Closure of Cruze Bar marks changing landscape for Pittsburgh’s Strip District, LGBTQ community

Cruze calls itself “gay-owned, gay-operated, and gay proud.”

The 1600 block of Smallman Street is going to change dramatically.

The 1600 block of Smallman Street is going to change dramatically.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
Stacey Federoff

Update Jan. 30, 2019: Cruze will close on Friday, Feb. 8 with “The Once & For All Closing Ball.”

Update 6:15 p.m. Sept. 14: Cruze has been granted an extension and now will not close on Sept. 15. An exact closure date has not been announced. This story has been updated to reflect the new information.

As drag performers Sonia May-Bottom and Blade Matthews hosted Cruze night club’s open stage contest earlier this week, they bid the crowd farewell with sadness: “We’ll see you when we see you,” Matthews said.

Cruze, the landmark club in the Strip District that calls itself “gay-owned, gay-operated, and gay proud,” will soon close, citing development in the neighborhood. It had initially announced Saturday’s “Last Dance” party as its final event, but the bar was granted a last-minute extension to keep operating for now, with an exact closure date to be determined. Saturday’s “Last Dance” party will now be called the “It’s Not Over” party. The building along Smallman Street it has occupied for seven years has been sold to a Chicago developer.

“We tried our hardest to be an all-inclusive bar,” said Greg Campo, the bar’s manager and part-owner, who moved to Pittsburgh with his husband four years ago to operate Cruze with bar owners Peter Karlovich and Steve Herforth. “We’ve always focused on being a safe space for everyone to come together and get along.”

While patrons look back at Cruze as a welcoming space, its closure reflects the changing role of gay bars for the LGBTQ community, even in the time since it opened.

“We wish we had more time to throw a couple more things we were known for, but we’ve got to go. The building was bought, and that’s the way it is,” he said.

Chicago developer McCaffery Interests plans to close on the deal for 1600 Smallman Street this fall to renovate the 120,000 square feet for retail and restaurant spaces on the first floor with office space above, according to the company’s marketing manager Melissa Warmouth.

An "application for redevelopment."

An application for redevelopment.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

Features like its Southern pine floors, numerous windows and high ceilings will remain a part of the four-story building, constructed next to the 16th Street Bridge in 1921 for a cable manufacturer, NEXT Pittsburgh reported.

Costume World, also located in the block-long building, closed in April. Upstairs business Stout Training plans to relocate to 27th Street in a newly renovated space. Owners from Xtaza and Room16 night clubs, also housed in the building, did not return requests for comment.

When asked about working with the current tenants, Warmouth said McCaffery Interests was unable to accommodate them.

“We are not able to perform the extensive construction scope with tenants in the building, so we have worked with them to relocate,” she wrote in an email.

Campo said Cruze’s ownership group considered relocating but ultimately decided not to, declining to give further detail.

“I think the 15th will be an emotional night for the staff and the guests,” he said. “We’re a family here.”

A peek inside Cruze.

A peek inside Cruze.

Courtesy of Cruze Bar

“The sky is not falling”

Cruze was the first bar Melissa Pinolini visited after moving to Pittsburgh about four years ago at the suggestion of several friends. With more people moving to the city, having that place to start and “dip your toe in the water” in a new city is important, she said.

Pinolini and her partner Lauren Hoffman, who both identify as queer, have attended not just LGBTQ events, but also kink-friendly and furry-friendly events at Cruze, which Hoffman said was in a well-situated location to meet friends or to end the night after events in other neighborhoods.

“When you end up in a new place and didn’t know where to go, Cruze was where to begin,” she said. “Cruze was like an umbrella. It really encompassed and embraced the alt-sex communities.”

Bars like 5801 in Shadyside, Blue Moon in Lawrenceville, and P-Town in North Oakland are still a thriving part of the LGBTQ community, even as Pegasus in Downtown, The Eagle on the North Side and Holiday in Oakland have closed. Mixtape in Garfield is a part of a new generation of inclusive places.

“Knowing the owners or creators have purposefully set out to make it a more inclusive space makes it that much better, especially when you’re just trying to have a good time with your friends,” said Delaney Held of Bloomfield, who identifies as a queer woman.

