St John’s, Newfoundland, is a city known for its bar scene. Yet, among the countless clubs and pubs, there is not one gay bar.
Since May 1994, the Zone occupied a multilevel space on Water St, the main dissector of the Atlantic capital. The gay, lesbian, bi and trans communities came together weekly to drink, dance and be, well, gay. Drag shows, themed nights and a variety of music brought a multitude of patrons of all sexualities into the Zone for 16 years.
But on Jan 1, after a host of long-time customers of all ages had rung in the new year, the Zone closed its doors.
“The Zone was the longest-running gay bar in the city’s history,” says Fabian Fitzpatrick, DJ and promoter for the bar for many years. “I should point out that gay bars have existed in one form or another since the late 1960s in St John’s, which comes as a surprise to many people.”
He believes that the past six months have been the longest time the city has been without a gay bar since the 1970s.
Both the Zone and Hava Java, a popular café and hotspot for the gay community, closed “as a result of a dispute between the building owner and the city over the condition of the building.” The owner has opted to convert the spaces into personal office space, leaving two St John’s staples to find new homes.
Hava Java has since moved into a two-storey space down the street, but the Zone remains displaced.
“Over 10 potential leads have all been dead ends,” says Fitzpatrick. “The biggest problem seems to be desire by building owners to have office space tenants as opposed to bars.” He claims that many spaces that were once bars are now being renovated for high-demand office space, “all related, no doubt, to the oil boom.”
One venue he and the owners liked was scooped up recently for condo development.
“The city has also gotten very restrictive on where new bars go,” he says. “There is an ongoing effort to try and confine bars to the George St area,” a street that is infamous for its density of bars. “This applies to any potential bars, not just gay ones,” he adds.
But Fitzpatrick expresses reservations about opening a gay venue on George St, a block-long alleyway that boasts 38 bars. He notes that there have been issues with gay people at straight bars since the Zone’s closing, including gay men being harassed and thrown out by staff.
“George St is the hub of heterosexual nightlife in downtown St John’s,” says Fitzpatrick. “It all related to one’s degree of acceptance of themselves.”
“The whole coming-out process differs from person to person,” he says. “For some, there is still that need for discretion and being able to slip into a safe gay space unnoticed, which is hardly possible in the crazy hub of George St. Even many older members of the gay community still feel the need to protect their privacy and prefer to go unnoticed as they enter a gay establishment.”
Daniel Coombs, a long-time patron and performer at the Zone, believes George St isn’t such a bad idea. “It’s 2011,” he says. “People are more accepting of gay people in St John’s.”
Both agree, however, that there is a lot missing without a gay venue in the city.
“I think St John’s is lacking a place where anyone, not only homosexuals, can go and feel like they can be themselves,” says Coombs. “A lot of gay people have the mentality that they can’t go anywhere else and be themselves…The Zone is a safe haven for them.”
“It does seem many miss the Zone, the sense of community,” agrees Fitzpatrick. “And, of course, as a gay DJ, I can tell you that those straight boys playing on George St have no clue what gay people like and think is cool, and how to keep a dancefloor moving!”