Saturday, January 9, 2016

Last Call: Venture Inn

With Venture Inn closing next weekend, I can't point out the exact reason I'm so torn up. Perhaps that's because there are so many things about its closure that break my subtly jaded, yet big gay heart. 

It's not like I "came out" at Venture Inn, or in Philadelphia for that matter. It's never been a must-see social spot for visitors. It's not a house pumping danceteria like Woody's or a musclebound hookup joint like U-Bar. It's not even "Gay Cheers" like the quietly shuttered Westbury. 

What it was, and is for the next nine nights, is the Gayborhood's cozy neighborhood bar, one that happens to put on the best drag show in Philadelphia (sorry, Bob and Barbara's).

It's also a microcosm of a Philadelphia - and a Gayborhood - that is slowly fading amid cultural shifts, an influx of new residents, and massive development. Change is inevitable and it's necessary for a city's evolution. Places that don't change or fall in line with the trends of the time are often casualties of progress. 

For the past forty years, Venture Inn has been "the other gay bar," and for the past forty years Philadelphia has remained relatively frozen in time. Until recently, that worked in Venture Inn's favor. Philadelphia's gay bars were windowless fortresses, many tucked down tiny streets like Camac. If you wanted to go to a gay bar ten years ago, you couldn't help but feel a little seedy. But when real estate brainiacs decided to callously rename the Gayborhood, "Midtown Village" in some attempt to quell the nonexistent homophobia of buyers they thought wouldn't be too keen on raising their kids in a gay ghetto, the game changed. 

It started when an admittedly crappy stretch of 13th Street was packed with some of the best restaurants in the tristate area. Then came Green Eggs where chicks in Jackie O glasses could nurse their hangovers in bottomless pitchers of heartburn. And finally, Nest, because you're never too young to start CrossFit, even if you're two. 

Today, those new to Philadelphia have no idea just how gay the Gayborhood used to be, even when its most lavender venues didn't even have windows. 

Business-savvy gay bars took advantage of their revived (albeit homogenized) neighborhood and the public's curious interest the LGBT community and reinvented themselves. Woody's renovated. Uncles and 12th Air changed their names to U-Bar and iCandy. All of them traded their soulless speakeasy walls for windows. With Philadelphia rebranded as the 21st Century "it" town, our gay bars followed suit. Most of them.

Venture Inn has redecorated over the years, but it's always ended there. Today, to New Philadelphians and their concept of cool, Venture is a venue that clings to a time newbies are desperate to amputate.

Part of Venture's reluctance to rebrand itself might simply be because it worked. On any given night it's packed. It's not just a gay bar, it's the Gayborhood's industry bar. When the restaurants close, waiters and even a few notable chefs sidle up to Venture's bar for a stiff cocktail and some attitude. Despite those who refuse to venture in (ha, get it?), it's hard to imagine why Venture Inn needs to close. It might not cater to those constantly seeking out the next hot fad, but it has a niche. 

It's a second home to Gen Xers and Babyboomers who never really needed a reinvented watering hole, and Millennials who tire of the vapid dominance of today's fickly disaffected iPhone holders. In that regard, Venture Inn is the perfect dive bar, and not in the pejorative sense. The jukebox is loaded with a mix of Motown, disco, grunge, and '80s era electronica, and after a few drinks, it's hard to remember if it's 2016, 1970, or a future that never happened. Instead of inundating its customers with the inexplicable insurrection of 21st Century pompousness, it's exactly what the crowd makes of it. 

For me, Venture Inn holds a special place, mainly made from memories. In a changing city, I suppose that's all we have, and all we should try to make of innumerable, upcoming iterations. But I'm not someone who likes change or takes it well. Perhaps that's because I didn't grow up in a city, but rather a place where time stood and still stands still. When I make friends, go on a date, or find a place like Venture Inn I want it to last forever. It's naive, I know, but it's a habit that's hard to kick.

To many, Venture Inn's closure is just a sign of the times or worse, irrelevant. But to me, it's a passing. The loss of a place where I met some of the most amazing people in Philadelphia - hell, the world - and looking around, it's not a place that's going to be replaced. Quickly approaching forty, like Venture Inn, I've come to the realization that my Philadelphia, my Gayborhood, and my neighborhood bars are products of another era, relegated to the annals of history and time. 

I wouldn't be who I am without Venture Inn. Whether that's good or bad is debatable, but it's where I am and I'm happy. My life may not be complete, but it's content, and part of that is thanks to performers like Sandy Beach, bartenders like Henry, and the crowds of proud misfits at Venture Inn. 

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