This essay is an excerpt from The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook (Belt Publishing, 2016).

By Greggor Mattson

Hingetown was born as a branding exercise in 2013 on the warm corpse of Cleveland’s queer scene. Anchored by the brick Striebinger Block building at West 29th and Detroit Shoreway, and extending down West 25th, the Near West Side once featured a gay bathhouse, half of the city’s gay bars, its only gay dance club, other gay businesses, and an occasionally cruisy street scene. While some gays remain as customers and owners in Hingetown, lost are the places that were patronized by poor queers, men of color, and men looking to get off.

BounceOn the corner of the Striebinger Block was A Man’s World, the kind of old-school gay bar with blacked-out windows that you had to be buzzed into. The kind with extravagant decorations for every holiday and a free spread on Thanksgiving and Easter for the queers separated from their birth families, whether by choice or estrangement. The kind where some of the patrons seemed homeless, and the bouncer had facial tattoos. The kind where a Black man celebrated his first union job by buying a round of drinks for the white, Asian, and Latino strangers at the bar. The kind where the bathrooms were unisex before that was a thing, the stalls a merry-go-round of lesbians, gay men, trans women and drag queens. The kind where occasional violence trailed men to their upstairs apartments or cars. The kind with sidewalk planters that sported pansies and little American flags. The kind that was the last place you saw a good friend before he died.

Since 1995, A Man’s World had been part of a complex of three gay bars that shared internal doors and a courtyard patio: The Tool Shed, ostensibly separate from A Man’s World, and the basement Crossover for occasional leather/BDSM events. In their day, these three bars crowned Cleveland’s Mr. Leather, and hosted dances by the Rainbow Wranglers, the gay and lesbian country/western dance group; pool league tournaments; reunions of friends and anniversaries of lovers. Hundreds of fundraisers in the bars provided a lifeline for AIDS charities, gay sports leagues, and political campaigns, but also for small discretionary funds to help people with HIV/AIDS to pay their rent, their utilities, or their funeral expenses. The Striebinger Block was the first home of what became the Cleveland LGBT Center, and hosted the first Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend, now a multi-state charity with more than a half million in donations to its name.

Within a couple blocks along Detroit Shoreway were two other institutions. Club Cleveland at 32nd was one of the only purpose-built gay bathhouses in the United States, and the city’s prime palace of promiscuity until a rival opened in 2006. Bounce on 28th was, by 2009, the only gay dance club, anchoring Cleveland’s vibrant drag scene and a score of charities of its own. Down 25th past Lorain were two other racially integrated gay bars: Muggs, a working-class dive past Clark, and Argos, spitting distance from the West Side Market. Argos was a gay sports bar with a mixed audience, its reputation as African American belied by a patronage that ran at least half white. Its patio sported umbrellas, faux palms, and a view of the Ohio City skyline where gay volleyballers congregated after Sunday practice.

Hingetown sign corner copyThe Striebinger Block was also home to Burton’s Soul Food and the Ohio City Café where you could grab an economical bite while you sobered up, or lay down a slick of grease to prolong the night’s fun. The Dean Rufus House of Fun, alternately described as an “an upscale gay boutique,” a “gay-friendly variety store,” and “a gay porn shop with a large selection of soul records,” was open until early morning for casual purchases of designer underwear, wigs, cock rings, poppers, or lube. On weekend mornings after last call, men streamed along Detroit, lingering for one last smoke, taking one last glance, chancing to slip their phone numbers into someone’s hand, making tomorrow’s plans with friends, wandering down Detroit to where black and brown hustlers lingered, or slinking off between cars to make out … or more.

New owners bought the Striebinger Block in early 2013, and evicted the gay men who lived upstairs. During the bars’ last call, flyers thanked their owner, Rick Husarick, for providing “an oasis for the gay community in Cleveland; where customers, employees and tenants alike could gather together to build friendships, celebrate diversity and support the community.” These goals were echoed by the new owners, who describe theirs as “inclusive,” “responsible” redevelopment.

