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Baltimore’s Grand Central celebrates 25 years

Jazz, leather, karaoke, drag and more find home at legendary Charm City club

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Grand Central, gay news, Washington Blade

A Grand Central party in 2014. The club has been a central hub of Baltimore gay life since 1991. (Photo by Bob Ford)

RJ Ladd recalls the summer of 2001 at Central Station, the former name of Grand Central. It was during “Tia-Oke” when drag performer, “Tia (Chambers), drunk, hosted karaoke, attempted to walk down the steps and fell flat on her face. We helped her up, not a hair out of place, and she didn’t miss a beat. She kept going as if it didn’t happen.”

That amusing anecdote could serve obliquely as a metaphor for Grand Central Nightclub’s 25-year history. Though the club never stumbled, it has had to overcome a number of challenges —competition, property damage, declining interest in gay bars — to remain a vital part of Baltimore’s LGBT culture and social life.

To mark 25 years in the community, Grand Central, situated at the intersection of Charles and Eager streets in the Mount Vernon gayborhood, will host a special event on Saturday, March 25. There will be free cover all night and giveaways every hour as well as other surprises.

Owner Don Davis, a well-known and outspoken figure in Baltimore’s LGBT community, waxes nostalgic about the era when gay bars were at their zenith. Prior to owning Grand Central, he and partner Rick Morgenthaler had opened the Allegro, also in Mount Vernon, in November 1986. After a slow start, they modified the piano bar format by instituting country and western parties, men’s nights and ladies’ nights.

Grand Central owner Don Davis says he’s overcome many hurdles to keep the business running since it opened 25 years ago. (Photo courtesy Davis)

Those changes paid off. “The place was hopping and became the place to be,” Davis says. “There were a lot of fun memories back then.”

At the time, Davis used to drive down Eager Street en route to his home in the Canton neighborhood. He noticed that a historic row house at 1001 N. Charles Street was for sale.

“I always liked the building and the location and decided to look at it throughout,” Davis says. “I contacted two of my friends and asked if they would be interested in being an investor with no say in the business. They both agreed.”

The property was purchased in July 1991. After renovations, the doors opened on Sept. 12, 1991.

On Feb. 5, 2003, Davis purchased the adjacent north building at 1003 North Charles St. where the former Stagecoach bar existed, and reconstruction was undertaken, adding a double bar disco with state-of-the-art dance floor, sound and lighting systems, and an additional upstairs lounge and restaurant.

In keeping with the major improvements and new facilities, the club was renamed Grand Central and the expanded complex opened May 29, 2003.

Diagonally across the corner was the iconic Club Hippo, for years the largest dance bar in the state. Within a couple of blocks were other well-established bars, the Drinkery and Leon’s. Grand Central was the new kid on the block.

To effectively compete, Davis had to broaden the market and create special events. Billing Grand Central as an “alternative nightclub,” Davis encouraged straight people to patronize the bar.

“I was always grateful for everyone’s business, whether you were straight or gay,” Davis says. “As long as everyone could accept the gay culture, they were welcomed.”

Grand Central had been beset by a couple of odd events. In June 2008, just a week after workers had repaired a storm-damaged roof on the north building, a fire broke out causing damage to the upper floor.

Five years later, a car, which was being pursued by transit police, crashed into a pick-up truck in front of the bar spilling its cargo of white paint all over the exterior and leaving a mess inside the pub. The effects of that incident led to additional renovations.

Each time Grand Central bounced back.

Through the years, Grand Central hosted numerous themed events including red, black and white parties, all well attended. Karaoke nights have been a popular feature as well as jazz, fashion shows and REHAB Saturdays.

Wendy Fox, co-owner of S.H.E. Productions, which has put on events like REHAB at Grand Central for eight years, says, “We are happy to be inclusive of everyone, and the club has always been gracious and open to our ideas, themes and fundraisers.”

An employee for nearly five years, Nicole West says, “Don Davis has always been encouraging and appreciative, the customers always kind and the other staff is like family.”

The upstairs loft has been used for a variety of purposes including receptions, a lesbian-oriented space called Sappho’s for a short time, and it had also been a venue for leather-related events after the Baltimore Eagle (now re-opened) had closed in 2012. The restaurant no longer exists.

The dance club with its two bars is a popular attraction. The Hippo’s closing in 2015 left Grand Central as the leading dance venue in Mount Vernon.

