Connect with us

a&e features

With Crew Club closing, what’s the future of the gay bathhouse in D.C. and beyond?

Handful of major U.S. cities lack private sex clubs

Published

on

Even in 2020, no one the Blade contacted would go on the record to talk about their experiences at the Crew Club, the Washington gay gym and bathhouse that will end its 25-year run next month.

It wasn’t hard finding folks who went — the club near Logan Circle has always been popular. But attribution was hard to pin down.

“I would go occasionally. It was very hit or miss,” one Washington gay man said. “Going on a Saturday night around 2 a.m. could be insane on some nights though. Cute, tipsy out-of-town gays who were cute and fun. I had some crazy times in the sauna and steam room.”

It’s fair to say many gay and bi men in the region will miss the club. Owner DC Allen sold the building mid-2016 to a real estate developer, a deal that’s estimated to have netted them more than twice what they paid for it in 2003, according to city tax records. The 8,000-square-foot, two-story building was assessed at a value of more than $5 million for 2020, according to previous Blade reports. He cited the health of his partner and his own health (they’re 70 and 63 respectively) as the main reason they opted not to seek another location.

“We would not, at this point in time, be able to make our money back and I don’t know how we could retire if we had another business,” he said.

Allen, circumspect in a brief phone interview this week, declined to make any of his 15 employees available for comment.

He said hook-up apps like Scruff and Grindr did impact the business for “the next couple of years” after they took off, but things subsequently improved.

“Some of the more marginalized [gay bathhouses] went out of business, but the rest of us saw a regular amount of business after three-five years,” he said. “There was a correction.”

He said he kept no records on how many of his clientele were locals vs. out-of-towners. Upholding a “very strict policy for our clientele,” was of utmost importance, Allen said.

Skyrocketing real estate costs in major cities are threatening gay bathhouse culture as developers pounce on hot, valuable properties. (iStock photo by fotostorm)

So is the Crew Club’s closing a one-off or is the industry — which has been around in various forms since the Roman Empire — slowly becoming a thing of the past? A Guardian article from 2014 painted a picture of dwindling businesses and an industry that had its heyday in the ’70s. It claimed about 70 were in business at the time, down from about 200 in the disco era, figures current industry insiders say are roughly accurate.

And how likely is it that some other entrepreneur will eventually open another gay bathhouse here with Washington’s astronomical real estate prices and ongoing gentrification? Not to mention the lack of a Council member such as the late Jim Graham (who was gay) to help work through the red tape much as he did by gay businesses, such as Ziegfeld’s/Secrets, that were displaced more than a decade ago by Nationals Stadium?

Glorious Health Club (2120 West Virginia Ave., N.E.) survived the stadium invasion but was shuttered last March by the city for multiple building code violations. Its owners are hoping to open this month pending another inspection.

But it’s not the apps, overall gay mainstreaming or waning Millennial (or Gen Z) interest that is the biggest threat to U.S. gay bathhouses. The biggest issue, one long-time veteran of the industry says, is escalating real estate prices in metro areas that have enough gay population to sustain them.

Dennis Holding came out in 1971 and met Jack Campbell, who he says “pretty much was the founder” of The Club gay bathhouse chain, in 1972 in Cleveland. Holding became an investor that year in a gay bathhouse in Indianapolis (Club Indianapolis), which is still open, and has been in business for 47 years as an investor/partner. Today, he and others are behind gay bathhouses in three cities — Houston (Club Houston), Orlando (Club Orlando) and Miami (Club Aqua Miami). He’s also friendly with many others in the industry and says the situation in Washington, sadly, is not unusual.

“The greatest threat to the business is the cost of real estate and the old age of the owners,” he said by phone this week from his second home in Palm Springs. “What happened in D.C. is they couldn’t find a clear way for the operation to continue without them physically being involved and their capital, the bulk of their net worth was tied up in real estate. … I know of two or three other groups that have closed or seen their operations dwindle in the last five-seven years I guess in which the senior partner passes away and the shares end up sometimes in the hands of non-gay relatives — a sister, a brother, maybe a boyfriend, a boyfriend’s family, whatever, and they don’t quite know how to handle all of it. Their succession plans are very weak.”

Holding (who has his own succession plan in place) says in some cases a straight relative has continued a gay bathhouse business — he mentions a straight owner who formerly had clubs in Dallas, Austin and Milwaukee, who ran them for years but eventually decided to sell to hungry real estate developers rather than modernize or update the clubs.

