There Goes the Gayborhood

As gay couples flee Capitol Hill and its drift toward overpriced sterility, an unlikely South County suburb helps fill the void.

Roxi Rae hits the dance floor on a December Saturday night in celebration of her 24th birthday. Dressed in a tight green hooded top unzipped to her rib cage, with purple-bra-clad cleavage popping out the top, she pulls a girlfriend out to the floor, where they caress and grind to the strained vocals of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long." The floor is soon packed, mostly with women, as Travis Brown shakes drinks behind the bar and neon lights spin across the room.You might expect to witness such a scene somewhere near Pike and Broadway, but Rae and her friends are a good half-hour outside Seattle—in Kent. Welcome to Swank, a gay nightclub nestled between a vacant storefront and a China Star restaurant in a strip mall across the street from a golf course. A Shari's in the parking lot offers late-night sustenance, and from the club's front door, acres of commuter apartments and condos stretch as far as the eye can see.It isn't exactly an intuitive location for a gay bar, but Brown, the owner (who formerly managed the Premier Club—now the Showbox SoDo—in Seattle), thinks he's getting out in front of a rising trend among gays and lesbians as they give up closet-sized studios in Seattle for more spacious homes in the suburbs. "I had heard that Kent is one of the fastest-growing gay populations in the state," says Brown, before drilling down further. "Gay couples."Swank is actually the second gay bar to open in this South King County suburb. The other is Vibe, located about a mile away within walking distance of Kent Station. Two bars isn't exactly a scene, but it's a dramatic shift from the days when gays and lesbians stayed safely ensconced in urban neighborhoods like Capitol Hill. (See related article by Brian Miller.)There was a time when people stayed on the Hill to avoid trouble, build community, and play together. For gays and lesbians, leaving the city for the suburbs meant putting up with taunts, if not outright violence. But as incidents of hate crimes and prejudice become more painful memory than current reality, young, gay Seattleites face a burden of an entirely different sort: the rising cost of real estate in the city, which has resulted in a proliferation of middle-class cultural minorities, gay or otherwise, in cheaper, suburban burgs.Over drinks at Swank with Scott Woolsey, his partner of 22 years, Mark Blower says real estate was the deciding factor when the couple moved to Tukwila. "We had to move off the Hill to buy," he says, adding that while he encounters a fair amount of homophobia outside the city, as a gay couple, they're hardly alone in their new town.Blower says that if life on Capitol Hill was as vibrant as it once was, he might be able to justify staying there, but as bars and clubs close down, the high price of a tiny condo in Seattle just isn't worth it. In Tukwila, they were able to get a place with a yard for their three dogs.The two bars serving Kent's gay night owls have become somewhat segregated. Swank has increasingly become known as a lesbian hangout around town. According to Rae, who used to work at the joint, this is because of the nearby softball fields. Women would stop in after games and it kind of stuck, she says. This gives Kent exactly as many lesbian-targeted bars as Seattle has: one.Gary Gates, senior research fellow at UCLA's Williams Institute, says census data, which tracks the number of same-sex couples, shows rising numbers of gays and lesbians living in the suburbs. Gates suspects that in addition to people moving out of the cities, there may be others who were there all along who are now more likely to identify themselves as their sexuality becomes more accepted among friends and neighbors.The rising population in the suburbs coincides with numerical drops in gay and lesbian couples living in the city. In a study published last November, Gates found that census information suggests the population of gay couples in Seattle dropped from about 6,289 same-sex couples in 2004 to 4,695 in 2006. The margin of error, he says, is too big to say for sure if there are fewer same-sex couples living within the city limits, but "they're not dramatically increasing. If anything, the trend is flat or perhaps slightly on the decrease."As the population of same-sex couples rises in places like Kent, entertainment crops up to meet their needs. Vibe is nestled among a row of small shops lining First Avenue South. It's part of downtown Kent's revitalization, which came on the heels of the opening of Kent Station, a transit and shopping center, in November 2005. In addition to the train station, a 14-screen AMC theater was part of the initial opening, as was the Ram Restaurant and Brewery. An event center is scheduled to open at the end of this year, all of which should make downtown Kent more of a destination, rather than just a place to get some shut-eye before heading to work in Seattle or Tacoma, says the city's economic development director, Ben Wolters.The small businesses down the street from Kent Station have started seeing an influx of foot traffic, and they work together to maintain a friendly, small-town feel. The business owners know each others' names and offer one another employee discounts. Eric Sach owns the Balanced Athlete, a store specializing in running shoes and gear across the street from Vibe. He and his staff get a discount at the bar, which they frequent on a semiregular basis. What's more, Vibe owner Dan Cornwell is part of Sach's running group.Sach and his wife moved to Kent from Seattle with their son three years ago. They were drawn in by affordable home prices and the schools, but the rapport they've built with their neighbors and fellow business owners is something that Sach says never would have happened back in Seattle. "That sense of belonging lacks there," he says. "You can actually be a community here."Even Gina Howell, owner of Howell Religious Gifts & Books, a store whose belief system could be construed as being at odds with the gay community, has no problem with her neighbors. She's been there seven years and says her only concern would be losing parking to the clubs; but since she operates during the daylight hours, it isn't an issue. "I think people have the right to own a business and run any business they want," she says.Brown says there was a little concern about blowback from patrons when Swank was converted into its current form from a sports bar. But surprisingly, they had a warm reception. "They're like, 'We don't care,'" he says of his pre-conversion clientele. They put in new large-screen televisions, so people still come in to catch games. Brown confesses he doesn't really follow the Seahawks or Sonics but says, "We're definitely big on the sporting fans and still want to focus on that." He adds that it gives Swank a very different feel between the daylight and nighttime clientele.Barry Johnson