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Growing pains in the gayborhood
By Elaine Wolff, QSanAntonio.com, September 8, 2012

In this comprehensive article, Elaine Wolff interviews gay bar owners, members of the Tobin Hill Neighborhood Association and customers who frequent the clubs along "The Strip" to see how the changes taking place along North Main Avenue are affecting the people and businesses in the area. This article was originally published on PlazaDeArmasTX.com on March 4, 2012. It is reprinted here in its entirety with permission from the author.

A rainbow flag waves under Old Glory on a tall flagpole at the corner of Main and Laurel, broadcasting pride and unity in the stiff March breeze. But under the bright bands of color there are rumblings of discontent between the old good-time boys and a new gay lifestyle that's mainstream, diurnal, and a cornerstone of the area's economic comeback.

The Pegasus works on a venerable college-town formula: don't spend money if you don't have to. A wooden fence high enough to block prying eyes runs up to the property line, extending the party into the parking lot – one of a handful of differently themed bars within a bar – with a small stage and frequent barbecues. The Facebook page promises $2 happy-hour wells and themed drag shows, as well as plenty of events designed for revelers of all stripes (this weekend: I Love the '90s; March 17: a Naughty Leprechaun party).

"People just go there to have a good time," says Alex, a professional in his mid 40s who recently bought a home in the neighborhood. Alex and his friends have been frequenting most of the area's bars for a couple of years. He describes the regular Pegasus crowd as local, outgoing, and interested in a drink. People are more approachable there than at some of the area's other bars, he says.

Mauro Garza, who's owned the Pegasus for more than a decade, calls his establishment "down-home." Garza has a handsome, accessible face, like a mid-career professional golfer who likes a cocktail when he's off the links. On the phone, he sounds like a man too used to defending his vocation. "If I spent half a million [on my bar]," he said, "my customers might not come." The Pegasus' charms are fundamental, and free: "We never have a cover; our employees treat our customers nice."

The fence also marks Pegasus' boundary with Sparky's Pub, which has a loose Irish theme, a polished contemporary aesthetic, and a small patio that's almost dainty in comparison to its neighbor. There you can contemplate San Antonio College's building boom while sipping a $16 glass of wine, or one of almost a dozen sparklers ($5 glasses are available, too, and every price point in between). The pub's cafe is open for lunch, its salads, sandwiches, and soups an un-fried, less-saturated alternative to Luther's across the street.

In Alex's book, the crowd at Sparky's is more standoffish. "You go there to look pretty," he says. It appeals to folks who are gay but still kind of closeted, he adds, and who hang around with straight people – the crowd tends to be more mixed, with a lot of girls.

Randy Cuniff and Peter Becker

Randy Cunniff and his partner Peter Becker own Sparky's and Luther's, as well as HEAT, the decade-old nightclub on the adjacent northeast corner. HEAT, like Pegasus, offers cheap drink specials, drag nights and themed party events. His bars work well together, Cunniff says, with at least 50 percent of the clientele overlapping. (Per Alex, HEAT is popular with straight couples and anyone who likes to dance.)

Cunniff, who pairs a rodeo-star drawl with Mr. Universe proportions, has taken advantage of the Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization grants available through the City to remake the strip center that houses Sparky's. NCR participants are eligible for up to $15,000 in matching funds for each address. Cunniff predicts that by the time he's finished with the building, he'll have come close to maxing out the match on each of its five addresses. A men's clothing store and a college bookstore are moving in, and Luther's will join them temporarily while a $30-million mixed-use project in partnership with San Antonio College is built across the street. Once Luther's returns to its old address, Cunniff would like to add another restaurant to the mix.

Sparky's occupies the corner that once belonged to the Silver Dollar Saloon, the country-and-western themed gay bar that relocated up the street next to Hogwild Records. The Saint, another former tenant of the center, moved a little closer to downtown, where it anchors the southern end of the gayborhood with Essence. Cunniff wants to make Main Street into a walkable collection of shops and venues that appeal to a diverse array of residents and visitors. "I'm trying to make the neighborhood more conducive to coming out more than just at night," he said.

