New wave of LGBT artists continue transformation of SoBro
Recently hyped across the New York City press as the new real estate investment hotspot, the South Bronx section now dubbed SoBro has already turned into solid gay territory. The Bruck-ner Bar & Grill on Bruckner Boulevard, a new gay-managed spot, has begun to attract a growing local, mixed clientele of artists and students, who use it day and night as their kitchen, living room, and lounge.
Trai La Trash, the popular drag-queen artist performing at swank Chelsea venues such as XL and Splash, has just moved into her new 1,700 square foot loft only steps away from the Bruckner Bar. Her decision last October to move from her convenient locale on Christopher Street is something about which she has no regrets.
“I knew no one in the Bronx,” she said. “But that didn’t matter to me, because the only criteria I have for an area is if it’s a great place for a Christmas tree and whether I can get up in drag, go out to my car, and not get murdered.”
SoBro met both criteria. And growing up an Army brat in Germany and far-flung places in the U.S., Trash had no preconceived ideas about this district, associated in the popular imagination with violence and crime. She emphasized how quiet the area is, something she attributed to the insularity of many of its longtime residents.
“It’s all locals who move around here,” Trash explained.
While chatting with Gay City News at the Bruckner Bar, Trash made new friends, among them young, gay visual artist Matthew Burcaw who recently moved into a loft in her building.
“I saw a lot of rainbow flags around, so I thought I’d move here,” Burcaw jokingly commented. He said he “suspected” there were at least “three or four” gay people living in the building.
“That’s not counting the European guy who plays some very loud, gay music,” he added.
South Bronx resident Tyra Allure also arrived at the bar for an interview, and was surprised to learn that a downtown nightlife colleague whom she’d never met, Trai La Trash, was just leaving. Allure dashed out of the bar after her to say hello. The two exchanged phone numbers and laughed about how great it was to finally meet—and in the Bronx..
At the bar for the first time, Allure marveled at its potential as a new gay nightspot, filling the void left when the Warehouse, a longtime Latino gay club, moved south to Tribeca.
“I just love this place,” Allure said. Turning to the bar’s events manager, Laura Grothoff, Allure was eager to learn more about the revamped lounge in an adjacent space. Grothoff said she already had plans for Trai La Trash performances as part of a new Saturday night theme party.
“We’re an open bar and lounge, and categorizing as gay or straight is irrelevant to us,” explained Grothoff.
The bar’s manager, Javie Diaz, a 24-year-old gay man who grew up in the South Bronx, reiterated the relaxed attitude.
“It’s never been a problem to be gay around here,” he said. “And I know there are lots of gay people living around here now.”
Allure, who has lived in the nearby South Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point for the past seven years, agreed with Diaz, although her perspective as a transgendered woman is slightly different, and also surprising.
“As a straight woman, it never was a problem for me to live here,” she said.. Stressing the family-oriented lives of many in the community, Allure said that South Bronx residents generally mind their own business, treating other people with respect.
“Here Mom lives in apartment 3D and the daughter in 4C,” she explained. “They are close-knit, Latino families who really don’t care about what you do in your bedroom.”
The reputation that the Bronx has endured as a crime haven in recent decades was refuted by Allure, who said , “I would not live here if that was true.”
Feeling inspired as she sat in the Bruckner Bar, Allure talked about how much she appreciated living in the South Bronx, but added, “My mother in Maryland would not come to SoBro.”
Allure said the borough’s negative reputation lingered in part because so many people simply drive by on the expressways that cut through so many neighborhoods.
Well-known in the local community as the founders of BAAD!, the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance in Hunts Point, Arthur Aviles and Charles Rice-Gonzales reported in a separate interview a mixed bag of experiences of living in the Bronx. The two men have lived as an out gay couple on a quiet residential streets in Hunts Point since 1997, and Aviles compared their neighborhood to communities outside the city.
“It’s like a small town anywhere in the U.S.,” he said.
Faced with everyday, but generally harmless expressions of homophobia, typically remarks scribbled on the bathroom walls of BADD!, Aviles and Rice-Gonzales have still managed to forge a sort of LGBT mini-community around the queer artistic presence they brought to the area.
“We brought out the community. Now you have a place [BADD] to go to where you can be yourself,” Aviles said.
Growing up gay in the South Bronx is the topic of a book Rice-Gonzales is writing. “Chulito,” a Spanish term roughly translated as “cutie pie,” was born of a conversation he overheard among a group of South Bronx youths. Rice-Gonzales recalled one of the youth exclaimed, “José is gay!” followed by the response, “I’m not gay, that’s nasty.” He began writing the story of a thuggish hip hop guy who slowly—in the summer of 2001—comes to terms with being gay.
For Rice-Gonzales, who himself grew up in South Bronx, the topic has made him consider just how much easier it is to come out in 2006 as opposed to when he came of age.
“Today’s local kids have a lot more support compared to when I came out 20 years ago,” he said. “I hear them choose over going to various gay events. And now they have the Spot [a South Bronx gay youth drop-in center] and don’t even have to go downtown.