Silver Lake celebrates its gay past but what about the future?

Rainbow flag over Sunset Boulevard

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.”

Mattachine Steps dedication

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.

Photo from LeBarcito Facebook page

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.”


  1. Silverlake- a “refuge for gays.”

    Yeah, sounds about right.

  2. Great article. Valid points. I’m excited to join in on the discussion that I am sure is to follow.

  3. Silver Lake is a special place because it has been a place of acceptance of many people including gays and artists, more recently indie rock. This is why it is so interesting and trendy. It is important for the current residents (including the moms pushing strollers around the lake) to remember that Silver Lake didn’t just happen; it was born because it was a haven for the artistic class including gays.

  4. I’ve been calling Silver Lake, WeHo East for years! I knew Silver Lake had gay roots, but never realized how deep those roots were. I hope that new home buyers moving in won’t try to Westside-ify this eclectic neighborhood. As a straight-ally, with a gay brother who lives in Silver Lake, we’d be saddened to see that happen.

  5. I love what gay people do for a neighborhood! I hope Silverlake and Echo park will continue to be an attractive place for the gay population to come.

    An unfortunate, but positive side effect to the gay movement promoting acceptance is that gay people don’t feel like they must be confined to a “bubble” like West Hollywood or Silverlake.

    I think the statement “Perhaps in 2012 there is less need for exclusively gay establishments?” from the above article is all to true.

  6. We need to never forget this history of Silver Lake. Moms pushing their kids around the lake, and farmers market need to recognize! Excited about discussion.

    Most of Weho gay events are only catered to gay males. Usually can count on SL to represent for lesbians, bi, trans and queer poc. Silver Lake (where I reside) is where I feel most comfortable to be myself.

  7. charles herman-wurmfeld

    we could consider bringing the topic before the neighborhood council. perhaps an open invitation to the LGBT GLOBAL community would do the trick? something that recognizes our past as a place of refuge in a world that can be quite violent to our people and then invites those LGBT folk in need of sanctuary to seek refuge here: safe haven in the past, present and future village that is our inclusive neighborhood . sarah – with your permission we could use your article as a point of departure…if anyone is interested in this line of action, i can point the way, please be in touch through the SLNC website. this would probably be good for tourism and neighborhood businesses as well. http://silverlakenc.org/

  8. Let’s talk about gays actually being priced out of Silver Lake. There is a big migration out of Silver Lake and Echo Park over to Northeast LA neighborhoods like Mt. Washington, Highland Park, Montecito Heights, and Eagle Rock.

  9. I agree with Henry Hawk that gays have become more and more integrated into various communities. It’s been years ago already that gays have led the Chambers of Commerce in Highland Park and Eagle Rock. Not that it has been totally free of discrimination, but the majority live and let live.

  10. I’ve lived in Silver Lake for close to thirty years. The gay scene in Silver Lake (which was Silverlake back then, incidentally) was devasated by AIDS. It never recovered. Silver Lake’s gay scene was very leather, and that scene was hit particularly hard. The survivors began moving out, selling their homes, leaving town. Too many sad memories. Straights filled the void.

    Silver Lake had the most wonderful estate sales back then. You’d pick through the stuff, get great deals, and head back out to your cars feeling vaguely guilty. Weird time.

    When AIDS first hit Silver Lake it was scary. The dying were everywhere, the dead not there at all. Lost a lot of friends. Soon it seemed we had no gay friends left. They’d all vanished…moved, died, or just stopped going out.

    I miss those days. I miss the gay bars, the ones we could go in, the ones we couldn’t. I miss the gay hamburger joint and gay coffee shops and gay steak houses. I miss the gay newspapers. I miss the leather guys in their chaps buying crisco at the corner markets. Good times. Even for a soooo straight couple.

    Btw, in the sixties Silver Lake was a hippie haven. By the punk rock 80’s when we moved in there were a few of them left. They’d go one about the old days and wonder where everybody went.

    Now us old punk rockers wonder the same thing.

    Cities change. All you can do is watch and remember.

    • Brick Wahl – This makes me speechless and kind of sad. Thanks for sharing this story. On one hand, I’m thankful to not have been witnessed to all of that (I was about 3 when the Ryan White story came out, so I wouldn’t remember obviously). On the other, it’s good to be informed of our history. So many of us “current” gay guys take our own community for granted. We cheapen it further by acting like mean girls towards each other, when we should be move supportive or our peers.

    • Thank You 4 sharing.
      You May be part of an Oooo so strait couple, but as a Gay Man I remember It Just like You Do. The 80s….The Garage Sales Where I replicated my East Coast Disco Collection for pennies on the dollar… The Day I Bought 11 Donna Summer Albums in mint condition for 3 dollars! and the Woman just said ” GREAT Take It All!” my son…get it out of here!
      so sad…and yeah I felt guilty… How did I get To be THE Survivor…..Vanishing freinds until there were none just me…. Fortuneately I had found my Clean Midwest sweet man to share my life with by the 90s… but the 7 year itch provided one last look at Silverlake cleansing the sex out of the hood with the closing of Bp on Hyperion in as 2000 rolled around, the prowl long gone.
      I never knew what to think of Cuffs crowd anyway. It was a sad Place after Macs Closed, The Detour, ‘Bascos…A Different Light Bookstore…

      Its a Different age, and so am I. I guess I will have to find an Other Side if I ever want a piano bar now. Sad though. I Just remembered the halycon days of Health Works and The King Of Hearts…..Nothing like that there now is there?

