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Tracks — gay nightlife staple of ‘80s/’90s — remembered fondly

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Tracks, nightlife, gay news, Washington Blade
Tracks, nightlife, gay news, Washington Blade

Tracks (Washington Blade file photo)

The planning and organizing has taken on all the earnestness and care of a high school or college reunion.

But in a series of events scheduled for this weekend at three D.C. clubs, patrons and employees of a gay nightclub called Tracks — which entertained and some say mesmerized thousands during its run from 1984 to 1999 — will come together for a reunion that may have a far greater meaning for them than a school reunion, according to organizers.

“Tracks nightclub is widely revered as the legendary nightclub of Washington, D.C.,” says a statement on the event’s website, TracksDC.com.

“And although there have been many other nightclubs, parties, events and gathering places that may hold fond memories for many from Washington, Maryland, Virginia and the surrounding region, there is no denying that Tracks meant considerably more to considerably more people for considerably more years than any other nightclub in D.C. history,” the statement says.

Patrick Little, a Tracks bartender and manager and one of the lead organizers of the reunion, said 100 percent of the proceeds for the reunion will go to seven non-profit charitable groups, including Whitman-Walker Health, the House of Ruth shelter for homeless women, the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL) and the Mautner Project for lesbians with cancer and other serious illnesses.

Other recipients of the proceeds include the AIDS service group Us Helping Us, the D.C. Center and the Metropolis Fund, which raises money to support local and national AIDS causes.

Denver-based businessman Marty Chernoff, founder and owner of Tracks, has been credited with bringing to D.C. a gay nightclub that offered features that no other nightclub offered in the area, gay or straight, from the time it opened in 1984 through at least a decade or longer, Little and others working on the reunion say.

Tracks, nightlife, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade file photo)

Little and Ed Bailey, who worked as a Tracks DJ and later as its director of promotions, pointed to some of the features of Tracks that set it apart from other clubs. Located in a sprawling warehouse building at 1111 First St., S.E., the club’s main room or hall included the region’s largest dance floor at the time.

Chernoff, who had been operating a Tracks nightclub in Denver, installed in the D.C. club the same state-of-the-art theatrical lighting and sound system he had been using in the Denver club. Chernoff also built in the D.C. club a separate video room with its own dance floor and sound system.

According to Bailey, the video screens were among the largest of any of the existing clubs in the area at a time when video screens were just starting to be installed in clubs in big cities like New York and Los Angeles.

And unlike most other clubs at the time, Chernoff had a large outdoor space as part of the Tracks property in which he installed a volleyball court with beach sand. He also built an 18-inch-deep pool surrounded by a large deck with chairs and an outdoor bar and grill, where hot dogs and hamburgers, among other food items, were served.

The outdoor space also featured yet another dance floor and sound system that became popular in the warm months.

“I built what I thought would work well, including some things where people said, ‘Are you crazy? Who ever heard of a volleyball court in a nightclub?’” Chernoff says. “And I said, ‘Well I tried it in Denver and it worked pretty well. Let’s give it a try here.’”

Bailey and others familiar with Tracks say the volleyball court along with the numerous other amenities at the club worked well, as capacity crowds came to the club on most weekends.

“The video, sound system and lighting were way ahead of their time,” Bailey says. “The music was always cutting edge. And it was far more laid back than other nightclubs.”

Tracks featured nationally known live performers almost once a month for several years. Among them were Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, Crystal Waters, The Village People, Robin Ess, Martha Washington and CeCe Peniston.

Unlike many other gay clubs at the time, Tracks attracted a diverse cross section of the LGBT community, including whites, blacks, men and women, Latinos and Asians, Bailey and Little say. As word got out about Tracks’ grand scale, straights began to come to the club at various times.

Before long, Little says, Friday nights became known as “straight night,” even though gays continued to come to the club on that night.

“It was the biggest, coolest club in the city so other people started going,” Bailey says. “The straight crowd knew it was a gay club but they couldn’t find anything like it anywhere else.”

Chernoff says he and his staff welcomed the diversity of the crowds that packed the club, which sometimes exceeded its occupancy limit of 1,300 people.

He made it clear in no uncertain terms on a sign posted at the entrance that while everyone was welcome, Tracks was a gay club “and if that is a problem for you then you shouldn’t come in.”

“The one absolute we had is we were not going to discriminate,” Chernoff says.

