City Paper is not for tourists
D.C.’s oldest gay bar keeps flying under the radar.
Randolph Dandridge takes a seat on a rickety stool at the Nob Hill Restaurant and Bar in Columbia Heights and lights a sweet-smelling cigarette. A bartender fetches Dandridge his personal gold-plated cup and pours a Scotch on the rocks with ritual familiarity. Dandridge sips methodically, leans forward, and prepares to give another history lesson on D.C.’s oldestand onlyblack-owned gay bar.
Lesson No. 1: “It’s not just a black bar.” Dandridge, a 68-year-old gay man and Nob Hill regular for nearly 40 years, is not eager to divide humanity by race or sexual orientation. Lesson No. 2 soon follows: “And not everyone who comes in here is gay….When people start labeling and genderizing, that’s where most of your problems come from.”
Dandridge’s unwillingness to label the Hill, as patrons call it, is characteristic of an establishment that has always defied easy demographic categorization. Though a 1991 Washington Blade story says Nob Hill opened at the otherwise quiet corner of 11th and Kenyon Streets NW in 1957, Dandridge says that the bar opened in the late ’40s as a formal dinner club. Founder James Jones had seen a business opportunity in the lack of a black gay bar in D.C., but he also reached out to Columbia Heights’ then-burgeoning middle class to build a greater client base in the closeted ’50s.
“This was a conversational barnot a gay bar,” explains Dandridge. In “Nob Hill: As I Saw It,” a few ragged pages of history he penned at the request of the bar’s current owners, Dandridge describes a “cosmopolitan, elitist gathering place for so-called black and white middle-class professionals” where formally dressed staff served full meals. An obvious joke was made out of the name the bar had borrowed from a gay, bourgeois San Francisco neighborhood: “[M]any of my friends referred to it as ‘Snob Hill,’” Dandridge writes.
“Tom,” a sometime Nob Hill bartender who is unwilling to give his real name, says that the older, professional crowd attracted to the club had earned it another unflattering nickname”the Morgue”by the time he started coming around, in 1959.
“To get into Nob Hill then, you had to wear a tie and sports jacket,” recalls Tom. “Mr. Jones was gay, but he wasn’t trying to single out one kind of clientele.” For Tom, the dearth of black-owned gay bars in the District is directly connected to both economics and homophobia. “To run a business in D.C., you’ve got to have some capital,” the 59-year-old says. “A lot of blacks can’t see investing in a black gay club. It’s difficult to open up a gay club, no matter what race you are.”
And Tom’s reluctance to reveal his identity serves as a reminder that Nob Hill has survived a long tradition of legally sponsored prejudicesuch as the law criminalizing sodomy, repealed only in 1993against gays in the District. Frank Kameny, founder of the first gay-pride organization in D.C. and a lifelong activist, remembers using the bar as a resource to reach across color lines and increase black membership for one of the earliest gay-rights groups in the country.
“In 1961, I founded the Mattachine Society,” Kameny says. “I was the chairman. I saw all white faces.” His solution to Mattachine’s racial homogeneity? “We mimeographed something about the Mattachine Society and distributed it at Nob Hill.”
In 1973, D.C. outlawed discrimination against gays in many areas of public life. As tolerance for homosexuals grew in the District, Nob Hill steadily developed a reputation as a haven for older black men who didn’t feel at home in Dupont Circle’s younger, whiter gay hot spots. But the bar was not immune to the problems that began to plague surrounding Columbia Heights.
“The area seemed to change in the ’70s,” says Tom. “Cars were being broken into. People were being attacked.” These crimes would often occur, he says, when “younger people found out it’s a gay club.”
When current co-owner Robert Jones (no relation to James Jones) first came to the club, in 1979, he found a crowd that was older but by no means less wild than at downtown bars. He says the bar often attracted young boys cruising for older men. What kept him coming back, he says, was not the possibility of illicit encounters but the quality entertainment.
“Years ago, what made the place unique was the Gospel Hour,” Jones says.
Instituted by former owners Joseph Streeter and William Johnson, the Gospel Hour transported inspirational Christian music from all-too-often disapproving church meetings into a gay performance space. Performers ranged from anonymous District talent to critically acclaimed gospel legends the Jackson Singers. Memories of the now-defunct event still loom large when old-timers at the Hill talk about the old days.
“Their greatest addition to the establishment was the Gospel Hour on Sunday evening,” writes Dandridge. “This was a great success and kept the bar filled, giving some local groups and individuals an opportunity to exhibit their wares.”
Of course, not every Columbia Heights citizen wants a ticket to the exhibition. Tony, who declines to give his last name, has lived down the block from the bar since 1994. It’s not the sexual identity of the bar’s patrons that bothers him, he says, but the way the bar gets rowdy at closing time and brings noise to the largely residential neighborhood.
“It’s not a problem that it’s gayto each his own. It’s just the rowdiness,” Tony says.
If the bar’s low profile isn’t always low enough for its neighbors, Nob Hill performs damage control by serving the community while serving customers. The “Stump Bunch,” a social club composed of Nob Hill elders that has met at the bar each week for the past few years, makes donations to a variety of charities and gay organizations throughout the city. The Stump Bunch simultaneously improves community relations, serves as an outlet for its members’ considerable pride in their identity, and provides Nob Hill with a moral mission unheard-of at your average watering hole.
“The reason why the bar exists is because the neighborhood went along with it,” says Jones. “The saving grace of Nob Hill is that it is going to get involved.” Jones also links the bar’s longevity to its celebration of its African-American ownership. Though no sensible businessman counts money by race or sexual orientation, Jones isn’t shy about which patrons he’s reaching out to. After all, www.
nobhill.com proclaims that the Hill is “black-owned, black-operated” for more than ideological reasons.
“I’m catering to black people,” Jones says. “The music is by
black artists. The people who put on the [drag and strip] shows are black. It’s a source of real pride that it’s black-owned.”
Many patrons believe that Nob Hill also provides a much-needed safe space for African-American gay men. “Byron,” a 33-year-old paralegal who declines to give his real name, says he finds a refuge at the Hill from a sometimes unsupportive black community.
“Once black people find out you’re gay, they treat you differently,” Byron says. “Black people think it’s OK for a white guy to be gaybut not a black guy.”
Though some of Nob Hill’s importance to gay black men may stem from the obstacles to acceptance they face from friends and family, on an average Friday night, patrons seem less interested in safe spaces and defining personal identity than in the “Thong Song”-fueled gyrations of a buff male stripper. As they un-self-consciously slide dollar bills into his taut G-string, customers simply go about the business of being themselves. This is what promises to keep the Hill’s doors open for another generation or two.
“They do things that bring the black gay community back here,” says 46-year-old patron Leland Mitchell, who has been coming to Nob Hill for eight years. “This is a landmark across the United States for the black gay community.”
For others, Nob Hill is just that fabled place where everyone knows your name.
“I had my 45th birthday party here,” says Robert Lobess, an ex-serviceman who first started coming to Nob Hill in 1986, recalling his most memorable night at the bar. “It was my first birthday party as a black gay individual. You can learn a lot from older gay men about life and how to live itthat it’s not a crime to be gay.”
Lobess, a member of the Stump Bunch, smiles as he accepts donations for Us Helping Us, a gay charity in D.C.: “It is a family.” CP