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Exterior of the Club Hippo at 1 West Eagar Street in midtown Baltimore. The club is going to be turned into a CVS store. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz),

As gay acceptance grows, Mt. Vernon’s gay bars fade away

Bill “Boz” Boswell stands at the bar at Leon’s of Baltimore, drinks a shot and takes a sip from one of two Yuenglings just delivered by the bartender. He talks excitedly about the scene he found here in 1979 after getting out of the Army. It’s in Baltimore’s gay bars that he finally found a community where he felt like he belonged.

But the 57-year-old Boswell, who has pale blue eyes and a tattoo of the Looney Toons character Taz peeking out from his short-sleeve shirt, is sad about the changes in the Baltimore community he affectionately refers to as the “gayborhood.” That sadness was compounded last week when it was announced The Hippo — the center of Baltimore gay life for more than 40 years — would be closed and converted to a CVS pharmacy.

A window display at Club Hippo with a show poster for Mi Casa Tu Casa honoring Miss Gay Maryland 2015. (Maximilian Franz)

A window display at Club Hippo with a show poster for Mi Casa Tu Casa honoring Miss Gay Maryland 2015. (Maximilian Franz)

“First time I walked into The Hippo I would’ve thought I was the only one like me in the world,” Boswell said wistfully.

Businesses owned by gays and lesbians that cater to those communities, particularly nightspots, have been slowly but steadily disappearing in Baltimore for the past two decades, especially in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood.

Don Davis, the owner of Grand Central on Charles Street across from The Hippo, said he’s seen the writing on the wall for at least 12 years in regards to the decline of these gay businesses.

Davis, who previously owned gay bars Central Station and Allegro, said he remembers 30 years ago there were more than 20 gay or lesbian bars operating in the fairly small community; now there are only three or four left. He attributes the demise of these bars to the rise of apps like Grindr, which make it possible for younger gays and lesbians to meet without going to a bar. Davis also pointed out that growing acceptance of gays means that they can go to mixed bars with their straight friends and not feel out of place.

“Now it’s so loose a lot of straights come in here now,” said Davis, sitting at table outside of Grand Central smoking a Marlboro Light.

There are still establishments popular with gays and lesbians, places like Jay’s on Read, the Drinkery and Grand Central, but they are not the center of gay life they once were in the city. According to a survey conducted by the Gallup Organization, the Baltimore-Towson-Columbia area ranked 25th in the top 50 metro areas in the nation for percentage of adult population who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Misty Letts, a longtime friend of Boswell who met him at The Hippo, remembered discovering the gay community in Mt. Vernon when she was attending the Maryland Institute College of Art. She said the gay and lesbian bars and business in Baltimore helped provide a place where she felt like she could be herself and fit in.

“The first time I felt like I was going to be OK was when I walked into a gay bar,” Letts said.

Exterior of Grand Central, a pub at 1001 North Charles Street in midtown Baltimore. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Exterior of Grand Central, a pub at 1001 North Charles Street in midtown Baltimore. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

She expressed sadness that gay and lesbian bars in Baltimore were disappearing, but she also finds solace in the fact their decline is in part because gays and lesbians are being accepted elsewhere, meaning issues like the threat of physical violence because of sexual orientation have dramatically declined.

“It was a super gay neighborhood. It’s only kind of gay now,” Letts said jokingly.

Joe Bowers, who sat at The Hippo’s bar last Wednesday, said he moved to the area in 1968 and remembered when the club was still the Chanticleer Club, a nightspot that dated back to the 1930s which The Hippo replaced in 1972. He said he hates to see the club and others like it disappearing but was fairly resigned to that future.

“I hate to see it go. It just seems to be the course of things. Gay bars seem to be disappearing,” Bowers said.

Jim Simmons, who moved to the neighborhood in 1978 was also at The Hippo having a drink on Wednesday. He said the neighborhood is much safer than it used to be, and that he liked to see students from surrounding universities moving into the area.

“It’s just making the neighborhood so much better. You see all these young people,” Simmons said.

For some Mt. Vernon denizens like Boswell, who tended bar at the Allegro and Stage Coach, the changes aren’t all for the better. He has many memories of the neighborhood, some good, and some bad, like all of the friends he lost during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. But what he misses the most is the sense of community the bars and businesses fostered when being a gay man meant life on the fringe of mainstream American life.

“It’s kind of like the gentrification of homosexuality,” Boswell said.

About Adam Bednar

Adam Bednar covers real estate and development for The Daily Record.