Tracks, nightlife, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade file photo)

Little says the three nights of the reunion set for this weekend — Friday through Sunday — were put together to reflect the different types of music and crowds that came to Tracks on different nights.

Chernoff says he was especially proud of the lighting system and other features in the Tracks main hall. The enormous dance floor was surrounded by an elevated standing area where people could watch the action on the floor. He arranged for a small platform to be placed high above the main hall dance floor from which a giant mosaic mirrored disco ball was suspended that could be lowered and raised.

A heavy-duty cable was sometimes used to lower performers from the platform above the dance floor. During one of the club’s New Year’s Eve parties, a “heavy-set drag queen dressed only in a diaper” was lowered from the perch above the dance floor “to the hoots and hollers of the crowd below, which was taken by complete surprise.”

Celebrity encounters

Chernoff says one of the “horror stories” he recalls during the years he operated Tracks was when singer Grace Jones, who was booked for a live performance, refused to go on stage when the time for her act was scheduled to begin.

“She was just impossible to work with,” Chernoff says. “She said, ‘I’ll decide if I go on or not go on. I’ll see how I feel about it.’ I said, ‘You owe it your fans out there. Please go on stage.’ She said, ‘I’ll decide if I want to go on or not. Maybe I don’t feel like going on.’ So finally I said, ‘Enough is enough. Just get the hell out of my building. I don’t need to put up with this crap.’”

He says Tracks refunded the money for everyone who paid for admission to see Jones perform, writing off the episode as “one of our biggest disasters.”

Among the most pleasant encounters with a performer or group booked at Tracks was the appearance of the Village People, one of the most popular disco-era acts, especially for gay audiences, Chernoff says.

“It was such a great experience and such a great vibe,” he says. “So after they put the show on they didn’t leave. They stayed and partied with everybody until 5 or 6 in the morning. They said, ‘We don’t want to go home. We’re party people and this is the best party in town.’”

Changing times

Tracks, nightlife, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade file photo)

“It became a home for a lot of people,” says Reg Tyson, who was part of a group that partnered with D.C. businessman Paul Yates, who bought Tracks from Chernoff around 1990.

“I think it was the right place at the right time,” Tyson says. “It was a new place that allowed people to be free to be themselves, to express themselves.”

The club flourished under Yates’ ownership as Bailey, who had been working as a DJ, was moved by Yates to the post of director of promotions.

Chernoff says around 1996 Yates decided to withdraw from the business, and Chernoff resumed his position as Tracks owner until the time the club closed its doors in 1999. By that time Bailey had left Tracks to become involved with a new and even bigger nightclub located one block away called Nation, which started a Saturday night gay dance party called Velvet Nation.

“Like everything else, Tracks’ time had come,” Chernoff says. “You can’t hang on to the previous concept and expect it to move into the next decades and next generations. What made Tracks unique and phenomenal — it had run its course.”

Ongoing negotiations with a developer that had expressed interest in buying the Tracks property to build a new office building reached the stage where a deal was finalized, Chernoff says.

Bailey says he was honored to have worked for Chernoff and credits him with teaching him the ins and outs of operating a nightclub, skills that Bailey says helped him in his work at Nation.

“Tracks innovated the nightclub scene in a way that Nation benefited,” Bailey says.

Bailey says he was also honored that Chernoff and the Tracks staff invited him to work as DJ at Tracks during its closing night party in November 1999.

Kevin Brennan, a Tracks customer who was later hired as a lighting technician at the club, says he and his partner of 18 years, Don Oberholzer, have especially fond memories of Tracks.

“That’s where we met,” Brennan says. “I think he was dancing on one of the dance boxes in the big room and we just started talking.” They had their first date about a week later and have been a couple ever since. The two were married in D.C. last year.

“It made an impression on me in the sense that nothing else has ever compared,” Brennan says of the club. “I never felt like there was another club that had everything that Tracks had.”

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Real Estate

5 tips for novice house flippers

Hire an architect, budget for overruns, and more

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Do your homework before entering the home flipping market.

If you still use Facebook, you know that there is a group for everything, from different breeds of dogs and cats to silly games that lead to data mining of your information for business or nefarious purposes, to groups that offer advice on certain medical issues, to everything real estate.

One of the Facebook groups in which I participate allows users to share do-it-yourself home improvement tips. It’s a bit like HGTV or the DIY network, with a dose of reality thrown in.

