Thursday nights are typically packed at Grand Central, perhaps the largest remaining gay nightclub in Baltimore.
Patrons crowd the club’s dance floor and bar watching fierce lip-syncing routines while gulping down $3-vodka drinks amid pulsating music, strobe lights and colorful lasers.
“It’s great again,” said Derek Chavis, a 33-year-old Mount Vernon resident. He said Thursday nights at Grand Central remind him what the club was when he first started sneaking in at 19. “It’s been fun to go out and see new faces. That was one thing about Central — you would go out and see people you did not know.”
Last week’s news that Grand Central was sold sent immediate ripples through Baltimore’s LGBTQ community. The property’s new owners, Landmark Partners, plan to turn it into office and retail space, which would include a dining or bar concept, according to a release.
Nationally, gay nightlife has taken a hit. Nearby in Washington, D.C., popular clubs continue to close. Town Danceboutique, a megaclub with multiple floors that attracted performers from RuPaul’s Drag Race and customers from surrounding states, closed in July. And just Tuesday, another mainstay club, Colbalt, closed unexpectedly.
In Baltimore, Grand Central’s closure follows several others in recent years.
Club Hippo, another large gay nightclub located across the street, closed in 2015. That space now houses a CVS drug store. G.A.Y. Lounge, which was open for less than a year on Charles Street, closed in October 2017. The Baltimore Eagle, a gay leather bar in Old Goucher, unexpectedly shuttered in July 2018 following an ownership dispute. (Its Facebook page promised that the club would open again without giving an exact date.) And Club Bunns near Lexington Market, which attracted a gay black clientele, closed in February after 30 years in business.
The decline of gay nightclubs is being attributed to the popularity of gay dating websites and the fact that straight establishments that have become more welcoming — and thus safer — for LGBTQ people.
Mimi Demissew, executive director of The Pride Center of Maryland (formerly the GLCCB), thinks that the string of recent closings means that the community needs to increase support of the remaining spaces geared toward the LGBTQ community.
“We still need these spaces where people are not just tolerated, they are celebrated,” said Demissew, who has led the organization since 2016. “There is a place for intentional spaces for us. It’s a shame that we have lost Central, Bunns, The Hippo, Coconuts Cafe [a lesbian bar that closed almost a decade ago]. But the scene will continue to be here.”
Don Davis, the former owner of Grand Central, who said he sold the 15,000-square-foot property for $1.4 million in large part because of his declining health — he’s battling stage-four throat cancer — said that the business model for gay nightclubs is not what it once was.
“Look at the whole country,” Davis said. “When the internet happened, that cut into gay clubs. Then gay marriage happened. They felt comfortable going out with their straight friends. So many bars started having gay nights. Gays started going to straight clubs. Gay clubs had a hard time recovering from that.”
Take Chavis for example. He and his fiancé typically stay home. And when they go out, chances are you’ll find them at The Brewer’s Art or Owl Bar.
Still, Chavis wishes that he could have more gay clubs to frequent. And he bristles at the thought of Grand Central turning into a straight establishment.
“If it becomes just a regular bar — something that you can find in Canton or Fells Point? No, I will not support that,” Chavis said.
As dedicated gay bars have dwindled, other establishments have been filling the void with events like drag shows and gay nights.
Point South Latin Kitchen has been throwing successful drag brunches and bingo nights since Sept. 2016, due in large part to the closing of Club Hippo, according to Bryson Keens, managing partner of the Fells Point restaurant that specializes in Latin cuisine.
“Supporting local drag is important to us. The drag community can’t be allowed to fizzle out in Baltimore. This is the home of Divine and ‘Hairspray,’” Keens said. “We’re trying to be a refuge for the drag community for sure and an LGBTQ safe space for everyone else as well.”
And while Point South has been extremely successful in their drag events — almost all of them sell out — Keens said it’s still sad to see the crumbling of gay establishments in the city.
“The beginning of the end was when the Hippo turned into a CVS. And the death is now Central going down. I never thought I would see that,” Keens said. “It’s depressing. I feel for the community. I’m the son of two dads who grew up seeing them go to the Hippo.”
At Leon’s, a dimly lit rectangle of a bar in Mount Vernon known for its “heavy pours,” two-for-one daily happy hour and a motley crew of gay male clientele, the mood has been somber, though business has remained steady.
“Clearly they are depressed about it,” said Joseph Leloudis, a 42-year-old bartender there. “No one wants to see another gay bar shut down.”
Leloudis said that the recent closure in Mount Vernon doesn’t bode well for the future of gay bars.
“Destination cities like New York and San Francisco will always have them,” he said. “In other cities, they will dwindle.”