shows up for the Seahawks-Redskins NFC quarterfinal in full green-and-blue dress. He's such a regular for the games, he's got his own WSU-themed beer pitcher that Brown lets him keep behind the bar. "It's kind of like Cheers," says Johnson, who's straight. He and another regular, a trucker from Kent named Paulie (who wouldn't give his last name), come down for a pitcher and the game, but don't usually stay past the early evening—though Johnson occasionally sticks around on karaoke nights to perform his rendition of Guns N' Roses' "Paradise City."Some of the women from the nighttime crowd swell the group of fans to about 30, all bonded by their mutual love of the gridiron. Johnson says that since it changed focus, Swank has actually been a better place to watch sports—the televisions are bigger, and for game days, the couches are arranged for optimal viewing and quesadilla consumption. "It's like drinking at home, but more fun," he says.Things haven't always been so cordial in this South King County burg. More than a decade ago, Laurie Michelle Byrne and her partner, Evelyn Nichols, moved to Kent, looking to open a bar. They met with landowner Frankie Keyes, who was showing them properties around the area, when she mentioned a vacancy in her building downtown at the corner of First Avenue South and West Titus Street. They checked it out, decided they'd found the right place to open their bar, Sapphos, and applied for permitting.The city, led by then-Mayor James White, reacted disapprovingly. Keyes says local religious leaders protested the new bar, at one point insisting it was too close to area churches. "It hit with a lot of the conservative trends in a small town here in Kent," she says, adding that she doesn't blame White for protesting liquor permitting; she believes he was under pressure from local religious leaders.White, speaking from Arizona, where he and his wife are spending the winter, says his opposition didn't have anything to do with the sexual orientation of Byrne and Nichols or their targeted customers. "I objected to another bar in downtown Kent," he says. "I didn't want Kent to be like some of the older Valley cities where you get just a series of bars downtown."Eventually, despite the opposition, Sapphos got all the necessary permits and licenses and opened for business in 1995. But the bar never really took off, and Byrne and Nichols began sinking into a financial morass. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries began sending them regular warrants for delinquent taxes, and Keyes says the two women started falling behind on their rent before selling their business in 1999. Byrne and Nichols have moved several times since then, and did not reply to correspondence sent to their last known address (their phone number was disconnected as well).After Ken Flemming bought the business and changed the name to Trax, Keyes says she received some hate mail. Refusing to be intimidated, Keyes took the note to her neighbors and asked if they knew anything about it. Surrounding business owners thought it was terrible and suggested that she take it to the police. She did, and it was tracked to someone living across the street; Keyes says she's not sure whether much was done about it, but the person who sent it moved out a short time later. "It's been very quiet since then," she adds.Flemming only owned the business for a year before selling it to Mark Weber and Rachelle Madrigal, who says things had changed in Kent by the time they took over the spot. "The community was very accepting; we had very little problems," she says. "It was a good moneymaker for us."There were occasional incidents—such as the bar's windows being smashed out—but Madrigal suspects it was the work of a former employee, not someone opposed to the bar's existence. It was about that time, Madrigal says, that they started realizing there was a demand for nightlife in the Kent area; people from all over the South Sound area, gay and straight alike, would come by to hang out and wet their whistles.Eventually Weber and Madrigal moved to Arizona, selling their business to Bonnie and Sarah Hayes, who owned it from 2004 to 2007. During this period, Trax went through a rough financial patch, before Dan Cornwell and his partner in business and life, Jason Barbon, purchased the bar. They changed the name to Vibe, Cornwell says, to reflect the different character with which patrons might infuse the place on any given night.They reopened last July, and now lay claim to a devoted and growing group of regulars from the area. Chris Cook is a 26-year-old gay man who has lived in the south suburbs for the past eight years, occasionally heading up to Seattle for a night out. There, he tends to find "lots of drama and drunk people and drugs," he says, "and crowded bathrooms."Furthermore, straight patrons like Des Moines resident Ryan Morey find Vibe a good place to get a beer and play a little pool. Plus, he says, "I've met some pretty neat girls here."All things being equal, Swank, Vibe, and their hip, young patrons still may not constitute the sort of critical mass needed to give Kent true nighttime-destination status. Both bars bring plenty of people in on the weekends, but weeknights can be really sparse. On a Taco Tuesday in November, three women at the bar are the only Swank patrons for the better part of an hour. One asks Brown about broadcasting Seattle Storm games; he finds out later from a bartender that they've always been able to broadcast the games, so they'll be ready when the season kicks off in May. Brown is also trying to build up Swank's workweek business, adding karaoke on Wednesdays and Thursdays.Cornwell says that, at the moment, even competing nightclubs like Vibe and Swank benefit from having each other around; it keeps people in town and discourages them from making trips to Seattle or Tacoma. So he should be happy to know that Seattleite David Bisharat has applied to the city to open a martini bar, Shindig, just down the street from Vibe. Keyes, who will be the landlord for Shindig, says she believes it's supposed to be a more refined affair than the taverns and lounges that currently make up the bulk of Kent's straight nightlife.Now they just need a sustainable customer base. Even with the area growing as people increasingly decide the perks of living in the city just aren't worth the cost, "those housing projects, those condos and apartment projects—those are really very important to creating a stable customer base for restaurants and clubs" in Kent, says Wolters.If indeed the condo developers follow, he says, Kent will be "putting together the pieces, the building blocks, for what we believe will be a unique urban center." But urban development isn't a priority for Rae and Cook so much as urban entertainment. And now they're starting to get it, far from the high cost of living and frustrating parking of Capitol Hill. Kent has "definitely come up from what it was." Cook says. "This is a scene."

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