Says DJ Kuhmeleon who used to work at Grand Central, “Being so far away from the crowd in that DJ-in-the-sky, I love hearing the crowd singing every song so loud that it actually rises above the music itself and I can hear them perfectly.”

However, increasing acceptance of LGBT people that allows for comfortably patronizing straight establishments as well as the onset of dating apps have contributed to a decline in gay bars. This concerns Davis.

“Over the past 30 years, I have seen about 29 gay bars and clubs close,” says Davis, 66, who now resides most of the year in Florida.

Notwithstanding that trend, community members see the value of Grand Central.

“I remember 15 years ago, I had the courage to step into a gay bar for the first time and Grand Central welcomed me with open arms,” says photographer Robert Mercer, Jr. “It was like home and the community embraced me without judgment.”

Adds Brian Dolbow, an advocate for the homeless, “Grand Central was the first bar I visited when I moved to Baltimore in 2003. I immediately loved the welcoming atmosphere. In addition, Grand Central has always been supportive of my charity work.”

“Historically, Grand Central has been a welcome place for patrons of all gender, identity and sexual orientations with a variety of offerings including dance, jazz, karaoke, leather and a vibrant bar scene,” says Bob Glock, general manager of the nearby Hotel Brexton. “It has been a major draw to not only the Mount Vernon community, but to Baltimore generally for those outside of the city looking for a safe and sophisticated alternative bar scene.”

Brian Gaither, co-founder of Pride Foundation of Maryland, acknowledges that Grand Central is a landmark institution.

“Over the years it’s provided a safe space for our community and has been a major supporter of LGBT events and organizations,” Gaither says. “We are grateful for all they have done.”

As for himself, Davis is appreciative of the support Baltimore has given to Grand Central.

“Without good staff and the support over the 25 years it would have not been possible,” he says. “Thank you, Baltimore.”

Revelers at an Electric Youth party at Grand Central in 2013. (Photo courtesy Grand Central)

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Girls Rock! DC empowers young people through music, social justice education

Organization founded in October 2007

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Youth leaders of Girls Rock DC! (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Girls Rock! DC, an organization operating at the intersection of art and activism, is dedicated to empowering young people through music and social justice education. 

Since its founding in October 2007; Girls Rock! DC has been creating a supportive, inclusive and equitable space that centers around girls and nonbinary youth, with a special emphasis on uplifting Black and Brown youth. At the core of Girls Rock! DC’s mission is a unique approach to music education, viewing it through a social justice and equity lens. 

“It’s a place where people can come explore their interest in music in a safe environment, figure out their own voice, and have a platform to say it,” Board Vice Chair Nicole Savage said.

This approach allows D.C.’s young people to build a sense of community and explore their passion for social change through after-school programs, workshops and camps.

The organization’s roots trace back to the first rock camp for girls in August 2001 in Portland, Ore. Similar camps have emerged worldwide since then, forming the International Girls Rock Camp Alliance. Girls Rock! DC is a member of this alliance, contributing to the larger community’s growth and advocacy for inclusivity in the music industry.

Girls Rock! DC’s annual programs now serve more than 100 young people and 20 adults, offering after-school programs and camps. Participants receive instruction on the electric guitar, the electric bass, keyboards, drum kits and other instruments or on a microphone and form bands to write and perform their own original songs. Beyond music, the program includes workshops on underrepresented histories in the music industry, community injustice issues and empowerment topics that include running for office and body positivity.

“I’ve been playing shows in the D.C. music scene for about six years, and I feel like Girls Rock! DC is the perfect amalgamation of everything that I stand for,” said Outreach Associate Lily Mónico. “So many music spaces are male dominated and I think there is a need for queer femme youth in music.”

Lily Mónico (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is evident not only in its leadership but also in the way it creates a safe space for queer and nonbinary individuals. Language is a crucial component, and Girls Rock! DC ensures that both campers and volunteers embrace inclusivity. 

“It is a very open and creative space, where there’s no judgment,” Zadyn Higgins, one of the youth leaders, emphasized. “It is the first time for a lot of us, to be in a space where we’re truly able to be ourselves.”

In creating a safe environment, Girls Rock! DC implements practices that include name tags with preferred names and pronouns, along with pronoun banners that help kids understand and respect diverse identities. 

“It’s really cool to watch these kids understand and just immediately get it,” said Higgins. 