It's hard not to notice that in the process, gayer gay bars are moving further from the strip's core, replaced by establishments that are still explicitly LGBT-friendly, but open to other relationships. Cunniff says the variety of establishments, all within walking distance, is what makes the area such a popular nightlife destination. "That's the reason I came to the strip 13 years ago," he said. "To be part of the action."

Even HEAT, the oldest of Cunniff's Main Street businesses – located in a nondescript single-story building that could just as well house an accountant or a tailor – looks markedly nicer than Pegasus, which in turn looks like a Wall Street investment firm compared to the stage-prop paint jobs on the Saint and Essence. Sparky's and its adjacent storefronts might be transplants from a tony Houston enclave. And as in zoning-lite Houston, the next-door neighbors might not be on the same page.

That's fine by Cunniff. "As a business owner and as a landlord, I wish some would do more with their places," he said. But he doesn't expect them to follow suit just because he did. "I do that because that's the kind of people I'm after. … Go ahead and let it look that way – it helps my business."

But Garza accuses Cunniff of launching a spate of complaints against his property. "He admitted to me December 20 that he's the one that would call Code Compliance on us," Garza said. "He's one of those kinds of neighbors." He suspects a biblical motivation: Cunniff covets his goods. "They spent so much money, for them to do all that remodeling," Garza said. "And I'm over here paid in full." It's no secret that Cunniff wanted his property, too, he added, but Garza wouldn't sell. "He wants it all."

Garza describes Cunniff's bars as "very pretty." "Instead of going to Austin or Dallas, I just go to Randy's bar," he said. But it's not what he's aiming for with his business. (Garza is no easier on their counterparts down the street – accusing certain places of condoning nudity and blow jobs.)

Alex has caught wind of the behind-the-scenes elbowing through complaints about Pegasus' outdoor stage, for instance. "There's always the business competition, but I don't think customers pay attention to that," he said. "I see it as a good step because it challenges everyone to do better and the ones that end up winning are the customers."



Tobin Hill's eclectic success

Carolyn Kelley co-founded the Tobin Hill Community Association in 2008, and served as its first president until December 2010. Last spring, the former Zoning commissioner ran for the District 1 Council seat ultimately secured by Diego Bernal. The transplanted East Coast exec is tall and intensely enthusiastic, and when she's not wearing a track suit often sports a tailored, perfectly accessorized ensemble worthy of the Junior League director she once was. Through the Community Association, Kelley, who is a nonprofit consultant and fundraiser, initiated much of the publicly backed revitalization underway, including the NCR grants that Cunniff is using. When she was running for Council, a supporter from the fancier Monte Vista neighborhood to the north lauded her for dramatically improving the Main Street corridor, especially some of the "just godawful bars."

Kelley describes the changes on Main Street as "a complete transformation," especially the block between Evergreen and Laurel, which is occupied by Cunniff and Garza. "With the exception of Pegasus." Kelley says she has called Code Compliance at least four times to complain about Garza's property. She ticks off a list of offenses, including the fence, the stage next to the street, a long, segmented bar that can be wheeled outside, and the barbecue pit.
"I was sitting on the porch of the wine bar eating dinner," she recalled. "And all of a sudden this kerosene smell crept over me." Smoke followed. "And that's that beautiful wine bar that's part of that revitalized block."

Kelley is equally concerned that lack of code enforcement in the neighborhood will undermine Tobin Hill's progress, especially graffiti and what she calls "Beetlejuice" houses, after the 1988 Tim Burton film. The one behind her home had no windows, but people were living in it. She espouses the broken-window theory introduced to the vernacular by Rudy Giuliani's stint in Gracie Mansion: small things lead to bigger crime. "The City isn't making it harder to do the wrong thing than it is to do the right thing," she said.

But Kelley, who's rejoined the Community Association board, says that while THCA hears plenty of grumbling about the noise produced by music venues on St. Mary's Street, they don't field many complaints about the bars in the gayborhood. Police calls, while frequent, tend toward the usual trouble that follow serious drinking – customers fighting with bouncers, customers fighting with other customers, friends fighting with friends.