Globally, gay nightlife has seen a decline in recent years, according to Amin Ghaziani, author of “There Goes the Gayborhood?” and associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
In London, for example, 58 percent of LGBTQ clubs closed from 2006 to 2016, compared to 44 percent of straight clubs in the same period. That prompted the naming of a London Night Czar in 2017.
“People are tuning into it — at least large cities that have the resources to create positions like that. New York just appointed the city’s first Night Czar. The fact that cities are now creating these official positions, tell us that cities recognize that nightlife is actually a very significant part of the overall economic profile of the city,” Ghaziani said.
The closing of gay bars and clubs that have historic meaning and are significant attractions are particularly troubling to Ghaziani.
“The loss of anchor institutions will definitely affect the gayborhood in deeper and more profound ways than other businesses,” he said.
Bryan Womack, a Govans resident who performs as drag personality Naomi Ratchet, said the sale of Grand Central has soured him to Mount Vernon and Baltimore as a whole.
“I will consider not giving as much back to Baltimore and go to Philly, D.C., Delaware and places that offer more for us,” he said.
Womack, who performed a Toni Braxton routine at Grand Central two months ago, called it the “premiere” drag venue in Baltimore because of its large dance floor and the clientele it attracts. “We need to have a haven for us. For it to be gone now, it’s like ‘where do we go?’”
Womack said that even though patrons expected the sale of the club, it still stings.
“A lot of us grew up there,” he said. “Grand Central is very well known. It is synonymous with gay life in Baltimore.”
And Grand Central’s closure could quicken the exodus of gay residents from Mount Vernon, historically the city’s “gayborhood.”
Justin Myers, a 40-year-old human resources professional, plans to move out of Mount Vernon after his lease is up next year.
“It’s just a different community than when I first moved here,” said Myers, who has lived in the neighborhood for eight years. “There are not a lot of bars to go to. I like to be in walking distance to the places I like to hang out. And that number is dwindling.”
Myers said that gay nightlife establishments serve as a safe space — especially for gay men of his generation.
“Gay bars are much more accepting,” he said. “I want to feel comfortable that I’m not feeling judged or at risk when I kiss someone at the bar or hold hands at the bar.”
Demissew, who is in the process of planning this year’s Pride Weekend in June, said that increased rent, a desire for more space and a need to be closer to more members of the community were the reasons her organization moved in 2016 from Mount Vernon to Charles Village.
“It has made us more accessible to the community,” she said.
The migration out of the “gayborhood,” started several years ago, according to Demissew.
“We’re seeing a shift away from Mount Vernon,” she said. “There are still gay spaces there. But the gayborhood has moved north.”
Pride Weekend, the organization’s premier event, moved from Mount Vernon to Old Goucher in 2017.
Nationally, statistics show that there has been a shift in gayborhoods, according to Ghaziani.
“Gayborhoods are deconcentrating,” he said. “You can look at it two ways: Gayborhoods are becoming more sexually integrated. And gays and lesbians are choosing to live in parts of the city beyond the borders of the gayborhood.”
Ghaziani believes that cities can have multiple gayborhoods. He added that he doesn’t believe that “queer life is diluting.
“Queer spaces are actually becoming more diverse and more plural,” he said. “They are not disappearing. …We know that LGBTQ Americans are an incredibly diverse group of people. Why wouldn’t we expect that same diversity to express itself in the places they live and call home?”
Davis, who hasn’t lived in Baltimore full time for close to a decade and now calls San Antonio home, said he hasn’t heard much pushback in response to the sale of Grand Central. At this point, he said he is concentrating on his health.
But Chavis said he wishes Davis would have considered the impact Grand Central’s sale would have on Baltimore’s gayborhood and its nightlife.
“I understand what Don was going through. I don’t blame him,” Chavis said. “But I wish that more thought would be going in about who was taking over the building.”
In the meantime, performers at Grand Central’s popular drag night — who have been on edge preparing for the closure for months — have already been making plans for new gigs.
Anastasia M. Belladonna, one of Chavis’ favorite cast members of Grand Central’s weekly drag show, said the uncertainty was agonizing.
“The girls and I were scared for what this meant for the community and our Thursday show because we were completely left in the dark, contrary to popular belief,” the 31-year-old Butchers Hill resident said, adding that the performers from the drag show have been treated well by the new management. “I was happy they wanted to keep us, of course, but that only guaranteed us until they closed the place.”
Belladonna, who performs numbers by Whitney Houston, Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez, joined the cast of a new drag show, Charm City Angels, at Mosaic Nightclub & Lounge in Power Plant Live.
That reoccurring show debuted last week.