“Sometimes it’s the right thing to do business wise,” Holding says. “He probably made about $6 million, they built an apartment house or two, and he moves to his hometown in California and has a nice, comfortable life. His kids had no interest in it and his father was about 95. There have been several situations like that where the real estate has just become so valuable.”

Holding says other clubs will likely see the same fate in time.

“I know of an operator who turned down $8 million for his real estate a month ago,” Holding says. “That’s the evil side of it, and it has nothing to do with the business.”

At the height of the app scare about seven years ago, gay bathhouse owners united to form the Men’s Sauna Association (gaybathhousesauna.com) aka the North American Bathhouse Association (NABA). The preferred industry word now, members say, is sauna. Bathhouse sounds seedy and dated, some say.

About 90 percent of gay bathhouses/saunas in the U.S. are members. They joined forces for several reasons — joint bargaining power with suppliers, to provide aid to new businesses getting the run-around from various municipalities not interested in “adult” businesses, to brainstorm how to make the apps work to their advantage and other matters of joint interest.

The industry, overall, is quite strong, says Tom Gatz-Nibbio, NABA executive director. All the major U.S. chains — Clubs (Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Dallas, Columbus), Steamworks (Berkeley, Chicago, Seattle) and Midtowne Spa (Los Angeles, Denver) are members. He says the businesses that are doing the best are the ones whose owners have invested in serious remodeling.

“They’re really the industry leaders,” Gatz-Nibbio says. “The ones who have really stepped up and remodeled to provide a clean, safe environment.”

Holding agrees. He estimates annual U.S. revenue industry wide to be approaching $100 million. Club Houston just finished a major renovation a few months ago.

“Our slogan is ‘good clean fun,’” he says. Cleanliness is critical to the success of the business. And having what I call attractions in the play areas, the dark room — you need to have clever places to play but dirty, dank, smelly — that doesn’t work.”

Gatz-Nibbio scrolls mentally over the country, mentioning markets not yet referenced here. He knows of two in New York City (East Side Club, West Side Club) and says it’s odd there aren’t more in that market. He says private sex parties are more “a thing” there. One closed in Chicago, but another remains. There are two each in Detroit and Las Vegas. Denver, Phoenix, Atlanta and San Diego each have one. Seattle has a Steamworks. One closed in Honolulu. There are none in San Francisco proper (the city outlawed them at the height of the AIDS crisis) but there is one nearby in Berkeley (Steamworks Berkeley) and another in San Jose (The Watergarden). Some exist in unexpected markets — Grand Rapids, Mich., (The Diplomat Club) and Colorado Springs, Colo. (Buddies Private Club).

Washington could soon join Boston and New Orleans as major U.S. cities lacking one. Prohibitive real estate costs, especially anywhere near the French Quarter, have prevented anything from blossoming there, Gatz-Nibbio says.

Holding says the apps turned out to be more of a hiccup than any serious disruption.

“We felt it at first until people started realizing going into a stranger’s home or having a stranger into your home isn’t always the smartest thing to do,” he says. “And people started to wake up to the false advertising. You’re expecting a 6 foot, 2 blonde hunk but the real thing at the door is not that.”

Gatz-Nibbio says some apps are working with the saunas in joint partnerships. Squirt, for example, was at the last NABA convention and is partnering on an initiative.

Gay bathhouse industry professionals at the NABA 2019 National Convention in Orlando last September. (Photo courtesy NABA)

December was a record month for Holding in Houston and Miami. He’s friendly with the owner of Club Dallas, which he says is also booming.

“It might have slowed growth a little, but we never lost money,” he says.
A much bigger scare years ago, of course, was AIDS.

“The day Rock Hudson died, our business fell off about 40, 50 percent,” Holding says.

Working with area health departments, offering testing in the clubs and, of course, later the advances of protease inhibitors helped things rebound.

“We never stopped being profitable,” he says. “We just cut a lot of expenses. We ran with less labor, which was a big factor, we just tightened our belts. I remember the first meeting after we realized we’d just been really walloped, but we just tightened our belts. We had limited profitability, then good profitability within four to five years, I guess.”

Escorting and prostitution were never big problems, Holding says. Most members reported them to staff if they were propositioned. Police usually were happy to work with them.

He says a police squad in Dallas was known to be overzealous in previous years.

