The story of Town Danceboutique is a story of development. The dance club opened 11 years ago when John Guggenmos, Ed Bailey, and Chachi Boyle transformed a dilapidated space on the 2000 block of 8th Street, Northwest, into a big, pulsing-lights club that offered meticulously produced drag shows, high octane DJ sets, and endless go-go boys.
But the story of Town Danceboutique also includes stories of another kind of development. Joe Lagomarcino’s, for instance. He first started coming to Town when the U Street corridor was still up-and-coming. After coming out later in life, the 63-year-old found Town a unique space where he felt protected.
On Friday, Town threw its penultimate party, which began at 5 PM and didn’t end until 12 hours later. Its landlord plans to turn the space into luxury apartments. The merciless logic of gentrification means a club that helped transform its neighborhood can’t afford to stay in it.
Guggenmos doesn’t exactly buy the gentrification argument. He concedes that gay spaces are shrinking. He points to the the shuttering of Wet and Tracks in DC’s Navy Yard as proof. But really, he says, “business is just business.” Rents go up. Landlords switch directions. And business owners have to go with the flow.
He does worry, though, about where younger people will end up. One of the largest groups Town served, Guggenmos says, was the under-21 crowd who had access to the space every Friday evening. “Town opened before the It Gets Better movement,” he says, and it granted young locals struggling to feel comfortable in their identity, queer or otherwise, access to “people that are older, that were part of the gay community.”
Tam Sackman was only 19 when she first made her way from Tenleytown to Town. Sackman, who was closeted and attending American University at the time, says she felt transported to an “alternate universe” where being different was not only accepted, but also encouraged: “It was the first time that I felt there was a world in which my identity might be okay.” She came out soon after and began taking girlfriends to Town on dates. Four years later, she can’t help but feel crushed that a space that gave her so much is fading away.
Town shepherded Monika Vinje and her friends through some of the trickiest years of young adulthood. She was a bright-eyed freshman at George Washington University when she first started clinging to her drunk and carefree Fridays at Town to push her through the school year. “It was the perfect place to be a dumb 18-year-old,” Vinje says. “I could dance with men, women, whatever and there we no judgment. It was a safe space before that was really a thing.”
Employees didn’t conform to expectations either: Capitol Hill, K Street, and even White House staffers moonlighlighted as bar backs, bouncers, and bartenders. “No bartender here is just a bartender. Everyone has these really rich DC backgrounds,” says Brandon Wolbert, a 34-year-old mechanic who occasionally worked the coat check at night. “Town blended them together,” Guggenmos says. “Maybe that doesn’t happen in another city. But it sure does here.”
Friday’s celebration attempted to recreate Town’s weekend celebrations, starting with Bear Happy Hour, a drag show and dance fest led by go-go dancers. The screen on the dance floor greeted patrons with the epitaphs “TOWN, 2007-2018” and “Eleven years, a million memories.”
Patrons and staff alike mourned the only way they knew how: a party of epic proportions. There was an exclusive drag show, full of corseted waists and mile long-lashes. A go-go boy in hot pink spandex shorts tucked dollar bills into an armband and body-rolled with abandon.
Couples stole kisses in a partially blocked off room behind the dance floor. Spirits were, for the most part, as high as a Whitney Houston solo. We even heard someone shout “one last chance to bottom at Town Danceboutique” as we waded through crowds on the stairwell.
But answers to the question “where do we go from here?” were harder to find. Several patrons told Washingtonian they were planning a gay bar cocktail of sort, combining trips to Nellie’s or Uproar with the newly opened Pitchers in Adams Morgan. Guggenmos, whose other properties include Number Nine and Trade, hopes to throw one-off events around holidays. Those under 21 have far fewer options. Realistically, underage patrons will have to look to underground house parties or hope that another space opens to match the demand. The Eagle, the only place that rivals Town’s size, is located in the far reaches of Benning Road, an area far from the nightlife district Town helped create.
Thousands queued up Friday in a line that snaked three blocks to Georgia Avenue. At the end of that line, just in front of the Gospel Spreading Bible Bookstore, Ward 1 DC Council progressive-independent candidate Jamie Sycamore was canvassing. His first visit to Town came around 2009, when he was newly 21. He and his husband had one of their first dates at Town’s Bear Happy Hour. “Town and Nellie’s were both the leaders of gentrification,” Sycamore says, “and now they’re the victims of their own success.”