SOUTHWEST STARK STREET, as we all know by now, just ain't what it used to be.
Portland's former Vaseline Alley, once the beating heart of our fair city's queer nightlife scene, is getting un-gayer by the week. The hip-as-hell Ace Hotel occupies a space that formerly housed a number of gay clubs. The former Club Portland bathhouse space sits empty, waiting for a new McMenamins hotel and restaurant. Even Cascade AIDS Project's highly touted Men's Wellness Center—which provided safer sex services for men who have sex with men—opened and closed on Stark in only a few years. And a rash of recent anti-gay violence on the Stark corridor only further points to the changes afoot.
So if Stark is out as a gay mecca, then where—if anywhere—is in? As it turn out, the real queer heat these days is on North Lombard.
Although Portland's never been a town known for fostering a "gayborhood," one emerging trend is clear: North Portland 'hoods Kenton, Portsmouth, and St. Johns are fast emerging as queer-centric communities, with the North Lombard thoroughfare as its main axis. A number of LGBT and allied businesses have sprung up along the strip in recent years—from Portsmouth Pizza & Pub (5262 N Lombard) to the Eagle Portland (835 N Lombard). And North Portland even has its own independent, annual gay pride festival now, for chrissakes!
That multiple NoPo neighborhoods have emerged as queer sanctuaries comes as no surprise to local DJ/event promoter Jodi Bon Jodi, 32. "There's a lot of radical queer folks living in North and Northeast Portland," says the NoPo resident, and she offers up one pungent example: She and DJ comrade Katey Pants have just started up a new event called Bent at the Blue Parrot (3416 N Lombard), a queer music and social night the second Friday of each month.
"In some ways, it's a more working-class community," Bon Jodi says of the neighborhood, and why it attracts queers. "We can find more affordable housing. That's something that also drew us to the Blue Parrot—it's a queer working-class bar, managed by two gay men." The response has been heartening. When they threw the doors open for their first event this past March, 300 people showed up.
The idea of 300 LGBT folks showing up en masse to some fairly obscure NoPo bar is shocking, in the best way, for 42-year-old LeAnn Locher, a graphic designer and communications consultant who lives in the Portsmouth area. Locher and her partner Adela moved to the neighborhood in 1998 because it was affordable and they were attracted to the ethnic and cultural diversity. They were hard pressed to find other LGBT families in their area.
"That has drastically changed over 12 years!" Locher says, ticking off the myriad ways she connects today with other LGBT friends and families in the area, adding that most of these families are new to the neighborhood. She also points to Portland's Q Center, the city's sexual minorities community center, as a new addition to the 'hood—the center moved from inner Southeast to 4115 N Mississippi in spring of 2009.
The signs of pride and LGBT community in her neighborhood are promising to Locher. "To see a rainbow flag in front of a business on North Lombard just blows me away," she says. "The fact that we can go to a queer night within walking distance of our house—ah! That's a huge difference. It's not like we have the Castro," she adds. "In Portland we're all over the place." Does Locher see that ubiquitous nature of queers here as a positive or a negative? "I see it as a positive. Being queer is integrated into so many aspects of Portland and Portland life."
But even with the queer scene being spread out into just about every pocket of the city, is it feasible that North Lombard could yet emerge as Portland's new Stark Street?
"Yes, it could be!" she says emphatically, then laughs. Then she takes a long pause, and sighs: "Yeah, actually. I could see that."