Gay Men Can't Dance

A tamer, older Castro shuns its party roots

Winning his dance permit was not the end of Gorrono's headaches. The Cafe received countless noise complaints from angry neighbors, and Gorrono has been personally cited four times by police after neighbors dropped a dime on his club.

Barbara Campagnoli knows the Cafe well. She works in the Police Department's permit office, which issues and oversees dance permits after they are approved by the Planning Commission. Police officers often have to go into the Cafe to measure sound levels and respond to neighbor complaints.

"It's not that we don't allow dancing, we just don't allow music to escape from the premises. If the walls are shaking at 1 a.m. and you can hear 'thump, thump, thump' while people are trying to sleep, we will respond," Campagnoli says.

But the officer gives Gorrono and the Cafe credit for trying to accommodate their neighbors. "They know how difficult it is to get a permit, and now that they have one, they know they must toe the line," Campagnoli says. "The Cafe may get a lot of complaints, but they've been good at trying to stay on top of things."

Gorrono says it puzzles him that anyone who chooses to live at the corner of Market and Castro would complain about noisy bars. "It's like moving next to the airport and calling United to say, 'Excuse me, can you stop flying here? It's too noisy,' " Gorrono jokes.

Jason Smith, a city planner, says neighborhood opposition plays a major role in the Planning Commission's decisions to grant the conditional-use permits that allow dancing in bars. And knowing the odds are against them, many bars won't even try to apply for dancing anymore.

"Bar owners realize how difficult it is," Smith says. "They know the history."

Part of the debate over dancing in the Castro today stems from efforts to reconcile the neighborhood's wild history with its newer, more mature character. Tourists expect the Castro to live up to its stereotype, while longtime residents who partied in their youth and survived the scourge of AIDS now embody a more serene Castro Street.

"There was a very crazy, out-of-control sense in this neighborhood 20 years ago. There was literally dancing in the streets," recalls Patrick Batt, 52-year-old president of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro. "Now it is quieter. People my age are less likely to go out anymore, and a nesting mentality has set in."

As head of the merchants association, Batt tries to promote business growth, but he doesn't necessarily see dancing as good for business since it is an after-hours activity. Batt admits, though, that he does hear the same question from countless tourists: "Where's the party?"

"They do look perplexed, as if to say, 'Jeez, I'm in the Castro and how come nothing's going on?' " Batt says. "But tourists will always have a different perception from reality. Gay means less about 'party' than it did before. This is not a 4 or 5 in the morning kind of neighborhood anymore. People have jobs and lives and other things to do."

Batt's pro-business vision is not so much about bars as restaurants and bookstores. His group wants to keep chain stores out, and deal with issues like panhandling and clean streets. The business owners want to create a thriving gay community that doesn't revolve around a barstool or disco ball.

Bar owner Gorrono sees it differently.
"All the guys who made noise in the 1970s just want it to be quiet for them now that they are older, married, and don't want to go out anymore," he says.

Kropp, who manages Harvey's, agrees: "There is an incredible irony that the guys who were having sex in the bushes 20 years ago are now calling the cops because someone is stepping on the grass."

Neighborhood association president Barnett defends the middle-aged gay population's shift toward a calmer Castro.

"This is not about being anti-young, -dancing, or -fun. It's about respect," Barnett says. "Yes, this area is a gay mecca, but it should be a model of how we want to be. Why are people sedate in Walnut Creek and then become hooligans in the Castro? Why do gay people have to scream every time they come out of a bar, or pee in people's gardens? It doesn't make sense."

Dancing, Barnett says, exacerbates the problem. He is not against dancing per se, he says, but thinks bars have a hard time being responsible when it comes to controlling noise levels and rowdy patrons.

"I went to bars and danced a long time ago, before and during disco," says Barnett, 49. "Younger guys should have a place to go and have fun. But why does the music have to blast so loud? Has everyone under 30 turned deaf? People can dance with the volume at a sensible level, but it has definitely gone up in the last 20 years -- and I'm not saying that just because I'm old."

While the older Castro generation is looking to diversify the neighborhood's businesses and remove sex as the prime definition of gay, bar owner Gorrono argues that dancing fits with that maturing mind-set. Gay bars are no longer just about cruising for sex, he says, so dancing adds a fun, safe element to gay socializing.

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