Simple topics might include improving curb appeal, selecting paint colors, installing flooring, replacing an electrical fixture, or changing a toilet. 

Sometimes contractors weigh in on more complicated work and even give an idea of how long a project might take and how much it might cost in a particular area of the country. 

It constantly surprises me how little people know about how their home works. I fault the seller’s market over the past years, where inspections are either short or non-existent, for much of that.

It used to be that an inspector would spend several hours with a buyer, going through the condition and operation of a home’s systems and fixtures, providing a written report, and even including a binder that outlined how to fix simple items or when to conduct general maintenance. 

The advent of the “walk and talk” inspection, conducted prior to making an offer, shortened that process. A buyer would have to take his own notes while the inspector was talking and pointing things out. Often, the buyer would go home with information in cryptic shorthand that made no sense a few weeks down the road.

Some people still fancy themselves as house flippers, intent on making a massive profit by making a few choice renovations and reselling a home. My Facebook group often brings out those who have the desire but lack the skills or funding. 

One person recently posted photographs of a house he was interested in renovating for profit. His first question was whether he could remove all the mold himself or whether he should hire a professional mold remediation company.

I looked at the photos and immediately thought of Tyvec suits, respirators, and those movies where CDC warns of a toxic environment that must be contained and the toxins eradicated — not my idea of a DIY project.

Another unrealistic aspect of this renovation was his cost estimate — $100,000 to cover mold remediation, a new roof, central air conditioning and heating and, of course, new electrical, plumbing, drywall, fixtures, cabinets, and appliances. Even with a price of $175,000 for the house and a potential value of $400,000 after renovations, the professional flippers told him he was living in La-La-Land.

Amateur flippers in the DMV have seen their options dry up in the past five years, as even distressed properties left in disrepair can sell for half a million dollars or more. Even the professionals are knocking on doors, sending postcards in desired neighborhoods, and calling or texting owners and real estate agents, looking for properties to fix and flip.

Still, if you are inclined to try rehabbing, even for your own home, here are my top five things to consider before diving in.

• Get to know what permits you will need and the process and timeline for obtaining them, or else you may face the dreaded orange Stop Work Order slapped on the home’s window.

• Find an architect and/or engineer to help with planning the layout. Remember, not every wall can come down to make an open concept floorplan without shoring it up in another approved manner.

• Learn about “hard money.” Unlike traditional home loans that are based on income, assets, and credit, these high-interest, short-term loans rely on the difference between what you pay for the house (“as is” value) and what the “as renovated” value is estimated to be upon resale.

• Consult with a real estate agent about popular features and finishes to help you sell the house quickly and get the highest price. Purchase those items locally to avoid supply chain delays.

• Budget for unexpected cost overruns of 10-15%. Even with an interest-only loan with no payments due until resale, you will still owe taxes and insurance and make periodic payments for materials and labor. Don’t forget to add commissions and closing fees on the purchase and sale.

Your first project may not result in the profit you anticipated, but it will give you a sense of whether it’s worth trying again or leaving renovations to the professionals.

Valerie M. Blake is a licensed Associate Broker in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia with RLAH Real Estate / @properties. Call or text her at 202-246-8602, email her via DCHomeQuest.com, or follow her on Facebook at TheRealst8ofAffairs

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Real Estate

Mortgage rates continue to drop while rent skyrockets

Start living for yourself and not your landlord

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Remember you can always refinance a high interest rate down the road.

There are several sayings that I keep in my “Realtor tool kit,” aside from those catty, snarky comments, I hold two true and use them on a daily basis: “Date the rate – marry the home” and “You’re paying a 100% interest rate when you rent.”

It’s pretty simple. As we have seen rates fluctuate as much as some of our waistlines — mine included. Let’s look at the housing market in terms that we all know and understand: DATING! 

It’s important to realize that we are NOT marrying the interest rate we purchase our home with, instead we are merely dating — for however long or short it may be. Here in D.C. it’s often short; can I get an amen? But in all seriousness, we see rates come and go up and down. We were spoiled with the unsustainably low rates for the past several years below 4% and now that rates are, frankly, where they should be, we are claiming the victim role. Today is still a great time to buy. The rates we are seeing today are still historically low when you think about it. We are lucky to live in an area such as the D.C. metro where demand is always strong and a change in party means more than a recession in regards to the housing market. Rates have continued to drop in the past few weeks. 