“They thought we were just a den of iniquity,” he says with a chuckle. “But it was mainly about drugs. They liked to break down doors and have mass arrests but eventually we convinced them not to be stupid about it and we’d work with them.”

Drugs, he says, are a constant issue. A list of barred patrons is kept for those who violate the policy. Too rigorous a bag or body check at the door deters customers, he says.

In other ways, police liked having the businesses there, he says.

“They like it because if they catch somebody in a park or public place, they can say, ‘Get out of here you asshole, you know there’s a place you can go for that.’ That’s basically been their attitude. It’s not warm and friendly, but they like it that there’s a place in town you can go for that and that’s fine by us. That’s the way it should be.”

Holding never kept records of how many of his clients were semi-local to each business vs. out of town. If local is a 40-mile radius, he guesses the majority are local if for no other reason than the business tends to do well with repeat consumers. It’s an older crowd in the daytime, and owners cater to them.

Not everyone is there for sex, he says. The music and lighting changes after 6 p.m., when the working-age crowd tends to come. Get them in once — for an open house, a guest visit or whatever — and if the club is clean and well run, they’ll be back, he says.

Holding knows of no horror stories of anti-gay city bureaucracies holding up entrepreneurs. He’s never heard of a citizen petition movement against a pending gay bathhouse. A business association his Orlando property was seeking to join many years ago was headed by two lesbians who took issue with the no women policy, but that eventually blew over. He can recall no major pushback from LGBT activist organizations that have sometimes painted heteronormative pictures of gay life to conservative constituents.

Allen says one change he noticed over the years was how credit card use spiked from roughly 20 percent in his early years in business to about 70-80 percent today.

“What that means is people no longer have a fear of being gay, they don’t really care,” Allen says. “That confidence and that freedom is from 40 years of activism.”

Continue Reading
Advertisement

a&e features

Rodriquez scores historic win at otherwise irrelevant Golden Globes

Award represents a major milestone for trans visibility

Published

on

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, on right, and Billy Porter in 'Pose.' (Photo courtesy of FX)

HOLLYWOOD – Despite its continuing status as something of a pariah organization in Hollywood, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has managed to cling to relevance in the wake of last night’s behind-closed-doors presentation of its 79th Annual Golden Globe Awards by sole virtue of having bestowed the prize for “Best Leading Actress in a Television Series – Drama” on Michaela Jaé Rodriguez for her work in the final season of “Pose” – making her the first transgender performer to win a Golden Globe.

The ceremony took place as a private, no-press-or-audience event in which winners were revealed via a series of tweets from the Golden Globes Twitter account. No celebrities were present (not even the nominees or winners), although actress Jamie Lee Curtis participated by appearing in a video in which she pronounced her continuing loyalty to the HFPA – without mention of the  longstanding issues around diversity and ethical practices, revealed early in 2021 by a bombshell Los Angeles Times report, that have led to an nearly industry-wide boycott of the organization and its awards as well as the cancellation of the annual Golden Globes broadcast by NBC for the foreseeable future.

While the Golden Globes may have lost their luster for the time being, the award for Rodriquez represents a major milestone for trans visibility and inclusion in the traditionally transphobic entertainment industry, and for her part, the actress responded to news of her win with characteristic grace and good will.

Posting on her Instagram account, the 31-year old actress said: 

“OMG OMGGG!!!! @goldenglobes Wow! You talking about sickening birthday present! Thank you!

“This is the door that is going to Open the door for many more young talented individuals. They will see that it is more than possible. They will see that a young Black Latina girl from Newark New Jersey who had a dream, to change the minds others would WITH LOVE. LOVE WINS.

“To my young LGBTQAI babies WE ARE HERE the door is now open now reach the stars!!!!!”

Continue Reading

a&e features

As You Are Bar and the importance of queer gathering spaces

New bar/restaurant poised to open in 2022

Published

on

As You Are Bar had a pop-up venue at Capital Pride's "Colorful Fest" block party in October. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

More than just a watering hole: As You Are Bar is set to be the city’s newest queer gathering place where patrons can spill tea over late-morning cappuccinos as easily as they can over late-night vodka-sodas.

Co-owners and founders Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike built on their extensive experience in the hospitality industry – including stints at several gay bars – to sign a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row, replacing what was previously District Soul Food and Banana Café. In a prime corner spot, they are seeking to bring together the disparate colors of the LGBTQ rainbow – but first must navigate the approval process (more on that later).