These continuities are nowhere to be found in myriad journalistic accounts that invariably describe what came before Hingetown as a “decrepit,” “toxic” “nowhere.” Newcomers look back upon a curious frontier that was at once empty and populated, a “vacant” “no man’s land” of “drug dealers and prostitutes,” sidewalks full, yet where “no one would want to walk at night.”

[blocktext align=”right”]These continuities are nowhere to be found in journalistic accounts that invariably describe what came before Hingetown
as a “decrepit,” “toxic” “nowhere.”[/blocktext]Hingetown’s queer past has grim resonance in the words newcomers use. Journalists think they’re denigrating the old scene when they call it a “complex of debauchery” or a “smorgasbord of vice.” Tea had long been served outside the new Cleveland Tea Revival (T, or truth, is the essential, gossipy news of queens). Men sporting leather harnesses, dog collars and leashes had long found succor in the places replaced by Harness Cycling Studio and Ohio City Dog Haven. Beats from the jukebox in A Man’s World were what you could hear from the sidewalks outside what is now the Beet Jar juicebar and Jukebox city tavern. Where now stand the Mariner Lofts did occasionally loft se(a)men. And when newcomers and journalists describe the old neighborhood as shady and dingy, they inadvertently use old gay pejoratives for African Americans, who used to frequent the bars and who are most of the renters in the Lakeview public housing projects two blocks away.

Many gay men celebrate the new order. For Dean Rufus, who has outlived many neighborhood transitions, the change has been “great for Ohio City.” Getting a “more safe, upscale atmosphere” was one goal of patrons who organized a boycott of Husarick back in 2008 after a longtime AIDS activist was mugged; demands for safety accompanied complaints that the bars’ troubles were caused by “lowball street rats.” The newspaper Gay People’s Chronicle (itself recently defunct) sounded the dogwhistle of racism when it telegraphed concerns over “thugs” and linked the nearby public housing to descriptions of the bars as “a bit seedy.” A former Man’s World bartender now helms the Urban Orchid Florist in Hingetown’s renovated firehouse, and told a writer for Talking Points Memo, “I don’t think there’s a need for a gay scene in Cleveland anymore. I go wherever I want with my friends. Every bar is a gay bar.” Yet the parts of the scene that were racially and economically diverse are absent from the Transformer Station art gallery and Hingetown’s other institutions.

CLE-guidebookIf the Striebinger Block was “a corner of poverty,” it’s because Cleveland queers are also poor. If we stood in the lots described by gentrifiers as “missing teeth,” they reflected our own bodies. If we did not shun dealers, it’s because we know that college folks get their Adderall and pot from “friends.” We know all the reasons why a man on the street locks eyes with you for longer than is necessary, and why that can be so threatening if he is Black and you are white. And we know that a transgender woman is arrested for selling sex even when she’s not, in a city where her safety is an afterthought.

In the great recession, Cleveland’s queer oasis became a mirage: Club Cleveland closed in 2009, Argos in 2010, Muggs shortly thereafter, and Bounce, briefly, in 2015. It wasn’t the recession that closed A Man’s World or the nonprofit across the street that provided queer-friendly outpatient addiction treatment services. They succumbed to the recovery.

Although the American flag still flies from the corner of the Striebinger block, the gay pride rainbow flag that fluttered beneath has been replaced by the gentrifiers’ standard, the Ohio City flag. Journalists eulogize the racially and economically mixed queer scenes as the “inevitable casualties” of gentrification. Hingetown’s real estate entrepreneurs have succeeded in “curating” a corner of Cleveland that, according to TPM, does not “suck.” But for us queers, not sucking is not only no fun, it’s not fair.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to address concerns about attribution.

Order the Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook here, and join us for Belt’s Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook Launch Party on June 22, 2016 at Market Garden Brewery.

Greggor Mattson is Associate Professor of Sociology at Oberlin College and Chair of the Program in Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies. He is the author of the Cultural Politics of European Prostitution Reform: Governing Loose Women, and articles about gay bars, gentrification, and social inequality. A native of Washington State, he moved to Northeast Ohio in 2008.

Banner photo by W. Rickman.