Aside from the current rate that you are paying, it’s important to realize that you are marrying the house and just simply dating the rate. You can refinance your interest rate whenever you want. Trade that baby in for a new model with a lower rate. You are, however, married to the home that you decide to purchase. If you are currently in the market and see a home that you absolutely love — or in my case is like 80% okay because we all know that you are the arm candy here and hold up the relationship — or I mean the house has a dishwasher and central AC, then buy it. You can always refinance later to a lower rate.

Looking at the second saying in my bedazzled sparkling Realtor tool kit we have the saying “You’re paying a 100% interest rate when you rent,” which is for sure factual. You are paying someone else’s mortgage and as such that interest rate is 100%. Don’t get me wrong, when I first moved to D.C. from quaint Bethany Beach, Del., I rented as I was unsure of what neighborhood I wanted to call home. But once I got my bearings I stopped paying 100% interest and helping pad the landlord’s pockets and started living for myself, my future, and married the house. I would encourage everyone that is reading this and who is currently in a rental to speak to a mortgage broker – see what you can afford and if it makes sense for you to buy — I bet it will. In most cases, it is less expensive to buy than it is to rent in cities, including in D.C. Not only is it less expensive, but there are several grant and down payment assistance programs available to district residents to help with making homeownership a reality for you.

Start living for yourself, not your landlord, and always remember to date the rate and marry the home.

Justin Noble is a Realtor with Sotheby’s International Realty licensed in D.C., Maryland, and Delaware for your DMV and Delaware Beach needs. Specializing in first-time homebuyers, development and new construction as well as estate sales, Justin is a well-versed agent, highly regarded, and provides white glove service at every price point. Reach him at 202-503-4243, [email protected] or BurnsandNoble.com.

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Business

From early struggles to Obama’s White House, Black pansexual exec talks resilience, self-love

Williams’s advice to entrepreneurs: Do the research and make it happen

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Marcus A. Williams is the principal consultant and owner of D.C.-based MW Consulting. (Photo by Kea Dupree-Alfred)

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a multi-part summer series of stories taking a closer look at how a group of diverse LGBTQ entrepreneurs survived and thrived during the pandemic. The series is sponsored by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. All installments in the series are available on our website.)

The road to loving himself as a Black gay man hasn’t been easy for a 38-year-old business owner who once worked as a communications expert for both the U.S. House of Representatives and former President Barack Obama.

When Marcus A. Williams, the principal consultant and owner of D.C.-based MW Consulting, sat as a child around the dinner table with his family, his mother told them their house was going to be foreclosed on.

Williams recalled how he admired the strength it took for her to calmly tell them where they each were going to stay until his parents figured things out. Fortunately, the phone rang with an 11th hour offer to rent a home they could move into immediately.

Williams never forgot that day at the table or that lesson in resilience.

“I grew up in a rough neighborhood with drug abuse and family members who were incarcerated,” Williams said. “To be able to come from that environment and go to Penn State and then start a business — I take that as a sign to my community that it is possible.”

As the owner of a full-service communications and Information Technology consulting firm generating gross revenues of $568,000 in 2019, Williams wants to show others that they can also beat the odds.

But a major problem historically for Black-owned businesses has been unequal access to capital.

According to the 2018 Small Business Credit survey, large banks approved about 60 percent of loan applications from white small business owners, but only 29 percent from those identifying as Black, meaning most Black small business owners who apply for loans are turned down.

This problem was exacerbated during the height of the pandemic when the Payroll Protection Program, intended to shore up small businesses through the crisis, was administered primarily through large banks that favored their preexisting clients, according to a 2020 report by the Brookings Institute.

When Williams applied for a PPP loan, he was turned down without a clear reason. He was fortunate he could turn to the National LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), which helped him secure grants and access to other programs that helped his business survive the crisis.

Cision PR Newswire reported only 2.3 percent of employer businesses in the U.S. are Black owned, and in the IT field specifically, Black and Latinx workers remain underrepresented in tech jobs by nearly 50 percent, according to Brookings 2018 data.

Additionally, Black LGBTQ adults are more likely to experience economic insecurity than non-LGBTQ Black adults, according to a 2021 report from the Williams Institute. Research by the Movement Advancement Project from 2013 points to discrimination and unsafe schools as two factors contributing to the disparity.

