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The mourning came swiftly. When Town Danceboutique, the District’s largest LGBTQ nightclub, announced on June 27 that it would be shutting its doors next summer after a decade in business, gay men across D.C. lamented the news. Hundreds took to Facebook and Twitter to share memories of the times they’d spent bumping and grinding at the club, where drag shows, themed parties, and a hopping patio are mainstays in bustling Shaw.
The mourners were like a sprawling, extended family that had recently learned a loved one was terminally ill or moving far away. Some revealed that the club was among the first gay spaces they’d ever visited, the first place they’d made out with a stranger. Others said they found their eventual spouses and partners there. Many described Town, which opened on 8th Street NW near Florida Avenue in 2007 and spans more than 20,000 square feet across two floors, as a place to let loose after a draining day or week at work.
“When I was in college & deeply closeted at my school in Virginia, Town was one of th[e] few places I could go to truly be myself,” one Facebook commenter wrote. “I’ll be sure to come back sometime in the next year, and I hope you will be able to reopen or re-create elsewhere.”
That hope isn’t so farfetched. John Guggenmos, who owns the club along with Ed Bailey and Chachi Boyle, tells City Paper that the trio are “actively looking for” a new club space that could effectively replace Town, and are hoping to have an official announcement in the coming months. But the name, branding, size, and location of the establishment will likely be different, given that Town will have operated in its current space for more than 10 years—a rare feat for any club in a major city.
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If a new, expansive gay club opens, it will buck a long trend. As Kate Rabinowtiz, founder of the website DataLensDC, has shown in interactive maps published by the D.C. Policy Center think tank, the number of LGBTQ-specific businesses and spaces in the District are now at their lowest level since the 1970s. Dozens have shuttered with the mainstreaming of queer culture, the calming of social activism, and the development of D.C. into one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. And—with the decriminalization of LGBTQ sex, better education about HIV and AIDS, and marriage equality—more people are out of the closet.
Even in a historically progressive city like the District, though, many feel that there’s still a need for places that cater to the LGBTQ community and provide a sense of security. Some say this is especially necessary in the age of online dating sites and mobile hook-up apps.
“It’s important to keep those spaces and have them run by LGBTQ [people],” explains Robb Hudson, co-chair of the economic development committee for the neighborhood commission that contains Town. “Because for that 21, 25-year-old just coming out, it’s important to be able to walk into bar and feel that weight come off of your shoulders. Even in D.C., you can feel like you’re the only one.”
Town’s three owners are veteran-pioneers of D.C.’s gay nightlife scene, having owned almost a dozen bars and clubs over the past quarter-century, many of which have come and gone. In addition to Town, they also currently own Trade and Number Nine, two popular gay bars near 14th and P streets NW. Guggenmos says that the partners haven striven to keep their businesses “timely,” in part by increasing their presence on social media and hiring young staff.
“I do think it’s part of the evolution of the gay community that we aren’t in the warehouse districts anymore,” he says. It warmed his heart to witness people’s outpouring of support for Town after the closure was announced. “Although it is a business, you are still doing this for the community, and it does serve as that meeting place. So it will be the end of an era.”
When Town’s current landlord, an affiliate of the McLean-based Jefferson Apartment Group, bought the property in May 2016 for a whopping $25 million, the owners said in a statement that Town was expected to remain at its present site “for years to come.” The company is not the first landlord Town has had, and with Shaw booming, area property values are skyrocketing. Mixed-use redevelopments have gone up nearby, and more are planned around Howard University, which seeks to subsidize its overall operations by monetizing its real estate.
“There was no desire on our part to want to leave—none, zero,” Guggenmos explains. “It was a sheer contractual agreement, and they just exercised their rights. As cold as that sounds, I don’t begrudge them their right to try to maximize their property, because that’s what any owner would do.” (Town’s owners had a previous opportunity to buy the property, he notes, but passed on it.)
Representatives from Jefferson Apartment Group did not respond to requests for comment. At the time of the sale, the Washington Business Journal reported that the company often builds apartments above retail, such as at one project in Shaw and another on 14th Street NW.
Whatever replaces Town’s current home, the loss of the club will indelibly affect the surrounding area and D.C.’s LGBTQ scene writ large. Hudson calls the club an “anchor,” but says that he doesn’t see its closure as “the start of some sort of pandemic of gay bars and clubs being pushed out by development.” Hudson adds that though the commission hasn’t heard from Jefferson Apartment Group, its members look forward to working with the firm and hope that any new project to be built on the property will boost needed daytime foot traffic in the neighborhood.
Town is one of a handful of LGBTQ establishments in Northwest and ranks among the top spots where gay men end up the later the night gets. On top of other venues that offer some LGBTQ events, gay establishments Uproar, The Dirty Goose, and Nellie’s Sports Bar are within walking distance of Town.
Doug Schantz, who opened Nellie’s as a “destination bar” in 2007—a few months before Town debuted—says Town’s closure will be a symbolic loss if not an economic one. Nellie’s is about 5,000 square feet and is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this month. Unlike Town’s proprietors, Schantz has owned the land under Nellie’s for several years. “We’re not going anywhere,” he says. “I didn’t want to be beholden to a landlord.”
Schantz says he’s “optimistic” about the future of queer spaces in the District, despite all the changes that have come to neighborhood. “Those empty buildings are now a Warby Parker [eyewear store],” he quips of the project across 9th Street NW from Nellie’s. He says Town has been an excellent partner.
“If just 100 people decide to do both Town and Nellie’s on a given night, that’s great for me,” he notes. “You never know what your target [audience] is going to do, but what I hope will happen is that people will still think of this area as LGBT-friendly.”