Walking along Glendale Boulevard on his way to his favourite record shop, Rockaway, DJ Paul V feels at home in his gay Los Angeles ’hood. But his neighbourhood in Silver Lake is a far cry from the sparkle of the city’s better-known queer mecca: West Hollywood. And it’s much to V’s liking.
“I quickly knew West Hollywood, with its models and gym bunnies, wasn’t going to be my scene,” he says, describing his first impressions after arriving in 1990. “Silver Lake has this queer, straight, mixed kind of vibe, with more leather than Levi’s, and folks were a little older. The bars are for regular guys.”
Over the years, the demographics of Silver Lake, roughly bordered by Sunset Boulevard, Glendale Boulevard and Hyperion Avenue, have slowly morphed into today’s mature gay and straight hipster combination. V sees it on walks like this, often with his pitbull, Pucci, on leash. “I’m not thrilled when I’m stuck behind two moms and strollers on the sidewalk, but if they’re here because they want their kids to grow up in a melting pot and not white-bread Brentwood, I’m cool with that.”
Now 50, V has influenced the neighbourhood in the two decades he’s lived there. He arrived in LA as a disc jockey at heart (but music executive by paycheque) and launched Drag Strip 66 to compete with the hardcore industrial music circuit party Club Fuck, at Le Barcito.
In its mid-’90s heyday, Drag Strip 66 featured live parody-singing drag queens, alternative boys and dance music, which V claims “distilled into one great mess of a night club.” The party has pulsed on for 19 years and will wrap at 20. V’s maturing clientele is dwindling. “Clubbing isn’t as high on an older person’s agenda like it is at 25. It’s time.”
Out & About
Out & About tour guide Jim Anzine fills in the gritty and turbulent Silver Lake backstory in his lively tour of LA’s original gay ghetto. “It’s a big gay orientation about town,” he says, laughing.
A campaigner for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential bid, Anzine started the company in 2009 at a crossroads in his life. “I was at an intersection in Hollywood and saw a Starline bus, a Hollywood Star bus and a dead celebrity tour bus. I wondered, ‘Why don’t the gays have their own tour?’” he recalls.
Three years later, the company offers public and private tours by bus, car and foot. According to Anzine, customers are an even split of gay and straight. The tour, which concentrates on downtown, Silver Lake and Hollywood, surprises customers. “West Hollywood, though very well known, has the least amount of history of any neighbourhood in Los Angeles,” he says. “Whereas Silver Lake is known as a trip to the wild side and where lots of US gay activism originated.”
In the late 1940s, the Mattachine Society was formed in Silver Lake, away from the judging eyes of Hollywood, partly to revolt against the use of entrapment by undercover police officers to arrest gay men. A set of steps located near the meeting place of the society, in the hills of Silver Lake, is now dedicated to the society’s work influencing precedent-setting court decisions. Climbing the historic steps affords stunning views of the sparkling reservoir that inspired the neighbourhood’s name.
The Black Cat — now under construction but due to reopen — was the infamous scene of what Anzine calls “20 minutes that changed the shape of LGBT life in Los Angeles.” He tells the solemn story of the pre-Stonewall event where LAPD officers beat hundreds of patrons, arresting 14, moments after the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1967, when the bar broke out in celebratory kissing. The site is now a Los Angeles historic-cultural monument, as its history gave rise to Reverend Troy Perry’s first Metropolitan Community Church and the beginnings of what became the Gay Liberation Front.
Other tour highlights include the meeting place of the organizers of the now-defunct Sunset Junction festival, initiated to quash community tensions between the neighbourhood’s Latino and gay communities.
Anzine points out local landmarks of the 1970s gay sexual revolution, including Planet Myra, the Myra Avenue underpass beneath Santa Monica where men met for public sex. The Jungle, which still operates, but now as a restaurant, was a gay bar on Sunset Boulevard featuring pornstar bartenders who, Anzine says, split time between working the bar and performing live sex shows at the Vista Theatre up the street.
Even as straight hipsters move in, Silver Lake’s diverse and defiant gay nightlife endures. Casita del Campo’s stiff margaritas are a great warm-up act to the drag shows in the Cavern Club Theater downstairs. Cold beer and rock is served up in Akbar’s relaxed and dimly lit interiors. MJ’s party calendar features Middle Eastern nights, go-go boys, drag queens and everything in between. And it’s no wonder Los Angeles’s local Eagle graces Silver Lake’s rough-trade ranks.
For map locations and website links to more than 200 places of interest see our gay Los Angeles listings pages.