The duo decided on this Southeast neighborhood locale to increase accessibility for “the marginalized parts of our community,” they say, “bringing out the intersectionality inherent in the queer space.”

Northwest D.C., they explain, not only already has many gay bar options, but is also more difficult to get to for those who don’t live within walking distance. The Barracks Row location is right by a Metro stop, “reducing pay walls.” Plus, there, “we are able to find a neighborhood to bring in a queer presence that doesn’t exist today.”

McDaniel points out that the area has a deep queer bar history. Western bar Remington’s was once located in the area, and it’s a mere block from the former Phase 1, the longest-running lesbian bar, which was open from 1971-2015.

McDaniel and Pike hope that As You Are Bar will be an inclusive space that “welcomes anyone of any walk of life that will support, love, and celebrate the mission of queer culture. We want people of all ages, gender, sexual identity, as well as drinkers and non-drinkers, to have space.”

McDaniel (she/her) began her career at Apex in 2005 and was most recently the opening manager of ALOHO. Pike (she/they) was behind the bar and worked as security at ALOHO, where the two met.

Since leaving ALOHO earlier this year, they have pursued the As You Are Bar project, first by hosting virtual events during the pandemic, and now in this brick-and-mortar space. They expressed concern that receiving the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) liquor license approval and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, approval will be a long and expensive process.

They have already received notice that some neighbors intend to protest As You Are Bar’s application for the “tavern” liquor license that ABRA grants to serve alcohol and allow for live entertainment (e.g. drag shows). They applied for the license on Nov. 12, and have no anticipated opening date, estimating at least six months. If ABRA and the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board give final approval, the local ANC 6B and nearby residents can no longer protest the license until the license comes up for renewal.

Until approval is given, they continue physical buildout (including soundproofing) and planning their offerings. If the license is approved, ABRA and the ABC Board can take action against As You Are Bar, like any bar, at any time if they violate the terms of the license or create a neighborhood disturbance that violates city laws such as the local noise ordinance.  In the kitchen, the duo snagged Chef Nina Love to develop the menu. Love will oversee café-style fare; look out for breakfast sandwiches making an appearance all the way until close. They will also have baked goods during the day.

McDaniel and Pike themselves will craft the bar menu. Importantly, they note, the coffee bar will also serve until close. There will be a full bar as well as a list of zero-proof cocktails. As with their sourcing, they hope to work with queer-, minority-, and women-owned businesses for everything not made in-house.

Flexible conceptually, they seek to grow with their customer base, allowing patrons to create the culture that they seek.

Their goal is to move the queer space away from a focus on alcohol consumption. From book clubs, to letter-writing, to shared workspaces, to dance parties, they seek an all-day, morning-to-night rhythm of youth, families, and adults to find a niche. “We want to shift the narrative of a furtive, secretive, dark gay space and hold it up to the light,” they say. “It’s a little like The Planet from the original L Word show,” they joke.

Pike notes that they plan on working closely with SMYAL, for example, to promote programming for youth. Weekend potential activities include lunch-and-learn sessions on Saturdays and festive Sunday brunches.

The café space, to be located on the first floor, will have coffeehouse-style sofas as well as workstations. A slim patio on 8th Street will hold about six tables.

Even as other queer bars have closed, they reinforce that the need is still present. “Yes, we can visit a café or bar, but we always need to have a place where we are 100 percent certain that we are safe, and that our security is paramount. Even as queer acceptance continues to grow, a dedicated queer space will always be necessary,” they say.

To get there, they continue to rally support of friends, neighbors, and leaders in ANC6B district; the ANC6B officials butted heads with District Soul Food, the previous restaurant in the space, over late-night noise and other complaints. McDaniel and Pike hope that once nearby residents and businesses understand the important contribution that As You Are Bar can make to the neighborhood, they will extend their support and allow the bar to open.

AYA, gay news, Washington Blade
Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel signed a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row. (Photo courtesy Pike and McDaniel)
Continue Reading

a&e features

Need a list-minute gift idea?

Books, non-profit donations make thoughtful choices

Published

on

‘Yes, Daddy’ by Jonathan Parks-Ramage is the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older man.

You knew this was coming.