The prostitution around Crockett Park is a different matter. The streets surrounding the small park, which flanks Main just south of the SAC campus between Sparky's and Pegasus and the Saint and Essence, are something of a magnet for male prostitutes. During the first six months of 2010, for instance, nine of 14 arrests involving male prostitutes took place in the area. The trade has plateaued, according to the SAPD, with repeat offenders accounting for most of the activity. But vice conducts undercover stings in the area, and in response to pressure from the neighborhood, the department plans to increase local patrols.

Officer Matt Porter of the SAPD's public information office said police assigned to the area believe the prostitutes are there because the bars cater to gay customers – prospecting, basically – but that the bars are not promoting it. That careful distinction, between a community and an activity, extends to the District 1 Councilman, who has been talking to SAPD about addressing the community's concerns.

"In the past, bars and clientele felt the police were targeting customers, and not an issue," Bernal said. But he thinks that perception has changed. "I think that community knows very well where I stand on their issues and that I'm a supporter."

He says the neighborhood is "unanimous that there is an issue in the area … it is something we need to get a handle on.

"Any time you've got a cluster of bars, it's in everyone's best interest that things are orderly and safe and don't, as a group, become a hotbed for illegal activity."

The neighborhood may be unanimous, but it's hardly adverse. Jesse Mata, an insurance executive who purchased a bungalow in Tobin Hill six years ago, says one of the best times to go to Sparky's is when the bars are closing down. Order a coffee and a dessert, sit outside, and watch the going-home parade. "It's like an episode of Wild Kingdom," he said. He's aware of the prostitution activity near Crockett, but he's more concerned about the occasional actual violence – like the 2009 mugging that resulted in the accidental shooting death of female impersonator James Lee Whitehead – than he is about vice. He and his spouse have been the victims of only one crime since 2006 – a car burglary – and his list of wished-for improvements starts not with police but with streets, sidewalks, and lighting.

"The things that I want, I see coming," he said, listing the River Walk extension, the Pearl Brewery development and its farmers market. He would like to see more owner-occupied houses, he said, and more young families with children. "More than anything, I want to see more commercial development." Yes, Pegasus is a little trashy compared to Sparky's, but as a property owner, he doesn't think that really affects his quality of life or his property's value. And he likes the variety of places on the strip.

"Not everybody can afford to go for call drinks," he said. "Sometimes you need to go to a hole in the wall."

Asked what he values most about Tobin Hill, he gives an answer proffered by every area resident interviewed for this story: the diversity.



Not King William, and proud of it

At a recent meeting between the Monte Vista Historical Association and Trinity University, a Monte Vista resident explained to Trinity's representatives why she opposes the university's use of four former homes as faculty offices with a nearby example.

"Tobin Hill is no longer a neighborhood. It's a mixed-use area between Monte Vista and downtown," she said. It has "a few nice houses," but "such a pockmarked, distressed neighborhood would be detrimental to Trinity."

Kelley laughed when she heard the story. "I'd like to take her on a driving tour of the neighborhood," she said. "What people love about it is it's diverse in every way you can be diverse. … It's a vibrant, real community.

"The Tobin Hill Community Association is not trying to tell people how to build, how to live, or what color to paint their house. What we want is for people to respect the scale and history of the neighborhood, and respect the residents and enjoy the prosperity."

The current prosperity has been a long time coming. There is no other neighborhood in town so densely stacked with towering Neoclassical columns, their verticals often as tentative as candles perched in frosting. The area's grandest homes date to the late 19th century, and the name is its pedigree – the Tobin family produced Mayor John, World War I pilot and entrepreneur Edgar, and Edgar's son Robert, the arts patron.

Since that auspicious beginning, Tobin Hill has regressed enough that it's become a second frontier, ripe for homesteading. A variety of institutions, including San Antonio College, helped time and neglect do the work before historic preservation intervened, leveling homes into parking lots and dull workaday cubes. The area is dotted with empty lots, cheaply built and poorly maintained commercial buildings, and decaying mansions that require a small fortune to save. When the original Biga opened in 1991 in a stately old home on Locust Street off McCullough, heading to dinner felt like a romantically daring outing. Nearby apartment buildings were a thin cut above flop houses; the rents were Skid Row and the plumbing sporadic. Bordered to the east by the St. Mary's Strip's perennial party and cheap live shows, and on the west by SAC, the neighborhood was slow to regain a sense of identity and cohesion. Meanwhile, old homes fell into the hands of absentee landlords and prospectors, some of them actively opposed to historic designations that might stand in the way of commercial redevelopment.