Zadyn Higgins (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Girls Rock! DC is also more than a music education organization; it’s a community where individuals can embark on a transformative journey that extends beyond their initial participation as campers. Many start their Girls Rock! DC experience as enthusiastic campers, learning to play instruments, forming bands and expressing their creativity in a supportive environment. The organization’s impact, however, doesn’t stop there. This inspiration leads them to volunteer and intern within the organization. 

The unique progression from camper to volunteer or intern, and eventually to a full-fledged role within the organization, exemplifies Girls Rock! DC as a place where growth is not confined to a single week of camp but extends into an ongoing, impactful journey. It’s a testament to the organization’s commitment to nurturing talent, empowering individuals and fostering a lifelong connection with the values for which Girls Rock! DC stands.

One of the highlights of Girls Rock! DC is its summer camp, where kids between 8-18 learn to play instruments, form bands, write songs and perform in just one week. Higgins shared a poignant moment from a showcase,

“To see them go from, like, crying a little bit about how scared they were to going out on the stage and performing their little hearts out was so sweet,” said Higgins.

(Photo courtesy of Frankie Amitrano of Girls Rock! D.C.)

Nzali Mwanza-Shannon, another youth leader, agreed that the camp is the highlight of the program. 

“The summer camp, I’ve met so many friends, and it’s always kind of scary coming up to the end, but after we get to perform and everything, I’m so grateful that I’ve gotten the opportunity to perform and meet new people and be so creative and do it all in a week,” said Mwanza-Shannon.

Forty-three young people who showcased their original songs and DJ sets at D.C.’s legendary 9:30 Club attended the first Girls Rock! DC camp in 2007. They performed to a crowd of 700 enthusiastic fans. The organization since then has grown exponentially, with each passing year bringing more energy, vibrancy and fun to the camp experience.

Since the pandemic, however, the organization has struggled financially, experiencing a funding shortage as well as reduced growth in attracting new members. 

Augusta Smith, who is a youth leader and a member of the band Petrichor, expressed concern about the potential impact on the unique and friendly environment that Girls Rock! DC provides. 

“We’ve kind of been really slow and barely making enough money. And this year, we’re having a funding shortage,” said Smith. 

The impact of Girls Rock! DC extends beyond musical skills, fostering leadership, self-expression and a passion for social change through creative collaboration and community power-building. Mwanza-Shannon hopes to be a part of Girls Rock! DC for a long time, 

“I want to keep on meeting new people,” said Mwanza-Shannon. “I want to keep on being able to perform at these different places and have different experiences.”

(Photo courtesy of Frankie Amitrano of Girls Rock! DC)
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‘Blindspot’ reveals stories of NYC AIDS patients that haven’t been told

Former Blade reporter’s podcast focuses on POC, women, trans people

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Kai Wright, a former Blade reporter, hosts the podcast ‘Blindspot.’ (Photo by Amy Pearl)

“We said that people had The Monster, because they had that look,” activist Valerie Reyes-Jimenez, said, remembering how people in her New York neighborhood reacted when people first got AIDS.

They didn’t know what to call it.

“They had the sucked in checks,” Reyes-Jimenez, added, “They were really thin…a lot of folks were saying, oh, you know, they had…cancer.”

“We actually had set up a bereavement clinic where the kids would tell us what they wanted to have when they die,” Maxine Frere, a retired nurse who worked at Harlem Hospital for 40 years and was the head nurse of its pediatric AIDS unit said, “How did they wanna die?”

“Nobody wanted to come on,” said former New York Gov. David Paterson, who in 1987 was Harlem’s state senator.

At that time, Manhattan Cable Television gave legislators the chance to do one show a year. “So I decided to do my show on the AIDS crisis and how there didn’t seem to be any response from the leadership in the Black community,” Paterson added.

These unforgettable voices with their searing recollections are among the many provocative, transformative stories told on Season 3 of “Blindspot,” the critically acclaimed podcast. 

“Blindspot: The Plague in the Shadows” is co-produced by the History Channel and WNYC Studios. The six-episode podcast series, which launched on Jan. 18 and airs weekly through Feb. 22, is hosted by WNYC’s Kai Wright with lead reporting by The Nation Magazine’s Lizzy Ratner.

The show is accompanied by a photography exhibit by Kia LaBeija. LaBeija is a New York City-based artist who was born HIV positive and lost her mother to the disease at 14. The exhibit, which features portraits of people whose stories are heard on “Blindspot,” runs at the Greene Space at WNYC through March 11.