You knew that you were going to have to finish your holiday shopping soon but it snuck up on you, didn’t it? And even if you’re close to being done, there are always those three or five people who are impossible to buy for, right? Remember this, though: books are easy to wrap and easy to give, and they last a while, too. So why not head to the bookstore with your Christmas List and look for these gifts.

And if you still have people to shop for, why not make a donation to a local non-profit in their name? A list of D.C.-area suggestions follows.

BOOKS: NONFICTION

If there’s about to be a new addition to your family, wrapping up “Queer Stepfamilies: The path to Social and Legal Recognition” by Katie L. Acosta would be a good thing. In this book, the author followed forty LGBTQ families to understand the joys, pitfalls, and legalities of forming a new union together. It can’t replace a lawyer, but it’s a good overview.

For the parent who wants to ensure that their child grows up with a lack of bias, “Raising LGBTQ Allies” by Chris Tompkins is a great book to give. It’s filled with methods to stop bullying in its tracks, to be proactive in having That Conversation, and how to be sure that the next generation you’re responsible for becomes responsible in turn. Wrap it up with “The Healing Otherness Handbook” by Stacee L. Reicherzer, Ph.D., a book that helps readers to deal with bullying by finding confidence and empowerment.

If there’s someone on your gift list who’s determined to get “fit” in the coming year, then give “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” by Alison Bechdel this holiday. Told in graphic-novel format (comics, basically), it’s the story of searching for self-improvement and finding it in a surprising place.

So why not give a little nostalgia this year by wrapping up “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” by Martin Padgett? It’s the tale of disco, drag, and drugs in the 1970s (of course!) in Atlanta, with appearances by activists, politics, and people who were there at that fabulous time. Wrap it up with “After Francesco” by Brian Malloy, a novel set a little later – in the mid-1980s in New York City and Minneapolis at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

The LGBTQ activist on your gift list will want to read “The Case for Gay Reparations” by Omar G. Encarnacion. It’s a book about acknowledgment, obligation on the part of cis citizens, and fixing the pain that homophobia and violence has caused. Wrap it up with “Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender” by Stef M. Shuster, a look at trans history that may also make your giftee growl.

FICTION

Young readers who have recently transitioned will enjoy reading “Both Sides Now” by Peyton Thomas. It’s a novel about a high school boy with gigantic dreams and the means to accomplish them all. Can he overcome the barriers that life gives him? It’s debatable… Pair it with “Can’t Take That Away” by Steven Salvatore, a book about two nonbinary students and the troubles they face as they fall in love.

The thriller fan on your list will be overjoyed to unwrap “Yes, Daddy” by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. It’s the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older, more accomplished man with the hopes of sparking his failing career. But the older man isn’t who the younger thinks he is, and that’s not good. Wrap it up with “Lies with Man” by Michael Nava, a book about a lawyer who agrees to be counsel for a group of activists. Good so far, right? Until one of them is accused of being involved in a deadly bombing.

For the fan of Southern fiction, you can’t go wrong when you wrap up “The Tender Grave” by Sheri Reynolds. It’s the tale of two sisters, one homophobic, the other lesbian, and how they learn to forgive and re-connect.

NON-PROFIT GIVING

Like nonprofit organizations throughout the country, D.C.-area LGBTQ supportive nonprofit groups have told the Blade they continue to rebuild amid the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted their fundraising efforts while increasing expenses, at least in part by prompting more people to come to them for help.

This holiday season, if you’re looking for a thoughtful gift, consider making a donation to one of our local LGBTQ non-profit organizations in someone else’s name. This list is by no means exhaustive, but a good place to start your research.

Contributions to the LGBTQ supportive nonprofit organizations can be made via the websites of these local organizations:

• Blade Foundation, which funds local scholarships and fellowships for queer student journalists, bladefoundation.org

• DC Center, our local community center that operates a wide range of programming,  thedccenter.org/donate

Food & Friends, which delivers meals to homebound patients, foodandfriends.org

HIPS, which advances the health rights and dignity of those impacted by sex work and drugs, hips.org

• SMYAL, which advocates for queer youth, smyal.org

Wanda Alston Foundation, which offers shelter and support for LGBTQ youth, wandaalstonfoundation.org

• Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s longtime LGBTQ-inclusive health care provider, whitmanwalkerimpact.org

Casa Ruby, which provides shelter and services to youth in need, casaruby.org

• Us Helping Us, which helps improve the health of communities of color and works to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Black community, ushelpingus.org/donate

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us @washblade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Popular