Cody Doege and Chad Walling bought their first house in the neighborhood two-and-a-half years ago. Doege remembers calling the police every night about vagrants and squatters in the surrounding ruins. Now they get a different kind of transient visitor. "On the weekends, you'd be surprised how much traffic comes through looking for property," he said. In 2010, they purchased a second home to renovate, and became entangled in a legal battle with the City, which was on an emergency-demolition binge over the objections of Kelley and the THCA. This year they're receiving a Historic Preservation Award from the San Antonio Conservation Society for the renovation of their Myrtle Street home.

Like Mata, Doege's biggest concern isn't the bars along Main or St. Mary's, but the lack of code enforcement, the condition of the streets and sidewalks, and what's known in preservation circles as demolition by neglect.

"Some days I walk the dogs and think, what am I doing?" he said. The seemingly endless roster of renters or homeowners who can't be bothered to keep up their yards, make minor repairs, or take out the trash gets him down. "Every Monday I call Code Compliance."

"We don't want to be a Monte Vista … a King William," he said. "But there is some law and order."

He mentions a St. Mary's bar that is poorly run, but he thinks Cunniff and Becker's Main Street development is "awesome."

"I don't know all the dynamics down there, but I know some of them need to clean it up a little." But he believes there is still a place for venues like Pegasus and the Saint in the regenerating neighborhood.

Despite Tobin Hill's commitment to eclecticism, it's inevitable that rising home prices will push related changes in the area. "The weak are gonna die off," Mata says philosophically. "The character of the neighborhood will inevitably change." If you love a particular business, he adds, get out there and support it.

Marty Kushner is the coordinator of theater arts, human communication, and theater at Trinity, and the new president of the Tobin Hill Community Association. He and his wife Ricki have lived in the neighborhood for 10 years and "never had an incident." "This is a neighborhood that is becoming a front-porch type of neighborhood," he said. It's also a neighborhood that's filled with businesses, and needs good relationships with and among those entities. "We as an association want to be friendly to all people who want to contribute to our neighborhood."

"We are what we are, and people move here with that expectation," he said. At the same time, the dynamics of the neighborhood are changing. As people continue to move in, he observed, spending more on both the purchase and renovation of their houses, their demand for services and quality of life will increase. Things that used to be acceptable might not pass muster anymore. But it's important to Kushner too that Tobin Hill remain a diverse collection of residents and entrepreneurs. When it comes to Main Street and St. Mary's, he expects Tobin Hill's growth to draw a greater variety of businesses to the area, but it won't happen overnight.

"Randy and Peter have spent a lot of money to make Sparky's Pub a place everybody feels comfortable going for a good meal," Kushner said. All of the businesses deserve to have their customers feel safe, but the association is taking a hand in addressing that by working to improve Crockett Park, starting with a master plan designed to make it regular destination for families and other residents. An expanded police presence will help, too. "The reality is, we shouldn't point out Bar A or Bar B and say they're not a good neighbor."

Alex, who bought his already renovated house after the owner indicated he'd be willing to drop the price below the mid six figures, said as the neighborhood grows, he'd like to see more arts-related shops, and a coffeehouse like St. Mary's Candlelight. "Clubs? I think we have enough clubs."

"I think the best thing that could ever happen is the owners could collaborate and bring the neighborhood together," he added. "They are both great entrepreneurs."

Garza, enthusiastically or not, is in. He said he's already spent $40,000 on improvements to Pegasus, including a preliminary design. He mentions the SAC development partnership planned for the parking lot across from his bar.

"We are just thinking about the future in case things need to get better."

Elaine Wolff is the editor and of PlazaDeArmasTx.com. She was previously the editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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Bulldozers start transformation of Main Avenue "Strip"
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A week ago today, loyal customers of Luther's restaurant on North Main Avenue gathered to celebrate the gay eatery's last day in its present location. On Monday, bulldozers started moving in to begin the process of clearing two blocks on the West side of Main Avenue to make way for apartments, retail spaces and a parking garage being built by San Antonio College.