If you think of AIDS, you’re likely to think of white cisgender gay men. (That’s been true for me, a cisgender lesbian, who lost loved ones to AIDS.)

From the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, most media and cultural attention has been focused on white gay men – from playwright and activist Larry Kramer to the movie “Philadelphia.”   

“Blindspot” revisits New York City, an epicenter of the early years of the HIV epidemic.

The podcast reveals stories of vulnerable people that haven’t been told. Of people of color, women, transgender people, children, drug-users, women in prison and the doctors, nurses and others who cared and advocated with and on their behalf.

“Blindspot,” through extensive reporting and immersive storytelling, makes people visible who were invisible during the AIDS epidemic. It makes us see people who have, largely, been left out of the history of AIDS.

Wright, 50, who is Black and gay, cares deeply about history. He is host and managing editor of “Notes from America with Kai Wright,” a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.

Recently, Wright, who worked as a reporter at the Washington Blade from 1996 to 2001, talked with me in a Zoom interview. The conversation ranged over a number of topics from why Wright got into journalism, to how stigma and health care disparities still exist today for people of color, transgender people and poor people with AIDS to the impact he hopes “Blindspot” will have.

“I came to work at the Blade in 1996,” Wright said, “the year after I got out of college.”

He’d done two six-month stints at PBS and “Foreign Policy.” But Wright thinks of the Blade as his first proper journalism job.

From his youth, Wright has been committed to social justice and to understanding his community. Reporting, from early on, has been his connection with social justice. “I often say, journalism has been my contribution to social justice movements,” Wright said.

His first journalistic connection to the Black community came when he was 15. Then, Wright became an intern with the Black newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder.

“That’s how I got the [journalism] bug,” Wright said.

Since then, Wright said, he’s worked almost exclusively with media that have a connection with the community.

Wright grew up in Indianapolis and went to college at Emory University in Atlanta. He didn’t intend to be a journalist, he wrote in an email to the Blade. At Emory, he studied international politics.

Wright’s life and work changed direction when he began working at the Blade. “I was a kid,” Wright said, “I’d just come out. I used journalism to find out what it meant to come out.”

Wright, when he came to Washington, D.C., was, as he recalled, just a kid. He didn’t know anyone in D.C. and there was a Black, queer community. This helped Wright to come out. “I couldn’t have told you that at the time,” he said, “but in retrospect I can see that I moved to  D.C. to come out.”

Journalism was Wright’s way of finding his way through coming out.

“I didn’t know if the Blade was hiring,” Wright said, “I just walked in.”

He didn’t have a deep resume but he had a lot to say. The Blade hired him and immediately put him to work reporting on AIDS.

“It was a pivotal cultural and political moment – a pivotal moment for the community,” Wright said.

That year, when Wright began working with the Blade, life-saving treatments (early drug cocktails) were emerging for AIDS.

“There was no way that HIV and AIDS wouldn’t become a central part of my journalism,” Wright said, “I really wanted to report on it.”

With the emergence of treatments, white gay men with health insurance began to feel that they were turning the page and that AIDS was no longer a death sentence.

“But, as a reporter, I was meeting Black gay men who were going into emergency mode about the AIDS epidemic,” Wright said.

Black people, poor people, drug users and others without health insurance and access to treatment were still dying and transmitting AIDS. “‘This is getting more and more dire,’ the activists said,” Wright recalls.

They told Wright, “The rest of the community is starting to turn the page. We can’t turn the page.”

In D.C., Wright could see, through his reporting, the racial discrimination in the community at large in the AIDS epidemic, and in the queer community.

Two things are true simultaneously, Wright said, when asked if there is still stigma and discrimination around HIV and AIDS today.

“Science has made so much progress,” Wright said, “It’s no longer necessary for any of us to die from HIV.”

“I take a pill once a day to prevent me from catching HIV,” he added, “I can do that. I am a person with insurance…with a great deal of social and economic privilege.”

But many people in the United States don’t have health insurance, and exist outside of the health care system. The divergence in treatment and stigma that he saw as a young reporter in 1996 are still there today, Wright said.

“The divergence in class and race has grown even more profound,” he said, “among people of color, young people – transgender people.”

Wright hopes  “Blindspot” will make people who lived through the epidemic and whose stories weren’t told, feel seen. And that “they will hear themselves and be reminded of the contributions they have made,” Wright said.