Williams told the Blade how he came to deal with these challenges to business and to his identity in his own way.

Marcus A. Williams (Photo by Kea Dupree-Alfred)

‘I am Black first ’

Williams recently returned from a trip to Ghana where he visited the former ports used during the transatlantic slave trade. The experience was a moving one for him, as well as insightful.

“We have been resilient since we were first captured and brought to this country to build it,” he said, acknowledging the strength he saw in his mother and his grandparents. “Resilience is an innate survival trait for us. It is what is in our blood from our ancestors.”

The experience gave him a deeper understanding of who he was and what that meant historically. He understood that for him and how he carried himself, his color was often the most visible part of him, and people made assumptions about him based on that.

“When I graduated [from Penn State], I wasn’t getting any job offers,” Williams said, adding he was excited to see friends do amazing things with their careers but wanted more for himself.

He finally landed an interview with the CW network in New York in his field of broadcast journalism. His mother wanted to lend her hard-earned money to help him attend the interview, but he wasn’t certain this path was in his future.

After watching a friend die from cancer at age 28, he heard one of his “guardian angels” encouraging him to go for his dreams — a path that eventually led him to Obama’s White House.

He called this his “Janet Jackson ‘Control’ moment,” comparing the decision to take control of his future to the similar feelings the legendary pop star expressed in her breakthrough song and album. But he wants others to understand that path wasn’t easy.

His business struggled financially during the pandemic crisis, and though he was reluctant to take on more debt, he applied for a PPP loan only to be rejected. He grew desperate.

The NGLCC helped him access grants and programs that helped keep his business afloat, but he also had to rely on his mother to help him pay his bills – something his pride usually didn’t allow him to do, but he had to bend in order to survive.

“I am Black first and I want people in the Black community to see that and absorb it,” Williams said. “I’m not an activist out here trying to be a role model, but I understand that the more visible you are, the more you can be an inspiration to others.”

NGLCC ‘helps me feel comfortable in my skin’

Years earlier, Williams had traveled to Paris for his 30th birthday. While he was there, he had another life-changing moment about realizing how far he’d come and appreciating the journey and his many blessings.

“When I said to love myself more, it made me emotional and I cried for 15 minutes,” he said. “My soup got cold. They brought me a fresh one.”

Some Black LGBTQ people have reported challenges with their intersectionality, which can lead to feelings of disconnection from larger communities. The Williams Institute found only 49 percent of Black LGBTQ adults felt socially connected to the larger Black community.

This is in contrast to 62 percent of Black LGB adults who reported feeling connected to the larger LGBTQ community (only 29 percent of Black trans adults felt connected to their larger gender communities).

These numbers indicate the difficulties Black LGBTQ people can face when navigating intersecting identities. And for Black gay business owners, this can be an additional layer to deal with on top of running a business during a crisis.

Despite these challenges, Williams said during that moment of reflection in Paris, he moved to a new place of self-acceptance. But he also admitted that “one cry doesn’t make you feel like you’re going to be out and proud,” but it was a step in the right direction.

Williams said each time he told others about owning a certified LGBTQ business enterprise, it was a little easier, and he became a little more proud.

“The more I say ‘yes, I am LGBTQ,’ and the more I talk in focus groups about the challenges I face, the more it allows me to be more comfortable in my skin,” he said. “It’s not about if people can tell if you’re in the community, it is about your comfort in being able to say it. And that is another thing about how beautiful this process about being a business owner has been.”

Marcus A. Williams (Photo by Kea Dupree-Alfred)

Williams is extremely grateful for the mentoring he has received from the NGLCC, particularly from its Community of Color initiative and from being part of the inaugural entrepreneurial cohort.

He said having such initiatives shows NGLCC understands that LGBTQ business owners of color have special needs within the larger community and often need a little more help.

“That understanding is a level of respect and cultural competency that I encourage others to implement,” Williams said, for a moment donning his hat as a professional strategic communications consultant.

Williams’ advice to Black LGBTQ youth and others who are interested in starting a business is to do the research and make it happen, and to see failures as opportunities to develop resilience.

He also advises businesses seeking long-term economic recovery to have both minority business owners and consumers at the table as part of the conversation.

Marcus A. Williams (Photo by Kea Dupree-Alfred)

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