  11. Brick Wahl, what sad memories. So eloquently expressed. The best part is how everyone stuck together in support. The candle light walks were huge and so solemn, so much love there. Sunset Junction started out solemn as well. And what happened to all the quilt sections we made through our tears? Silver Lake should have something to remind of times gone by, the happy and the sad.

  12. Isn’t this kind of like asking where all the segregated drinking fountains and diner counters went. Gays are now accepted widely, we should all be happy about that and not be reminiscing about when they had to find their own enclave… if you want to still be treated differently then catch leprosy or something.

    • Steve, It wasn’t always that we “had to” find our own enclave. There’s something comforting and exciting, all at the same time, about an all-gay bar or dance club. I didn’t go to Cuffs or the Detour because there was no place else to go, but because I wanted to be in a gay environment. Being accepted almost everywhere is nice, but some of you younger folks will never know the solidarity of hanging out with our own kind just because we could.

  13. If anyone wants to see a powerful documentary, check out “Silverlake Life: The View From Here.” (They have it at Video Journeys.) Very moving.

  14. This story of a changing gay enclave is not unique to Silver Lake. Having lived for years in San Francisco’s Castro, I can personally attest to a gay ghetto even as well-known as the Castro as changing a great deal and becoming “less” gay.

    That said, there’s a lot to be happy about. LGBT people don’t need a ghetto as much as they once did because of increased social acceptance. Something tells me that if a new “gay” bar were to open in Silver Lake, if it were done well it would draw a large crowd and do quite well – straight and gay and everything in between. The old lines of distinction just don’t apply like they once did.

  15. This brings back so many memories of Silver Lake, most good, some not, as the history of the city’s devastation with AIDS is always part of that memory. My friends who died on streets like Sanborn, Micheltorena, Los Feliz Boulevard . . . and all the partying we did from New York Company Bar & Grill on the east end (under the 5) to what’s now the Faultline on the west (I guess that would actually be East Hollywood, not Silver Lake?).

    Like a previous writer said, cities change, and we’re in awe. I remember reading that Silver Lake had always been an artists’ haven, ever since edgy architects were drawn to the beautiful hills and the working class bungalows were built along the old Pacific Electric Railway lines on Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards (hence the term, Sunset Junction, it was a light rail junction.) Movie business actors, writers, craftspeople all lived in those houses, as the old studios were in that neighborhood – and some still exist, like the KCET buildings, the Mack Sennett Stage, the Prospect Studios – all that history of pre-Hollywood is tied in with Silver Lake and the accepting, open aura it’s always had.

    With gentrification there is always the pricing out – when I moved back to LA last year from the desert, I found Valley Village – a stone’s throw from the NoHo Arts District – way more affordable and just as convenient. Still, there is nothing like that area and I do miss living there. Heck, I’m over there four days/nights a week 🙂

  16. I do miss the days of old silver lake and as a gay man it has nothing to do with being marginalized. Silver Lake was a great refuge in the city of Los Angeles not only for gays but to avoid the high rents, thick traffic, and sadly the exact types that now inhabit this area– POSERS. LA’s worst kind have spread thorough this neighborhood like a virus. In all fairness they infected santa monica, melrose, etc. previously Silver Lake/Echo Park was one of the last healthy hoods. But I do pine for the days when acquaintances from the rest of town refused to visit because the neighborhood sounded “scary and far”…..

  17. What has happened to once gay and Latino Silverlake has been DEVASTATING. The grotesque gentrification has broken the spirits of those of us who were here when it was great. We all had
    low rent and loved our neighbors. Gay men were fast friends with the Latino families and starving
    artists thanks to our annual ‘Sunset Junction” street fair. We never guessed that would eventually
    be our demise. The usual “they gays are so FUN!” mentality brought the lookie-loos and they took
    over. DECLARED gay historical landmark Le Barcito: gutted and wealthy straight. Flying Leap, the last refuge for older gays: gutted, straight sports bar now. Gay restaurant Casita Del Campo, straight hipster invaded. El Conquistador: 90% straight now with crying babies everywhere. Detour gay bar: now the 4011 straight club. Very, very, VERY depressing. And these breeding, wealthy, rude, self entitled “trustafarian” anglo hipsters couldn’t care less who made this once great neighborhood. My rent was $375 when I moved here in 1999. The same size apartment in this building is $950 for any new tenant now. What have gays and Latinos done about it? Nothing. Scattered like scared rabbits. Why, I don’t know.

  18. I LOVE that I found this just today. I not only have been around for years, I used to hang out in Cuff’s which I thought was just closed and nothing there, til I just read here it is now the Hyperion Tavern.
    I used to be a bartender and I was the original bartender at the Backlot of Studio One! (We are having reunions there and will be having a 3day weekend event hopefully this summer, where I will be singing. I am also a singer/actor)
    Does anyone remember a place called the New York Company? I believe it was on Figeroa in the Silverlake area.

    • New York Company Bar & Grill was on Fletcher Drive just past the 5 freeway. I lived very close so I could crawl home if need be. Not sure what is there now. One of their original waiters I now see every Sunday at Trader Joe’s in Studio City. Glory days.

      • I seem to remember that there was a bar up the road on Fletcher towards Hyperion. It was on the left as you traveled from New York Company Bar and Grill to Woody’s. I think it was in a strip mall but what I remember most was the Tron video game. Does anyone remember that place and the name of that bar?

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