The queer press plays an important role in the LGBTQ community, Wright said. “We need a place to hash out our differences, share stories and ask questions that put our experience at the center of the conversation,” he emailed the Blade.

“There’s more space for us in media than when I started my career at the Blade,” Wright said, “but none of it is a replacement for journalism done by and for ourselves.”

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Valentine’s Day gifts for the queers you love

From pasta and chocolate to an Aspen getaway

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Share the love on Feb. 14 with our thoughtful Valentine’s gift picks for everyone you like and lust.

Centrolina V-Day Pasta Kit

Washington, D.C.-based Centrolina’s seasonally inspired restaurant menu gets the delivered-to-your-door treatment with Chef Amy Brandwein’s holiday gift baskets featuring four handmade pastas and from-scratch sauces, including heart-shaped beet ravioli with ricotta and lemon butter, a mushroom and black truffle ragu, sunchoke tagliolini and oyster cacio pepe, and chestnut pappardelle, among other elevated-Italian recipes that you and your lil’ meatball can whip up on date night. $175, CentrolinaDC.com

La Maison du Chocolat

Heart-shaped candy clichés are much more palatable when the contents within are made in Paris instead of Hershey, Pa., and your intended will be sufficiently satisfied with La Maison du Chocolat’s selection of premium confections – including melt-in-your-mouth ganaches, pralinés and bouchées, oh my – available in festive and indulgent 14- and 44-piece boxes. $60-$140, LaMaisonDuChocolat.com

‘Spread the Love’ Plantable Pencils

SproutWorld’s set-of-eight Love Edition pencils set themselves up for seed-spreading jokes given Cupid’s context, but the real sentiment is sweeter: Plant the lead-free, graphite writing utensils (engraved with romantic quotes on certified wood) in potted soil and enjoy striking flowers and fragrant herbs in one to four weeks. $15, Amazon.com

W Aspen Getaway

Missed Aspen Gay Ski Week? No sweat. You’ll fight fewer crowds as the season winds down – without compromising your commitment to luxury – during a late-winter getaway to the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains at the W Aspen. Book unforgettable outdoor adventures, like heliskiing and dog sledding, with the property’s always-available concierge; spend après hour on the rooftop WET deck before diving into delicious dishes at onsite restaurant 39 Degrees; see and be seen at Ponyboy, the property’s cocktail-focused modern speakeasy rooted in New York City nightlife; and pour yourself a nightcap from your in-room mini bar before relaxing in the suite’s deep soaking tub – because, ya know, all in a day’s work. Marriot.com

Nexgrill Ora Pizza Oven

Not a fan of fancy dining out? Slip into those grey sweats he won’t let you wear in public, top off the Veuve, and fire up Nexgrill’s Ora 12 portable propane pizza oven wherein a to-temp cordierite baking stone will cook your personalized pies to perfection at up to 900 degrees. That’s burnin’ love, baby. $299, HomeDepot.com

‘Just Happy to Be Here’ YA Novel

Have a they/them in your life excited to expand their winter reading list? Gift a copy of Naomi Kanakia’s newly published YA coming-of-age novel, “Just Happy to Be Here,” about Tara, an Indian-American transgender teenager seeking quiet support and acceptance within her school’s prestigious academic group but instead becomes the center of attention when she draws the ire of administrators and alumni. $16, Amazon.com

Perfect Pairings 

Set it off this Valentine’s Day with a curated selection of wine and spirits, including the Pale Rosé, created by Sacha Lichine, of Whispering Angel fame; Flat Creek Estate’s red-blend trio, featuring the 2017 Super Texan, 2018 Four Horsemen, and Buttero; Ron Barceló’s Imperial Premium Blend 40th Aniversario rum; and the Bourbon Rosemary cocktail-in-a-can from Spirited Hive. $17-$199

Moon Bath Bomb

Stars aligned for that little meet-cute you told everybody about on TikTok, and you can trust the universe to provide ample relaxation when you plop Zodica Perfumery’s Moon Bath Bomb in the tub – there’s a specific formulation for every sign, which promises vibe-setting aromatherapy, activated charcoal for deep cleansing, and skin-soothing olive oil for the self-love glow-up you’ve been waiting for. $18, ZodicaPerfumery.com

Mikey Rox is an award-winning journalist and LGBT lifestyle expert whose work has been published in more than 100 outlets across the world. Connect with Mikey on Instagram @mikeyroxtravels.

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