Safe spaces like gay bars don’t exist to foster a sense of entitlement, but instead were borne out of necessity, Held said.

“Knowing I’m surrounded by a group of people who have gone through similar journeys with their identity is comforting,” she said. “None of this means straight people aren’t allowed in queer spaces, we just want spaces where we are treated with value and respect.”

Tim Haggerty, a Carnegie Mellon history professor who co-directs the Pittsburgh Queer History Project, agreed and said “the death of the gay bar” related to LGBTQ culture has been exaggerated – they open and close like any other late-night establishment.

“The sky is not falling, but maybe the landscape has changed,” said Haggerty, whose project with historian Harrison Apple studies mainly Pittsburgh after-hours clubs that existed between the 1960s and 1990s.

At that time, being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender meant having to worry about being yourself everywhere except the bars, he said, and even in those places it was illegal to even serve a known homosexual in Pittsburgh through the mid-1970s.

A sign on Cruze's window: "Once you experience this, nothing else quite feels the same."

A sign on Cruze's window: "Once you experience this, nothing else quite feels the same."

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

More acceptance means fewer gay bars

Cruze and other gay bars serve a specific purpose for the LGBTQ community but are not as integral as they once were, Haggerty said. “They were a product of a certain historical context.”

Sexual orientation was first thought to be primarily about sex, and therefore, as an adult activity, fostered a connection with bars, said Parker Howard, day-to-day coordinator at the Pittsburgh Equality Center.

“We’ve evolved past the point of thinking being gay is purely sexual,” he said.

Today, Haggerty said, several factors have contributed to the shrinking number of LGBTQ-exclusive bars. With wider social acceptance, queer people can now take part in any number of activities in Pittsburgh like sports leagues and bingo nights.

For both gay and straight people, the internet and dating and hookup apps have replaced a big segment of sexual and romantic connections that used to have to begin in bars, Haggerty said. Alcohol is also less of a necessary social accompaniment than it was decades ago, like the “Mad Men”-esque 1960s.

“A lot of the dynamics around LGBT spaces are a reflection of the larger cultural dynamic,” Haggerty said.

Communication through the internet also breaks down the limitations created by needing to look for a physical building, which is a resource not all LGBTQ groups can afford.

Bars, however, encourage the face-to-face mixing and mingling of different social groups of people and everyone benefits, sharing ideas and becoming more open-minded, Pinolini said.

“Having places like Cruze where anyone can go brings those communities together so they can continue to evolve,” she said.

Micheal Mayberry performs as Sonia May-Bottom at the last weekly open stage at Cruze in the Strip District. Mayberry bartended  and hosted drag shows for four years there.

Micheal Mayberry performs as Sonia May-Bottom at the last weekly open stage at Cruze in the Strip District. Mayberry bartended and hosted drag shows for four years there.

Stacey Federoff / For The Incline

“A welcoming environment”

Eb Slade of East Pittsburgh, who identifies as straight and visited the bar with LGBTQ friends praised the club’s atmosphere.

“I loved the events they held because nowhere else was doing those kinds of things. It was a welcoming environment. You got to drink and enjoy being out with no worries,” she told The Incline. “Cruze provided a non-judgmental and safe arena for us to be us.”

Micheal Mayberry started bartending at Cruze four years ago as a favor to Campo, hosting Tuesday night open stage drag shows, performing as Sonia May-Bottom.

College nights for ages 18 and over like those hosted by Cruze are increasingly rare at any bar, let alone an open and inclusive one, because of rising insurance costs, Mayberry said.

“These kids, unfortunately, especially in the city, will now have nowhere to go to express themselves, be themselves or find themselves,” he said.

However, now when a bar like Cruze closes, the people who used to frequent it can gather in different ways and be more visible, Howard said.

As for the future of the LGBTQ community, the brick and mortar of the building that house a gay bar is not what creates that welcoming atmosphere, it’s the people who do, Howard said.

“The group is what makes it important, the people who go (to places like Cruze) are what make it important, not the space and not the location,” Howard said. “It’s sad we lose a location specific to the community — not exclusive to the community, but specific to the community — but the community still exists in and of itself.”