Let there be light: Once-shattered and shuttered Portland gay bar opens up to the world
PORTLAND, Maine — Each crack in the window was a jagged scar, an imprint of violence against a persecuted community. A hurled brick, a few hard kicks, a person shoved into the glass.
At first, they replaced the windows. But eventually, Blackstones, a popular gay bar, couldn’t keep pace. In 1991, staff began covering up the damage with plywood, a grim concession to the way things were, a cruel symbol of life in the shadows.
With each board, the small bar dimmed. It was like watching the sun set, recalled Todd Ionta, 60, who bartended at Blackstones at the time.
“It would just get darker and darker every time,” he said.
Eventually, there was only one small window left. It stayed that way for about 30 years. Until just a few weeks ago, when Blackstones found its light once more.
Carl Currie, who manages the bar, wasn’t expecting to find shattered glass when he removed the plywood facing the inside of the bar on June 26. But when he found it, he knew it needed to be seen.
Currie, 38, said the younger clientele at his bar were shocked to learn the bar was once regularly targeted.
“They grew up in a Portland that was just completely different than 30 years ago,” he said.
On July 14, when Currie took down the plywood, neighbors saw the cracks and feared they were new.
“We had neighbors walking by that immediately asked like, ‘Oh my God, what happened? Did something happen here?’ It’s like, ‘No, these are just the windows from 30 years ago,’ ” Currie said.
Currie and Matt Pekins, who owns the bar, had wanted to replace the windows for a long time, but were waiting until they had enough money set aside. They had previously renovated the bar with new hardwood floors and a fresh coat of paint. But no one could see inside.
Once the new windows were installed, the day after the plywood came down, that all changed. That first day was a sunny one, and the reaction to the new light pouring in was immediate.
“Allowing people to see in, it created a really great effect,” Currie said. “The neighborhood started to realize that this is a really interesting bar that’s worth checking out. In the first two weeks we saw a huge bump in clientele.”
On Tuesday, late-afternoon light poured into the bar as its twice-a-week pool tournament got underway. Jerry Caron, 72, who runs the tournament, welcomed the bright, open feel.
“It feels like we’re not in a dungeon anymore,” he said. Patrons don’t feel cut off from the world outside, and passersby can realize the once-boarded-up bar is actually a fun, welcoming place.
“People can actually see that we’re normal people, just playing pool or listening to music and drinking,” Caron said.
Patrons call Blackstones the “gay Cheers,” a neighborhood bar that welcomes regulars and newcomers alike. Longtime performer and Blackstones entertainment director Danielle Dior, a transgender woman who is known for her Liza Minnelli, Madonna, and Lady Gaga impersonations, said Blackstones is her favorite venue.
“I’ve performed all over the Northeast, and this is the best place I’ve ever performed in my life,” she said. “The crowd — it’s wall-to-wall people in here. They give you so much enthusiasm and energy that you just can’t help but give it back to them,” she said.
Dior, 56, said Blackstones is a “gay bar in name,” but accepts all comers.
“It is such a welcoming community for everybody, let it be straight, gay, or what have you,” she said. “Everybody feels welcome here.”
Staff say Blackstones is the only gay bar left in Portland. It used to be a bar primarily for men, but has tried to broaden its appeal to the LGBTQ community as a whole. Nick Steel, the doorman, said he is enjoying the more diverse crowd, but admits it’s a “new experience for a lot of us old guys.”
“As the new crowd has moved in, the ones who are left hang onto that pool table,” said Steel, 69. “It’s a tradition.”
The pool tournaments are held Tuesdays and Sundays, drawing on an older crowd. But when it’s busy on Friday and Saturday nights, the pool table sometimes gets pushed aside to make room for dancing.
Larry Jackson, a Blackstones regular, said younger people don’t always see the need for gay bars, but that the bar’s dedication to the gay community, even as it draws a wider audience, is part of its charm.
“The younger generation, they want to be included, they want to be part of everything. Which is great,” Jackson, 55, said. “But you also want to come someplace where there’s people like you. And really, this is the only place left in the city that’s like that.”
As Blackstones changes with the times, it does so with renewed light. Outside the bar, six light bulbs, each a different color of the rainbow, cast light on the sidewalk. Flags for gay, transgender, and genderqueer pride hang over the new windows.
“There’s nobody who’s ashamed or concerned or threatened by a gay bar being in their neighborhood anymore,” Currie said. At the same time, patrons no longer need the anonymity the plywood gave them.
“They can be out and they can be proud and the window allows for them to be seen,” Currie said. “It normalizes something that has been a stigma for so long.”
Through the windows, an outsider can spy two men exchange a kiss on the cheek at the conclusion of their game of pool. And in the light of the setting sun, the next game begins.